Just a few months ago, Windows 8.1 became the first OS to support 3-D printing natively. That essentially meant Microsoft was building an infrastructure so that printing a 3-D object could become as simple clicking "print". Today, Microsoft revealed its next step: its first ever 3-D printing application called 3D Builder, which is available now for free.
"We wanted to do something that was simple—that didn't require any design expertise, CAD experience, or animation experience," explains Shanen Boettcher, general manager at Microsoft’s Startup Business Group. "Anyone can walk up to the app and be successful in 3-D printing."
Loading 3D Builder on a Surface tablet, the first thing we noticed was how the interface was modeled in true Metro fashion—3D Builder is based upon the same flat plane design we see across Windows 8. So almost 100% of what you see are blueprints to 3-D print (the only exception is a button to load more blueprints!). Tap on any item, like one of Microsoft’s shirt-button templates or train set pieces, and you arrive at a finger-pannable, pinch-and-zoomable model that’s every bit as responsive as you’d hope a touch-screen app would be. From here you can simply click "print" to send the design to a Makerbot printer, or you can spin a dial to scale the object larger or smaller (and you’ll see its dimensions in inches or millimeters).
But that’s about it! While you’re free to import any design you’d like, you can’t actually reshape objects within 3D Builder beyond implementing a slight hack: It’s possible to stack the blueprint for one object—like say, pieces of an alphabet set—atop another blueprint. It’s a bit messy, but by placing letters onto another shape, you’ll be able to print what’s essentially an embossed object.
So why can’t users do more creative work within the app? "It’s a slippery slope," Boettcher says. "You start adding these features, and all of the sudden, you have a full CAD operation that’s difficult to learn." Instead, Microsoft imagines a different future for 3D Builder, one that pushes simple customization for the average consumers (think anything out of the catalog of Things Remembered). And indeed, you can see from the initial designs that they’ve provided—from napkin rings and Halloween gear for domestic crafters, to toys and model sets to hook children, to a money clip or pen box to save a trip to the store—Microsoft is attempting to cater to almost anyone but the traditional maker.
That said, if the app appears a bit stuck between consumer and prosumer, that’s only because it is. Microsoft has basically presented a library of 3-D objects, and a 3-D editor that's been mostly gimped to edit them. In which case, one might wonder, why does Microsoft need to have a traditional 3-D editor in this software at all? Rather than having users pan and zoom around an object in a virtual space, why couldn't the controls be simplified to "print me this chess piece, and make it four inches tall"?
"We’re at the beginning of this process," Boettcher insists. "We said, here’s the plumbing for our partners, here’s how you plug in."
So as other companies like Autodesk get involved with 3D Builder in the months to come, Microsoft’s library of objects will only grow. Within a year, it’s easy to imagine the app having thousands of reliably printable items, coupled with an interface that’s loosed the training wheels, or eliminated the need for them altogether. The important thing is that Microsoft is getting involved with the consumer end of the 3-D printing trend before it really takes off. And in turn, it’ll be accessible enough to actually take off.