Big Tech Moving into 3D Printing


Is the Wild West of 3D Printing Coming to an End?

Get More Info 3D printing has been around since the mid-80’s, yet has only made it to the mainstream radar screen in the last few years. In that time, the 3D printer market has been dominated by an interesting mix of big corporate players such as Stratasys and 3D Systems, and smaller startups like Makerbot (now part of Stratasys), FormLabs, Afina, Printrbot, Ultimaker, etc., ad infinitum. The field of 3D printing has had a “wild west” feeling reminiscent of the home computer field in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This is particularly true of the rough-and-tumble DIY attitude of the RepRap community, which is an open design initiative that aims on creating a 3D printer capable of replicating itself.

check this In the last few weeks, however, a number of tech giants have announced their intentions to jump into this lucrative market, no doubt after years of careful observation and planning. What sort of effect will this have on the 3D printing world?

Autodesk Announces 3D Printing OS and New Printer Last week, Autodesk made waves by announcing their entry into the 3D printing realm. For those of you unfamiliar with Autodesk, they are essentially the 800-pound gorilla of design software. Their tools include AutoCAD, Revit, Maya, Inventor, 3D Studio Max, as well as the 123D suite of tools specifically geared towards 3D printing. Many of these software packages are 3D based and can export STL files, thus making them compatible with 3D printing. It should then come as no surprise as that Autodesk would want to get directly involved in the 3D printing market. (Also, anyone who’s been following the Autodesk Twitter feed should have seen this coming for a while.)

Spark Platform

Autodesk’s first announcement was “Spark,” an open software platform for 3D printing. This will be freely available to hardware manufacturers and other interested parties. There have certainly been a lot of comparisons between Spark and the Google Android smartphone OS. Certainly, there could be a number of beneficial effects from having a common, widely-implemented software platform that would allow for greater connectivity between a wide variety of printers and applications.

However, there are reasons to be cautious. A lot of people may be leery of companies making a claim about having an open-source platform, and then pulling the plug on it, a la Makerbot. Also, it has been my observation that Autodesk has in the last few years gotten rather, shall we say, “creative” with how they license and distribute their software, ultimately driving up the cost for the end user. I think Autodesk could do a lot of good in the 3D printing world, but they could also cause a lot of trouble, depending on how much their sales and marketing folks end up driving the way the company moves forward.

Autodesk 3D Printer

To support the Spark platform, Autodesk also announced a new 3D printer to serve as a “reference implementation” for Spark. The as-of-yet unnamed 3D printer would utilize STL technology that uses UV light to liquid cure resin. The printer would be priced around $5000, thus keeping it out of the range of the hobbyist/prosumer market, but putting it within easy reach of smaller businesses.

Of course, one must approach this announcement with caution. Autodesk is at heart a software company, and there have been some notable failures in recent history when a software-based company tries to branch out into hardware. A quick perusal of recent events in the smartphone world should be enough to convince anyone of that. Still, Autodesk is smart enough to learn from the mistakes of others, so perhaps their foray into 3D printer hardware will be successful.

Overall, I’m happy to see Autodesk making this move with their new software platform and printer.Overall, I feel that Autodesk is a good company that provides really superb innovation and customer support. Although I am less than thrilled with some of the changes they’ve made to their business model in the last couple of years, I still am a fan of the company. Their entry into the 3D printing world could herald some large and positive changes.

STL 3D Printer

Design for Autodesk STL 3D Printer


Google and Project Ara

Google has gotten involved with 3D printing through subsidiary Motorola Mobility’s Project Ara. This is a project to develop a new, highly-customizable line of smartphones. At leat I think it is – some of the press about this project seems like PR jibber-jabber: “With Project Ara, we asked the question, ‘How do we bring the benefits of customisation and an open hardware ecosystem to 6 billion people?” OK, custom cell phones – I get it.

