Autodesk CEO 'debunks the hype' on 3D printing, says industrial 3D printing is the real revolution

Autodesk, the largest producer of 3D modeling software, says improvements in software, machinery, and material science are driving an exciting new era in manufacturing.

A desktop 3D printer builds a plastic model.
Image: Zack Whittaker/ZDNet

While most consumers are waiting for desktop 3D printers to become their personal Star Trek replicators, the real magic in the 3D printing world is happening in the industrial space, according to Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, who gave the keynote address Friday morning at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo in New York City.

"I think industrial 3D printing is extremely important," Bass said. "We have way overvalued consumer 3D printing and truly underappreciated the value of industrial 3D printing."

This is specifically important to the manufacturing industry, which he said will be transformed by 3D printing.

Autodesk, an international software company, is the world's largest maker of 3D printing modeling tools. The company became best known for AutoCAD, used by engineers, architects, and designers, which was its flagship product in 1982. AutoCAD is a software application for creating 2D and 3D computer-aided designs (CAD). In 2010, it added a cloud-based mobile app. Bass said Autodesk has about 150 different software products, and almost every customer he knows has an interest in 3D printing.

Bass said there is a lot of hype surrounding 3D printing, but people are too excited about desktop printers, when we should be focusing on the ways manufacturers will use 3D printing to change the world.

"I think the hype takes two forms, there's two extremes," Bass said. "One form says there's going to be a 3D printer in every house, the other says it's going to be the next industrial revolution. I think the first one is truly false, the second remains to be seen."

The cost, scalability, speed, quality, and toxicity are all issues with 3D printing, Bass said.

"Not to be a downer about it, but if you don't face the real issues, it's hard to address them," he said.

"If we look at the general trends in tech right now, we are moving into a world where businesses are developing around the idea of giving us access and experience, but not ownership," Bass said. "It just strikes me as odd to say the thing that's going to go the other direction is consumer 3D printing."

According to Bass, improvements in machinery, material science, and software together will lead to a new era of innovation in many industries. This is the concept of "additive manufacturing."

This was a hot topic throughout the conference. During the afternoon keynote address on Thursday, GE general manager of technology, Christine Furstoss, discussed the importance of converging ideas and technological innovations to move forward with 3D printing in the manufacturing industry. She said that even though 3D printing has been around for decades, the world needs to harness the full capacity of the technology now, when people are enthusiastic about it.

"It truly is a time for hardware meets software," she said in her address. "We need to embrace and bring forward a whole new class of innovators."

At the Bot Objects booth, 3D modeling designs are displayed.
Image: Lyndsey Gilpin/TechRepublic

CAD software was originally for engineers, so it has a reputation of being somewhat difficult to use for non-engineers. There is a definite gap between the hardware -- the physical 3D printer -- and the software -- the CAD designs.

The missing link is compatible software that is easy to download, use, and export to a machine. Open source websites like Thingiverse and Shapeways offer have pre-made CAD designs that can be downloaded or sent off to be 3D printed and shipped, but in order for this technology to catch wind in the mass market, disrupt industries, and revolutionize the way we manufacture products, the design software must become easier to use.

About two years ago, the company launched Autodesk 123D, a community for users to design, create, and share 3D models. Autodesk has partnered with Ponoko, Techshop, and 3D Systems to allow users of 123D to create actual objects with their designs using the 3D modeling software. 3D Systems offers on-demand printing services and personal 3D printers and kits. As of right now, it is still free to use.

"It's all going to be about innovation, about discovery, about invention," Bass said. "Things will get quickly better, they will plateau, someone will invent something and it will get better again."

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