Co.Design

Autodesk Releases Free App That Brings 3-D Printing To The Masses [Video]

The high-end software maker unveils a design application for the rest of us, complete with pushbutton 3-D printing services.

If you hear "maker culture" and instantly think of grease-stained weirdos who drone on about steampunk and "screws not glue"... well, you wouldn't be wrong. But when a giant software company like Autodesk throws its weight behind "makers," you know it's much more than a subculture. "There was this huge digital content generation that emerged, but now that 'Generation C' is turning into 'M,' the Make generation," Tatjana Dzambazova, Senior Product Manager at Autodesk, tells Co.Design. "They want to start physically fabricating the things that they create digitally." And now Autodesk is providing that power, in a free application called 123D that will let any maker, professional or amateur, design and 3D-print anything on demand from toys to turbines.

123D lets you easily fabricate objects, not just visualize them.

123D differs from other free 3-D modeling software like Google Sketchup in that it's designed to let you easily fabricate objects, not just visualize them. The software's "Make It" link will let you push your 3-D file to fabricating partners like 3-D Systems, Ponoko, and TechShop, or to your own MakerBot (if you have one).

Because 123D has physical output in mind, it includes ingenious features like a "shell" command that turns any solid digital model hollow, which makes it much faster and cheaper print. But high-end precision solid modeling is possible as well, thanks to the "perfect stereolithography files" that 123D creates. "Solid modeling means Autodesk 123D can create perfect watertight solids, with no gaps or other situations which causes 3-D printing to fail," Dzambazova explains.

But before you start to feel intimidated by all this power, rest assured that Autodesk intends 123D to be simple enough to play with like a toy at first. "We tried to keep the UI very clean, and eliminate any dialog boxes and command lines which are not obvious to an amateur," says Dzambazova. "It's all contextual: when I pick or select something, at the mouse I'll see all the things I can do with that selection. It doesn't display what you can't do." That encourages playful experimentation right out of the box, as a user pushes, pulls, cuts and stretches 3-D shapes using intuitive actions. You can also add exact parameters "in a little input field on the fly," Dzambazova adds, "but you can 'graduate' to that. It's like a video game: You don't get dropped into the expert level the first time you play."

Autodesk intends 123D to be simple enough to play with like a toy.

Part of creating that appealing first impression is a massive library of over 4,000 prefab components to play and build with: common shapes and objects, screws, bolts, pins, even entire rooms. And instead of displaying these components in abstract, Photoshop-like "layers" — "that's a 2-D paradigm that doesn't make sense for physical objects," says Dzambazova — 123D provides an intuitive "assembly map" that groups objects in terms of the pieces they're made of, just like in real life. (For example, a guitar would "contain" the body, strings, neck, and tuning screws.)

123D is a beta product only available for Windows at the moment, but Autodesk promises "a whole series of these introductory tools" to come, including Mac, mobile, and tablet-optimized versions. That's a big contribution to making "maker culture" become just... culture. "There's a blurring between pro and amateur: High-end software that was once used only for work is now used for fun, and applications that were fixed are now mobile," says Dzambazova. "This is a fundamental change in 'making stuff.' The whole point is that with tools like 123D, small players can play the big game." Some assembly required, of course.

[Download 123D for free here]

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