Autodesk Releases Spark, a New Platform for 3D Printing, Adds HP and Other Partners

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You can’t start a fire without a spark.

A little more than a month ago HP announced its entrance into the 3D printing space with a new technology they call Multi-Jet Fusion, which can make 3D printing over 10 times faster than it currently is. Yesterday, at Autodesk University in Las Vegas, the San Rafael, Calif.-based design software giant entered that market, too, with its SLA DLP 3D printer, Autodesk Ember.

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What might be more significant for both companies, though, is the Spark 3D printing collaboration platform that Autodesk released with Ember. One of the major problems with 3D printing as an evolving technology has been the general messiness of its march toward mainstream adoption. Mary-Hope McQuiston, director of marketing and partnerships for Autodesk’s consumer products division, told journalists and analysts that “today, 3D printing falls way short of its potential. Only 200,000 3D printers have ever been sold. 75% of models that are attempted to print fail. Right now the process is costly and fragmented, there are lots of variables and information gaps.”

A 3D-printed aluminum heat exchanger. Photo: Jeff Yoders

A 3D-printed aluminum heat exchanger. Photo: Jeff Yoders

We have written extensively about the slow speeds, high costs of printers and higher costs of materials as obstacles for the manufacturing and construction industries to adopt 3D printing with a hopeful eye toward the still-young manufacturing process working out its kinks. We have also extolled its potential, so having an online platform for hardware manufacturers, software developers, materials scientists, product designers, and others to participate in is a welcome change from mishmash of siloed development and proprietary standards and file formats of 3D printing today.

“It needs to be good for more than prototypes, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass said. “Cost and availability of materials is really holding the whole thing back right now. Sparks includes slicing, print preview regardless of the OS or device you’re using and the ability to publish and share. We’ve also included well-documented application program interfaces.”

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Local Motors created an entirely 3D-printed car. Photo: Jeff Yoders

Bass added that Google’s Android mobile operating system is a good comparison for what Autodesk would like to create with Spark for 3D printing, a tight combination of software and hardware that can give a better user experience, and also allow users to be the innovators.

The partners that have joined Autodesk to develop Spark include a whose who of technology and manufacturing tool companies. They include Dremel, 3D Industries, the aforementioned HP, Emerging Objects, ExOne, Authentise, MatterFab and even a company that has designed and 3D printed a working automobile, Local Motors.

Can a robust user community bring necessary standards to 3D printing? And possibly transition it into mass adoption by manufacturers? We’ll have to see what Spark and Ember can ignite in 2015.

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