The interesting part about this is not the idea of an “ecosystem” of custom cell phone configurations, but how all of those custom parts are going to be produced. Motorola Mobility has teamed up with 3D Systems to develop a high-capacity continuous production system to rapidly crank out all of the custom modules for these phones, including the use of conductive ink for production of antennae. This has enormous implications as it could bridge the gap between current, highly customizable 3D printing (which is slow), and traditional injection molding (which is expensive). Details are forthcoming, but this project is worth keeping an eye on for its ability to improve the speed of the 3D printing process, which is currently something of an Achilles heel.

Amazon 3DLT and Sculpteo

Amazon set up their 3D Printing Marketplace about a year ago, offering 3D printers, filaments and books. Now they have teamed up with print services 3DLT and Sculpteo to offer on-demand custom prints. THis has a lot more to do with marketing than actual 3D printing technology, so I won’t belabor the point. There are other large-scale 3D print houses, such as Shapeways, and these services offer 3D prints in dozens of materials, as well as offering 3D designers a marketplace to sell their designs. However, there are some drawbacks: they tend to be expensive, and the turnaround and shipping times can vary largely. Keep in mind there are plenty of other smaller-scale 3D modeling and services out there – including, or course, Tesseract Design! You should consider keeping your 3D business local rather than going with a large international corporation.

HP 3D Printers

At their shareholders’ meeting in March, Hewlett-Packard announced that they were going to enter the 3D printing market by the end of the year. This makes a great deal of sense, given that HP controls an impressive 40% of the traditional 2D printer market. HP has been pretty stingy with details of their plans, but CEO Meg Whitman recently announced that the HP 3D printers would be targeted at the business printing market. This is obviously bad news for the big boys like 3D Systems and Stratasys, but the smaller hobbyist/prosumer manufacturers are doubtless breathing a big sigh of relief. At least for now. As with 2D printing in the 1980’s, a large-scale business market can rapidly expand into the consumer market once technological advances and economies of scale drive the prices down.

2D to 3D Printing

Solid Ink Technology

In the late 90’s, I worked for a company called Tektronix, in Wilsonville, Oregon. This division of Tektronix produced high-end color printers. (This division is now part of Xerox). Tektronix had developed a technology called solid-ink printing. The way it worked was that a solid block of waxy, crayon-like ink was melted into a print-head, then sprayed onto a drum, and finally transferred onto a piece of paper. This methodology is remarkably similar to the FDM/FFF technology used by many 3D printers.

Tektronix Solid-Ink Printing Process

Tektronix Solid-Ink Printing Process

Tektronix, 3D Systems and (Perhaps) Microsoft

The similarity between the Tektronix/Xerox solid ink 2D printing technology and FDM/FFF 3D printing technology was not lost on some of the big players in 3D printing technology. At the beginning of this year, 3D Systems acquired Tek/Xerox’s solid ink engineering and development teams and their Wilsonville development labs. Additionally, I have heard rumors that Microsoft has developed a keen interest in hiring former Tek/Xerox engineers who have experience with the solid ink technology. It seems a safe bet that Mircrosoft would want ot get a slice of the action from the ever-expanding 3D printing market. At the end of last year, they rolled out an application called 3D Builder that is compatible with the Windows 8.1 OS. If the Beast of Redmond is already releasing 3D printing apps AND glomming onto engineers familiar with 3D printing hardware technology, could a Microsoft 3D printer be far behind?

Big Boys in the 3D Printing Sandbox

Like it or not, it appears that a number of big tech companies have entered the 3D printing sandbox (or will very shortly). Whether or not they will start kicking over the smaller kids’ sand castles remains to be seen. Certainly, the economies of scale that companies like Autodesk and HP can bring will force some of the smaller players out. Likewise, there is a legitimate concern that dominance by a small handful of large corporations will stifle the Wild West innovation that has made 3D printing such a fun place to be lately.

Regardless, I’m fairly confident that the strong open source/RepRap community will be able to weather whatever difficulties the introduction of big tech into the 3D field might present. And if Autdesk follows through on its promise of an open-source software platform (and keeps it open source), we might see an even greater burst in 3D printing innovation. Like it or not, things are going to change in the 3D printing world, but I’m confident that the change will ultimately be for the better.


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