3D printing is democratizing innovation and inspiring a new generation of thinkers, creators, and tinkerers. But advances in computer-aided design have been just as important as 3D printers in lowering barriers to rapid prototyping while increasing the durability and flexibility of 3D-printed products.
If you want to print a bridge over a canal in Amsterdam, after all, you'll need some powerful CAD chops.
Now makers of 3D design software are positioning themselves for mass adoption as remaining barriers to entry for 3D printing and rapid prototyping begin to fall away.
Dassault Systemes, which makes Solidworks CAD software, is one of the biggest players in 3D design, and the company's recent support of makers and entrepreneurs is both smart business strategy and an important bellwether for the future of hardware innovation.
In August, Dassault partnered on Fab11, a conference and symposium of more than 500 fab labs held in Boston, where the fab lab movement began. A fab lab is a workshop built around accessible small-scale digital fabrication. The concept began as a collaboration between the Grassroots Invention Group and the Center for Bits and Atoms in the Media Lab at MIT. The Fab Foundation, which fosters and supports fab labs around the world, grew out of the Center for Bits and Atoms in 2009.
During Fab11, fab lab representatives from more than 60 countries converged on Boston to participate in workshops and share their inventions. If there was a common theme to the incredible variety of products and prototypes, it was that most of them had been designed using Solidworks software before they took shape on the base plate of a 3D printer.
"We were introduced to fab labs very early," says Marie Planchard, Director of the Education Portfolio for Solidworks. "I got to visit fab lab zero with my boss, and we saw the work that was going on, and specifically the work young people were doing. We asked, 'What would it be like to sponsor every fab lab with Solidworks?' We really tried to understand what these fab labs were doing and how we could support them."
People working in 3D printing and design often speak with the inspired lilt of revolutionaries, and Planchard is no exception.
"3D Printing is democratizing manufacturing as well as inspiring a new generation of thinkers, creators, and innovators. We are delighted that it is also empowering more women to pursue education and careers in STEM."
Dassault has now made major investments in fab labs, including the creation of an entrepreneurship program to give innovators a path to bring their products to market. The effort has been well-received in the maker community.
Philanthropic impulses aside, the program has also placed Dassault in pole position at the start of a new era of 3D printing.
For the past few years, high resolution printers have been too costly for individuals and for all but the best-funded maker spaces. At the same time, hobbyist 3D printers haven't quite made the grade when it comes creating complex prototypes. But Gartner, Inc., a technology research company, predicts that 3D printers that perform competently enough for business applications will be available for less than $1,000 by 2016. When that happens, all the bullish talk about the democratization of hardware development may very quickly become a reality.
Dassault wants its share of the democratized market. By making inroads with the maker community through its support of fab labs, the company is making a play at becoming the CAD solution of choice for a new generation of bootstrapping hardware developers.