The company announced on Wednesday that later this year it will release an open software platform for 3-D printing, which would enable makers of 3-D printers to spend far less on operational software. It will also sell its own 3-D printer, at least in part as a demonstration of the software’s possibilities.
“There’s been a disconnect between designing objects and being able to print them,” said Carl Bass, chief executive of Autodesk. “I saw there were 40 different types of printer software, and that is what is holding this back.”
He likened the project to Google’s Android operating system for smartphones, which is offered free to any phone maker. Android has become the world’s most popular phone operating system, benefiting Google by encouraging customers to use its mobile products.
The Autodesk printer, Mr. Bass said, is akin to “a midmarket industrial machine.” Autodesk has not named a price, but he said that sort of printer usually costs about $5,000. The company has used the machine, which makes objects with light projected on a photosensitive polymer, to make architectural models, parts for medical equipment and jewelry.
AutodeskAutodesk plans to sell its own 3-D printer, which will run the open-source Spark operating system.
Other types of 3-D printers use metal, plastic and biological materials. Mr. Bass said any material used in 3-D printing could be used on the Autodesk software platform, which the company is calling Spark.
If Spark becomes popular, 3-D printers could become cheaper and pervasive. That would help Autodesk, which sells sophisticated software for designing and modeling things. “As the head of a public company, I still have an obligation to sell paid-for software,” Mr. Bass said.
The project joins several existing open-source printer initiatives, including RepRap, Eventorbot and Tantillus. Autodesk adds industrial and marketing muscle and, possibly, deep technical research and support with Spark.
Autodesk expects to license the software inside its printer at no cost and will also let people copy the printer’s hardware design. Autodesk has not yet determined which of several standard open-source licenses it will use, if any.
Autodesk’s announcement was made ahead of this weekend’s San Francisco Bay Area Maker Faire, a celebration of do-it-yourself technology construction. The show is expected to draw about 120,000 attendees to 900 displays of practical and whimsical explorations of things like robotics, computing and 3-D printing.
Inexpensive 3-D printers have become increasingly available but remain something of a niche product, used by hobbyists and in a few industrial situations. Autodesk has long promoted 3-D printing andgave away simple 3-D modeling software two and a half years ago.
In a blog post accompanying the Autodesk announcement, Mr. Bass wrote that he has been “fascinated by the promise and frustrated by the reality of 3-D printing.” He also wrote that Autodesk will be working with makers of 3-D printers to integrate the Spark platform. He did not say which manufacturers.