Autodesk Puts 3D Design Tools in Consumer Hands

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 time."

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.