In the confines of a hot oven, a few simple ingredients can be transformed into a gourmet dish. Similarly, 3D printers have the capacity to take something that previously existed only in a maker’s mind and almost magically bring it to life.
But eggs do not become soufflés on their own, and before pressing PRINT, most ideas for the next cool toy or innovative device must first cross a wide divide from analog concept to digital rendition. For some makers, this is a major obstacle to joining the 3D revolution. Much of the traditional design software used for producing three-dimensional models can be overwhelmingly complex.
Into this breach have leapt a host of innovators, creating accessible design tools that empower tinkerers, hackers and maker entrepreneurs to print their own 3D masterpieces.
We spoke with one of those innovators, Eric Wilheim, founder of Instructables and director of communities at Autodesk. Wilheim is leading the charge to make 3D printing more accessible. He says the cooking analogy is apropos.
“When I lead tours of Pier 9 — Autodesk’s 27,000-foot workshop space in San Francisco — I usually start in the test kitchen,” he said, adding that the kitchen is a sort of gateway drug for visitors to the rest of the software tools and hardware that they produce. “People get their mind around, ‘OK, wait a minute. I do make something.'”
Once the maker mindset has been engaged, the task for Autodesk, says Wilhelm, is to provide the inspiration and tools that allow even the least technical of tinkerers to take the leap into the digital realm.
This process of embolden-inspire-empower is fundamental to the philosophy behind Instructables. Crochet apparel, homemade aquariums, solar projects and LED toys — regardless of the project, the platform makes it easy for crafters and tinkerers to share their ideas and techniques with others.
Wilheim says part of the power of Instructables is that it gives makers a push to get started. A blank piece of paper can be intimidating. “But if I just draw three lines on that sheet of paper and say ‘Step one, step two, step three’, there’s now a framework that gives you a better way of breaking it down.”
That framework for translating a masterpiece into something that anyone can tackle is the kernel of many of Autodesk’s latest products and exemplifies their philosophy for how new digital design tools should make it easier for makers to move into advanced processes like 3D printing.
Wilheim points to advances in 3D-scanning tools as an essential part of helping makers move into the digital realm. Autodesk’s 123D Catch software, along with depth cameras like those used by the Kinect and emerging apps like Rendor, promise to catapult users to a place where anything in the world can be modeled and printed with the use of just a smartphone.
Wilheim says these products aren’t yet fool-proof as they still require some insider knowledge about angles of reflection and how to tweak the software itself. Once users can afford to ignore what’s going on “under the hood,” he says, “I think that’ll start making a big difference.”
Additionally, says Wilheim, there is a need for better tools to create 3D models from scratch. He praised apps like Tinkercad and Autodesk’s Sculpt, which build on simple geometry as a means of accommodating users not yet familiar with 3D design principles. According to Wilheim, though, all innovators are being held back by traditional design software that just wasn’t built with 3D printing in mind. Spark, Autodesk’s recently announced open-source software platform, is intended to remedy this, offering CAD functionality that is designed specifically for additive manufacturing.
So will we soon see custom-printed tchotchke on every maker’s desk and workbench? “The 3D printer in everyone’s home? I’m not so sold on that,” said Wilheim. “I’m not interested in garden gnomes. I am interested in the geometry that can only be made by 3D printing.”
The real transformation promised by 3D printing happens when people completely rethink design and fabrication, said Wilheim. He wants to see the light bulb go off for makers that they can make something light and elegant but as functional as something that’s pricier and heavier and uses more material. The key isn’t where or even how makers do their printing. Rather, the revolution lies in making the whole creative process more accessible so that DIYers develop a fluency with complex geometries faster and at an earlier age.
For a successful soufflé, a good mixer and a steady hand are essential to whipping humble eggs into a fluffy new state. A pencil sketch of the next maker masterpiece must also undergo a change of form before it is ready for prototyping — a digital transformation. Eric Willheim is helping to build the next wave of accessible design tools to facilitate the transformation … and make 3D printing available to all.