Angling to be the Google of 3D printing, Autodesk announces its own open source printer and platform

By James Robinson , written on May 14, 2014

From The News Desk

Autodesk announced today that the company will release its own 3D printer with its new open software platform called Spark, in an attempt to set a “new benchmark for the 3D printing user experience.” The move takes a page out of the Google Nexus playbook in which the premium smartphone was used to drive mobile adoption of the android platform – a fact that CEO Carl Bass directly referenced in his announcement.

For Autodesk, the move is a break from a long standing tradition, in which the company has only made 3D design software since its formation in 1982. The company enjoys something close to a monopoly in the space. Its marquee product, AutoCAD, has 85 percent market share.

Bass has been less bullish on consumer 3D printing than many others. During our past discussions, he’s called the consumer market overhyped, and suggested that the power for 3D printing to transform industry has yet to be properly imagined and appreciated. That said, Bass has made noise before about bringing Autodesk closer to the makers that buy its software and developments like its Pier 9 design and fabrication funhouse have already displayed a shift toward moving into hardware.

The appeal for Autodesk in this new strategy is obvious. If consumer 3D printers can find their way into 50 percent of homes by 2030, as some have predicted, the market could be worth some $70 billion. The market for consumer 3D printers has seen some early successes, like MakerBot, and its critical darlings, like Type A Machines, but it hasn’t yet been won over. The products still have massive issues. Autodesk doesn’t need to compete with current printer manufacturers, but rather can use its massive name recognition and existing relationship with makers and designers to further grow the market out.

This is a platform play, as much as it is a push for innovation. 3D printers and 3D printing design tools are notoriously difficult for the average person to work. Up and comers in the market, like Inventables, are putting a lot of effort into perfecting a less confusing and more intuitive design system. Autodesk has tried something similar themselves with its line of 123D apps.

Explosions in the 3D printing space will change and broaden the relationship with 3D design software, and if this comes on the back of another company’s systems and innovation Autodesk risks getting locked out. An open source software platform like Spark gives Autodesk a way to adapt and evolve in line with whatever surprising turns the market takes.

Bass says that like Spark, the Autodesk 3D printer will be open source, meaning the company will publish its design specs to spur design innovation. The new printer uses stereolithography, rather than the more common extrusion techniques seen in budget printers. This means that the printer can work with any material, setting it up to capitalize on new experiments in 3D printing involving things like wood and human cells. An analyst from Gartner commented to the BBC that he expected the device to retail for somewhere around $5,000.

Contacted by PandoDaily for comment, a spokesperson for Autodesk said that today’s news had been in the works for about a year and that the printer would go on sale in the second half of 2014. The printer's target audience will be businesses, meaning it's not an outlandish investment for the sorts of clients already paying $4,000 for AutoCAD software licenses.

For Autodesk, keeping the printer and Spark open source fits with its existing mission of enabling designers to create, while growing demand for its various software products.

“We’re a design company and our focus [with this news] is on providing our free designs to the community and aiding other companies that will compete on additional features and pricing,” Autodesk’s spokesperson says.

Autodesk going from mere design conduit to manufacturer is big news. Whether or not it turns into a commercial hit, this new hardware product means that the 3D printing sector now includes a company with a market cap double that of existing heavy-hitters like 3D Systems and Stratasys. If Hewlett-Packard announces its own printer by June as it has hinted at heavily, the sector will become crowded indeed. Watch out for those sharp elbows.

[Image via Autodesk]