The company's newly launched 123D family reduces barriers to fabrication as well as design.
Humans like to make stuff, and
there are more ways than ever to realize one's dreams, if only in concept. The
difficult part comes in the actual fabrication. Most of us lack the basic skills
needed to fabricate the products of our imagination. That may be changing,
thanks to the growing availability of both hardware and software that are
designed to reduce the barriers to rapid, repeated prototyping for businesses
as well as individuals.
It's not surprising that design
software kingpin Autodesk wants to be one of the driving forces in the
democratization of the manufacturing process, removing barriers that until now
have kept startups from making use of the latest technologies in design and
fabrication. Although the company isn't exactly a household name, its dominance
among design professionals of all sorts makes it an 800-pound gorilla, in much
the same way that Microsoft is the gorilla of office productivity.
But Autodesk's fostering is more
like what you'd expect from Apple. It's providing in the 123D application
family what should eventually be a seamless set of processes that already allow
the individual to become his or her own designer, and then in a matter of hours
or days, build their creation from precision-cut parts.
Autodesk's 123D family starts
with the namesake product, which provides a CAD tool for the rest of us. The
user starts with a basic solid primitive, such as a block, and then adds and
removes volume as the size and shape are modified. Rather than the approach
followed by traditional CAD applications that use layer after layer to
represent objects, 123D uses an assembly-focused method that feels natural,
even in the software's abstracted universe.
123D Catch is a rebranding of
Autodesk's Project Firefly that uses cloud computing to take a series of
photographs of an object and turn them into a realistic 3D model of an object. As
it turns out, the quality of the individual images isn't as important as the
number of angles from which the images are taken. 123D Catch works with
relatively low-end cameras, such as those found in mobile phones, as well as
high-end DSLRs. What's truly impressive is how quickly the back end can turn
around a batch of images; it took about 15 or 20 minutes to render a photorealistic
three-quarter model of my head-the missing quarter being the back of my noggin-based
on 20 images taken at the Autodesk Gallery in downtown San
Francisco. The output file can be viewed in various
tools, such as the Autodesk Inventor Publisher Mobile Viewer for iOS devices,
and shared through YouTube and other social media outlets.
123D Make is perhaps the most
interesting tool of the family, because it takes a 3D model, whether developed
in a design tool such as 123D or generated from a series of images via 123D
Catch, and converts the model into a series of 2D cut patterns in various materials.
One can design objects such as furniture, then use 123D Make to slice the model
into individual parts, lay out the parts on virtual sheets of material, and
then send the patterns off to be laser-cut and returned to the user for
assembly. Interestingly, this preview release of 123D Make is the only member
of the family that runs on Mac OS X. Ultimately, the company expects to offer both
Mac and Windows versions of the applications in the 123D family.
123D Sculpt may be the most fun
of the bunch to work with, because it takes advantage of the touch-driven
interface of the iPad and allows one to shape an object naturally. One can
start from scratch, modify one of the preinstalled object models or obtain
models from Autodesk as an in-app purchase. But the app's abilities go far
beyond mere sculpting. One can also recolor the object, or add details from an
image in the iPhoto library or from a photo taken with the iPad 2's built-in
camera. 123D Sculpt can output a 720p turntable view of the model in QuickTime,
for use with iMovie or other tools.
The members of the 123D family
are for the most part in various prerelease stages. 123D itself was, at the
time of writing, in a late phase of development, the current release being beta
7. 123D Catch is also listed in beta test, and 123D Make is in the "Technology
Preview" stage, expiring on Feb. 28 of next year even though there will be a
Feb. 29 in 2012. Only 123D Sculpt for iPad is in full release. All of the
pre-release software is a free download, and 123D Sculpt is free "for a limited
One is correct to think that
output is the difficult part in this discussion, and that's certainly true, at
least given the cost of CNC equipment, laser
cutters and 3D printers, which easily run into six figures, but just as in the
mid-1980s it was common to use service bureaus for digital output, due to the
then-high cost of laser printers, one can today make use of similar facilities
that offer time-based use of such fabrication equipment. An early leader in
this is TechShop, a company based in Menlo Park,
Calif., with locations in the Bay Area, the
Research Triangle of North Carolina, locations planned for Brooklyn,
Los Angeles and Portland,
Ore., and one under construction in Detroit.
Although tools such as those
built into the 123D product family are powerful, they're not at all
intimidating. It's easy to foresee a day in the not-too-distant future where
consumers can design their own clothes, furniture and objets d'art and have
them produced for a price similar to that of today's mass-manufactured goods.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified 123D Catch.
P. J. Connolly began writing for IT publications in 1997 and has a lengthy track record in both news and reviews. Since then, he's built two test labs from scratch and earned a reputation as the nicest skeptic you'll ever meet. Before taking up journalism, P. J. was an IT manager and consultant in San Francisco with a knack for networking the Apple Macintosh, and his love for technology is exceeded only by his contempt for the flavor of the month. Speaking of which, you can follow P. J. on Twitter at pjc415, or drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.