3D Printers’ Role Fueled by Content Tools

There’s been tons of attention and excitement here and elsewhere (and rightly so) about the spate of new, low-cost 3D printers that promise to make the technology far more accessible to hobbyists and even small engineering shops. But one of the big roadblocks in promoting the so-called mainstreaming of 3D printing is content creation. Let’s face it. Not everyone is a whiz with CAD software.

A number of companies are trying to tackle the content creation challenge. We’ve chronicled such efforts by firms like 3D Systems, with its acquisition of the Alibre low-cost CAD software, and Autodesk, with its work on 123D Catch and 123D Make.

The 123D Catch tool, available now on the iPad as well as on Windows platforms, is essentially a phone scene editor that lets anyone with a mobile phone or tablet camera (or, yes, a high-end digital SLR camera) take a series of photographs and turn them into a realistic, accurate 3D representation without any formal training in CAD modeling. The captured images (Autodesk recommends between 40 and 60 photos) are uploaded to the Autodesk cloud service, where special technology analyzes them to create a geometrically accurate representation that can then be downloaded as standard Autodesk 3DP or OBJ files.

Now that this is available as an iPad app, anyone could take their vacation photos and turn them into a 3D model that, with the help of the companion 123D Make software, could be output using 3D printing technology. The 123D Make tool, which is also now available on the Mac, converts 123D Catch 3D models into 2D cut patterns or in formats that can be output by standard 3D printers or 3D print fabrication services. Inventors could output common household objects — vases, hardware, car parts. This would be a steppingstone to what many pundits are calling personal manufacturing.

Sculpteo, an online 3D printing service provider, is also doing its part to promote personal manufacturing. In January, the company announced its 3D Printing Cloud Engine, a “white label” service that can be easily integrated into online retailers’ Websites, allowing customers to order items and print them on demand. When it unveiled the service, Sculpteo said it aimed to become the “PayPal of the 3D printing industry.” The company is planning a series of iPad apps to facilitate the development and purchase of personal creations.

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