3D Printers

Autodesk’s big plans for the future

Autodesk is one of the biggest names in Computer Aided Design, so it’s fair to say it is heavily involved in the 3D printing revolution.

The California company has revolutionized so many other aspects of CAD that the tech world is looking to it to come up with solutions for 3D printing.

So what is the plan?

The simplest way is to create what it calls an ‘unbroken chain for design and manufacturing’. Essentially that means that the Autodesk ecosystem will be as intuitive as opening up Word and printing a document on your computer right now. It can never be quite that simple, but making every system play well together under one roof will give Autodesk a massive advantage.

Buying in the expertise

The company that was founded back in the 1980s has worked hard to make that vision a reality and has made several acquisitions of late that help its cause. Buying netfabb, which develops software for industrial design and manufacturing, was an excellent start. It also has Delcamm’s tools for subtractive manufacturing and post production.

Autodesk recognises that mass manufacturing is on the way and that it can steal a march on the competition if it can make the whole process as smooth and simple as possible. Many companies won’t switch to 3D printing simply because they don’t have the expertise on board. If a company like Autodesk can make the whole process painless, then it automatically positions itself as the default package.

“3D printing has been integrated into the manufacturing process primarily for prototyping and [the production of] jigs and fixtures, not so much for end-use products,” said Duann Scott, Business Development Manager of the Digital Manufacturing Group. “That will change, as more materials become available and prices decline, a process that is already taking place as patents start to expire.

“So far we see a lot of companies hacking CAD/CAM software together with digital moulding software. The approach at Autodesk entails next-generation additive design tools that connect all the way to the machines. A complete AM solution, with an unbroken chain from design and simulation to machine control and sensing, is the focus of our team right now.”

Autodesk manufacturing software on the way for 3D printing

Cutting customers free from proprietary software

Of course some manufacturers try to tie their customers in to the brand with proprietary software. The theory is that once a company is used to a specific way of working, they will simply stick with the same brand. Autodesk has to disrupt these monopolies where they can and bank on the fact that other manufacturers who do work with third party software providers will produce better products.

By dealing with suppliers like Autodesk these manufacturers can eliminate software from the R&D budget, too, which means they can often undercut the competitors.

Scott said: “Materials have been controlled by machine manufacturers, who have had a complete monopoly. Autodesk is partnering with machine manufacturers who are open to third-party materials and with materials developers to broaden the product portfolio.”

Don’t forget the little guys

This is all good news for big business. But 3D printing is a unique environment that covers the whole spectrum. Eventually there should be a 3D printer in every house and most people don’t want to learn the finer points of CAD.

So Autodesk is coming at 3D printing from every angle, literally. As well as a software package that controls, monitors and reports on a full-bore manufacturing line, it also has consumer products.

Most of us don’t want to learn complex programs. So the likes of Autodesk 123D, which allows the man on the street to capture an object with an iPhone and automatically create the CAD program, is an ideal gateway drug to get people into the ecosystem. If that isn’t enough, the Instructables platform might well be.

123D design is the next step up and allows casual designers to play with concepts on their smartphone or tablet. If you want more than that, you can step up to the serious software.

So Autodesk is coming at the 3D printing conundrum from a number of angles. It’s almost certainly going to have the same level of success that it has achieved in the CAD/CAM world and we’re excited to see just what they come up with next.