Autodesk's Attempts To Spark A 3D Printing Revolution
At the Inside 3D Printing Conference recently, Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski provided glimpses of Spark, the company's 3D printing platform that was announced earlier this year. The platform, which integrates hardware components (3D printers) with software (3D modeling and design software), generates designs.
This means that it can generate shapes and drawings from specifications. Current design software is already capable of doing this. However, Spark's software component is expected to take it a step further by reducing the grunt work in design. Think about it as an autocomplete feature for simple shapes and drawings within the tool. Thus, the software will anticipate a designer's shape and complete it for them.
Spark is primarily a software platform and is expected to integrate across a broad array of 3D printers. Autodesk has made a reference 3D printer to demonstrate Spark's capabilities.
Known as Ember, the 3D printer was made in conjunction with a number of collaborators, such as Local Motors. Much like Spark's software code, the 3D printer's design specifications will be published online.
The printer has an average resolution of 10 microns (though Eric Wilhelm, who managed the printer design process, told Benzinga that the resolution could be as fine as 6 microns). It uses photo-cured resin as its primary printing material, but users can mix and match materials for printing.
At an estimated price of $5,000, the printer is clearly not targeted to average consumers. After his presentation, Kowalski told Benzinga that the 3D printer is not targeted at hobbyists either. Instead, the company is hoping for traction from professional users and designers.
Decoding The Autodesk Strategy
Autodesk's strategy for 3D is a horizontal one, where the company's expertise in software will drive hardware sales. The software conflates two line item costs (driver and design software) and an open source code spurs product improvement and consumer lock in to the platform.
In contrast, Stratasys and 3D Systems, the primary players in this space, bundle hardware and software in a vertical stack. Software plays the supporting role of a driver to their primary product -- hardware.
To succeed in its strategy, however, the San Rafael-based company needs to overcome a couple of challenges.
With A Little Help From Friends
First, it needs to develop a reliable partner ecosystem. When Google jumped into it, mobiles, which served as a precursor to smartphones, were relatively popular. Handset manufacturers, such as Samsung and LG, already had brand recognition and customer numbers to guarantee traction.
In comparison, the 3D printer market is a nascent. It is dominated by Stratasys and 3D Systems. Between them, both companies have snapped up relatively well-known consumer brand names (such as Makerbot) and developed an arsenal of industrial 3D printer systems. To be successful, the Spark platform will need to match their numbers or, at least, develop a working partnership with them. Given the scope and size of the up-for-grabs 3D printer market, it remains to be seen if professional users of 3D printers bite the bait and share Autodesk's vision of a common software platform.
Staying In Control
Second, Autodesk will need to exert significant control to avoid product fragmentation. As Google's experience with Android showed, open source can be a double-edged sword. For example, Skyhook's lawsuit against Google demonstrated the perils of running opaque compatibility tests for Motorola handsets.
A couple of 3D printer makers at the conference (who could be potential partners) also seemed apprehensive about tying up with Autodesk. One of them, who did not want to be identified, said partnering with Autodesk will involve trade-offs with the company's competitors. Currently, Autodesk is the leading seller of design software, with Solidworks a distant second. Partnering with Spark will reinforce and extend Autodesk's dominant position in the 3D design category -- a prospect that may not excite all users.
Finally, there is the problem of support and accountability for IP and printer issues. Unlike 2D printers, which are easy to operate, 3D printers are still relatively complex machines. Most industrial 3D systems and professional machines are vertically integrated, with software and hardware bundled into the same stack. This means that support and printer issues are handled by the same entity.
Autodesk's proposed strategy of working closely with hardware manufacturers means that it will need to clearly delineate responsibilities and IP with its partners to remain competitive.
Just One Piece
To be sure, 3D printing is just a cog in the Autodesk juggernaut. The company still derives the lion's share of its revenues from on-premise software. With its deep pockets and goodwill among the hardware community (it shares resources and hosts several events for hardware entrepreneurs in the Bay Area), the company can afford to experiment with ways to bringing 3D printing to market.
Consumers, however, will eventually decide whether these experiments are successful.
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