Autodesk take aim at the disappointment of 3D printing

By James Robinson , written on October 30, 2014

From The News Desk

Last September, Autodesk opened a large two-story workshop on Pier 9 on San Francisco's Embarcadero, a luxuriant facility with the indulgent goal of bringing its employees closer to the machines they were making software for.

"People said, 'A workshop? On the water? In downtown San Francisco? From Autodesk? Why?" Autodesk's Vice President of Consumer Products Samir Hanna says at an event this morning held to celebrate the building's first anniversary.

The 27,000 square foot Pier 9 building is an architectural pearl. With floor to ceiling windows seemingly everywhere and 360 degree views of the water and city skyline, it's the sort of office that you wish you would someday work in, but probably never will.

As Hanna outlines, over 8,000 people have visited it in the last year and it is now one of Autodesk's most visited offices. It is a state of the art plaything for makers: rooms of 3D printers, a large machine the size of a room that carves metal with high pressure water jets, and many more expensive toys. Autodesk CEO Carl Bass has been making a go-kart in the building's wood shop. There's an artist in residence program that over 100 artists have taken part in.

But aside from using the day's event as a spotlight for the Pier 9 building and the green architectural ethos it embraces, Hanna's words were notable for the fact that he used much of his time at the podium to call out the colossal disappointment of the 3D printing industry so far.

"200,000 printers have been sold worldwide, which is miniscule next to the hype and opportunity of it all," Hanna says.

Seventy five percent of all 3D printing projects fail, Hanna says while he points to a slide of pictures of mangled plastic trinkets. Half of all the machines that have been bought are used in education, which means that much of the existing stock of printers are going idle.

In Hanna's eyes, the right combination of hardware, software and material science is needed to spur a momentum of innovation that is proving elusive in 3D printing. "This coming together has not happened," he says. "The whole ecosystem has not been conducive."

Granted, there was an Autodesk sales pitch coming in side-by-side with Hanna's ‘come to Jesus’ talk to the 3D Printing industry. In May, the company announced Spark, it's open source 3D printing software, alongside the release of the company's own physical 3D printer. The machine itself is designed as a showcase for the Spark platform. Hanna had three new partners to announce for the program -- 3D Hubs, Authentise and MatterFan -- to go alongside the previously onboarded Dremel3D and Local Motors.

Spark was made specifically to fight the innovation lag in 3D printing. "We wanted to take away the roadblocks," Hanna says.

It's a good corporate tagline for executive salesmanship, but Autodesk have one big thing in their corner: as companies like 3D Systems and Stratasys horde IP like food at the apocalypse, Autodesk want to give it away. Autodesk's 3D printer is completely open source, CAD models will be posted online so any can improve the machine or make their own. The material delivery system (one of the most guarded parts of industry IP) will also be open. Hanna says that with so many groups with a stake in driving 3D printing forward -- material scientists, service providers, software developers, hardware OEMs, engineers, product designers, makers and consumers -- in an ideal world Spark would be the clubhouse that brings them all together.

And if that wasn’t quite enough for one speech, Hanna also announced a $100 Spark Investment fund, to go towards supporting small 3D printing companies.

"We are trying to essentially elevate and escalate the innovation and disruption in 3D printing," Hanna says.

Big talk. But it's not all societal altruism. By giving it away they get a lot back. If Autodesk can make Spark the Android of 3D printing, an allusion CEO Carl Bass has made in the past, the company can remain well placed to retain an 85 percent market share for its AutoCAD software, which doesn't go cheap.

Autodesk is out for itself, as much as it can look to talk up only looking out for the good of the industry. But at least it seems to get it though, that none of the major players in the space can win big in 3D printing's future unless someone can get the guts up to throw some gasoline on the fire first.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]