Autodesk Ember 3D Printer
With a 30 year history in design and visualisation, Autodesk has been at the forefront of helping makers and creators realise their designs and solve challenges. Now with the launch of Spark, the company has its sights set on all three areas of creation – software, hardware and materials.
“What we have been hearing from our customers the last couple of years is that in addition to helping them imagine and design a better world they also are looking to have us help them create things,” Aubrey Cattell, Director of Business Development and Operations at Autodesk told TCT. “They want to manufacture things they want to build things and additive manufacturing in the form of 3D printing is really revolutionising that space.”
Autodesk announced the Spark platform back in May as a multi-faceted tool that would power the growth of the maker movement.
“We see amazing potential for this 3D printing technology and really there is an opportunity here for us to move that technology forward,” explains Cattell. “The challenge is there is this workflow, this tool chain that extends from a 3D model all the way to the printed part. The problem today is there are points of failure along the way.”
For the casual maker, CAD can seem like a different language reserved only for those truly enegaged and wired in at a computer. The entire 3D printing process begins in the digital language and Autodesk recognises that with that there is a lot of scope for error and points of failure.
“Those failure points along that tool chain mean that 3D printing just hasn’t lived up to its potential,” Catell tells TCT. “So in that light we’ve developed Spark, an open and free software platform for 3D printing. What it’s intended to do is connect the digital information that comes out of the design applications though to 3D printers in a new way.”
“We want to create this as an open platform so we can give those building blocks for innovation to a variety of players within the industry. If we can really create this open platform with these utilities that all of these different players within the industry can build on we can push the boundaries of what 3D printing is capable of and really accelerate this new industrial revolution.”
Accessing all levels
Autodesk have some pretty big goals and want to hit the industry on all levels. With a portfolio that includes software in both the app and web based arenas, the focus has shifted to accelerate material development and hardware. The company recognises that if the industry is to ever grow, there needs to be innovation on all fronts.
“We even want to create this platform for materials companies because they have traditionally been closed out of the process to date because a lot of the existing hardware manufacturers have a proprietary approach to their materials within their 3D printers,” says Cattell. “The promise of Spark is around tightly integrated hardware, software and materials, if we can drive innovation on all three of those levels we’ll really move the industry forward.”
Autodesk recently introduced its first 3D printer, the Ember, a desktop stereolithography printer that uses a DLP curing process. Though there may not be anything particularly ground breaking about the machine itself it’s low-key image is entirely the point.
“It’s really meant to be a reference implementation for others to see what kind of user experience is possible if you build on the Spark platform,” explains Cattell. “We’re not trying to corner the market on hardware we’re really just trying to show the way so that others will see the potential and adopt. The machine is really designed around specific use case because we wanted to show that we can solve a real world problem.”
For now that specific use is jewellery and the lost waxing process. Cattell explains that they wanted to target a particular application to really prove the functionality of Spark and the possibilities that lie within it. This machine is by no means limited to just that one process and Autodesk are reigning in heavily on the open approach, that makers in the 3D printing community are more than ready to take hold of.
“In keeping with our open approach we’re doing the same thing with our printer so the designs themselves will be made available under a broadly permissive license,” says Cattell. “We want the Ember to be emblematic of the open platform that we’re building with Spark. Our hope is that others are going to develop on top of it.”
“Software and hardware are really converging. There’s this end to end workflow from digital to physical that all of our customers are using and that goes across industry. If we can open up 3D printing and make it accessible to millions and relevant by lowering the barriers to entry, we expand the market opportunity and the demand for our core design offering.”
Investing in the community
On top of this, Autodesk has just announced a the world’s first 3D printing investment programme for researchers and start-ups to come in and push the boundaries of the technology. With the Spark Investment Fund pumping a massive $100 million investment into empowering the Spark ecosystem, Autodesk is certainly putting a lot out there into the 3D community. So from a business point of view, you have to ask, what is the benefit for Autodesk itself?
“This is about expanding the market opportunity for Autodesk but also expanding the value of our core software offering,” says Cattell. “In that sense Spark can really lead the way to the next stage of Autodesk where we really are powering that new industrial revolution. We want to make Spark accessible to someone who’s creating a new FDM printer on Kickstarter or maybe does something novel from a materials standpoint or from a multi access standpoint all the way up to the folks who are doing selective laser sintering and direct laser sintering. That accessibility and applicability across both use cases is a key tenant of what we’re doing with Spark.”
Autodesk have already been working alongside some big names in the industry including Dremel who have recently directed their power tools expertise to the 3D market and Local Motors, famous for successfully 3D printing and driving the innovative Strati car. The automotive expert was Spark’s first project in solving the challenges of large format 3D printing.
“What we found when we started working with them was they not surprisingly had many of the same issues that we saw in smaller format printing, they were really pushing the envelope about what was possible, printing with this ABS plastic that was laced with carbon fibre but they had many of the same problems that we saw around support structures. Spark can really help them as they take the next step to streamline that process and really mainstream the availability of the Strati.”
The Local Motors Strati being produced
Autodesk are already in talks with other possible partners that will really show the depth of Spark when the company releases documentation later this year along with case studies that will enable a wider group to really come in and build on. So far other names that have signed up include 3D Hubs, Authentise and MatterFab.
“As we build our ecosystem of partners we really want to show the breadth of Spark. Right now we’re really focused on adding the key strategic partners that can prove out the value proposition for spark.”
For developers and makers, 3D printing can have its challenges due to a lack of shared information resulting in makers tackling the same issues to generate their own processes and materials. What Autodesk hopes to do is bring all of that information together so that engineers don’t continue to face these same repetitious barriers and charge the technology into the future.
“A lot of the excitement is around the hardware itself but a lot of the challenges around 3D printing are really design challenges at base,” explains Cattell. “That’s where having a software platform with a common set of standards that people can build on top of rather than recreating the wheel will really enable more innovation in the space. We don’t want people solving for the same things in every different company, really we want to create this platform that others can add to that’s what going to carry the industry forward.”