Autodesk to Spark Up 3D Printing

Autodesk reportedly plans to soon launch Spark, an open-source software it hopes will lower software costs (both third-party licensing and in-house software development) for 3D printer makers. The computer aided design (CAD) giant also wants to improve and simplify the design process for its users. While this move might validate the 3D printing market for printer manufacturers such as 3D Systems, Stratasys, ExOne, Voxeljet, etc., their concern might be that to show off Spark, Autodesk plans to make a reference 3D printer. The giant’s efforts could also have implications for 3D printer software vendors such as Materialise.
Autodesk’s chief executive officer (CEO) Carl Bass calls the printer "a mid-market industrial machine," and notes that similar hardware typically costs ~$5,000. Autodesk’s recent strategy has been about empowering the makers—we give you the tool to make it in the virtual world, and also give you the content about how to make it, and now we even give you the capability to physically make it at home.
Autodesk's printer will rely on stereolithography (SLA), a printing process that is less frequently used than the fused deposition modeling (FDM) in mass-market printers, but which is gaining steam thanks to its speed and reliability benefits as well as patent expirations on laser sintering. The vendor promises that a wide range of materials will be supported, while the printer design will be made publicly available to allow for further development and experimentation.
Autodesk is certainly trying to drive further usage of its CAD authoring software, already used in plenty of 3D printing projects. The more people use 3D Printing, the more authoring tools can be sold, simple as that. Should its open-source software enjoy wide adoption, it could transform 3D printer makers into mere plastic box makers, just like Microsoft did with PC makers 30 years ago.
This could be a game changer in a highly competitive market, especially with lower barrier entry after patent expirations. Autodesk’s move is similar to Google introducing its own Android phones or Chromebook PC—if they can contribute good revenue, that’s great; if not, they can at least bring traffic to Google’s OS. Like Apple and Google, Autodesk could bundle and achieve a lower cost and/or better quality by owning both hardware and software. On the other hand, Oracle and IBM have not had much success in the hardware business, and it will be interesting to watch how Autodesk’s bold initiative pans out.
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