There's a new open software platform for 3D printing -- and a 3D printer -- from Autodesk. Given the company's position as a maker of modeling and design software, the platform could boost the nascent industry of object-printing.
In a post Thursday on the company blog, Autodesk President and CEO Carl Bass said that the platform, called Spark, "will make it more reliable yet simpler to print 3D models, and easier to control how that model is actually printed."
The Spark platform and the 3D printer are expected to become available later this year. On its Web site, the company said that Spark "connects digital information to 3D printers in a new and streamlined way," so that prints can be optimized without trial and error and a wider range of materials can be used.
He also mentioned the 3D printer that Autodesk will be introducing as a reference implementation for Spark, which Bass said "will demonstrate the power of the Spark platform and set a new benchmark for the 3D printing user experience."
Bass told The New York Times that he understood that before Spark there had been 40 different types of 3D printer software. He has compared Spark to Google's open source Android, which provided a common, free and open mobile platform. Spark is not the first open source 3D printer initiative, but the company's market presence and visibility could give Spark a major boost. Other open source platforms for 3D printers include RepRap, EventorBot, and Tantillus.
The Spark platform, according to the company, will be licensable to hardware makers and other interested parties. The design of the printer, which will be publicly available, is intended to use a broad range of materials made by Autodesk and others. Autodesk also said it will be working with hardware makers to integrate the Spark platform into their current and future 3D printers.
While the software platform and the design of the 3D printer will be available at no cost, The Wall Street Journal reported that the printer itself will be priced at about $5,000. The company has not yet said which open source licensing model it will use.
In 2011, Autodesk began giving away free consumer software for designing and making 3D objects in a lower-key effort than Spark. In January, Adobe announced that its industry-leading Photoshop program will begin supporting 3D printing.
Al Hilwa, program director for application development at industry research firm IDC, told us that these days, "open source is table stakes" for any new field, as open-source software often serve as key building blocks.
He added, "if you have a very good position in 3D design," as Autodesk does, the stature behind the released open source could give it the momentum it needs. "Autodesk has the opportunity to create an ecosystem" around the Spark platform, Hilwa noted.
But a lot will depend on the kind of openness and support the company gives to Spark, such as whether it will encourage or accept major software contributions to the platform's evolution, and how future development will be managed, he added.