November 05, 2015      

Primacy of 3D printing software

As with any other sector of modern manufacturing, software occupies a central spot in 3D printing. Although 3D printing and additive manufacturing have grown rapidly in sophistication and capabilities over the last few years, related software has grown more quickly.

That goes for proprietary code and open source. It is likely that software and design data will ultimately outperform both materials and hardware. That is an assumption based on the history of information technology, of which additive manufacturing is a part.

It is worth noting that shares of non-pure-play printing software vendors Autodesk Inc. and Dassault Systemes S.A. have been far less volatile recently than the publically traded hardware makers.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has grouped applications by their roles:

  • Source: Software through which designers access existing three-dimensional models or build new models from existing artifacts. This is part of the increasing number of proprietary and open-source model libraries
  • Design: Computer-aided-design applications used to create digital representations of an existing or under-development object
  • Optimization: Code that refines models for accuracy and quality within business demands such as cost, speed and materials

Given how slow even the fastest printers are, it is very important to send accurate and workable designs to a printer. The object is to avoid waiting hours only to see that the design was wrong.

Most of the major hardware makers have software suites. Here, we focus on significant independent, publicly held software vendors involved in additive manufacturing:

  • Ansys Inc. sells engineering simulation software and services for the aerospace, automotive, manufacturing, electronics, biomedical, energy, and defense industries.
  • Autodesk, maker of market-leading computer-aided-design software, writes printing applications that help designers visualize the object to be manufactured. Three of Autodesk’s four divisions are interested in printing: manufacturing, media and entertainment and engineering and construction.
  • Cimatron Ltd., sells computer-aided-design and -manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software for automotive, aerospace, medical, consumer plastics, electronics.
  • Dassault Systemes develops three-dimensional design and digital mock-up applications as well as collaborative tools. One of its products, SolidWorks, helps designers create solid digital models for computer-aided design and engineering projects. Among its 11 targeted industrial sectors are aerospace, marine and offshore, industrial equipment, consumer goods and high tech.
  • PTC Inc.., another computer-aided-design software maker, has joined with Stratasys to better integrate the two companies’ application. Just as in the early days of desktop computing, a sprawling market with many vendors will ultimately trip on incompatibilities and proprietary walls. Specifically, one of PTC’s products, Creo, is being integrated with Stratasys’ printing applications.

Intellectual property libraries proliferate

The purpose of libraries is to save others from creating designs that already exist. They also store scan files of objects. This concept is the intellectual-property version of the shared economy.

finger wrench

In 2013, computer-aided-design software maker Autodesk joined with GrabCAD, a 1 million-member community of engineers, to create Workbench, a collaborative tool and design library. General Electric and Tiffany & Co. are among the corporations that have used Workbench.

Printer maker Makerbot, which was acquired by Stratasys in 2013 for $604 million, has its Thingiverse, another collaboration tool and library. Cubify, another printer maker, but owned by 3D Systems, hosts a similar service, called the Design Feed.

Executives at Autodesk, Stratasys and 3D Systems hope that these branded libraries will create loyal customers. There also is the potential for designers to find a market for their designs through a library.

A designer posting in Thingiverse, for instance, has created a plastic finger sleeve that might be the world’s smallest useful wrench.

Steve Jurvetson, a legendary venture capitalist and partner in Sand Hill Road venture firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson is on Thingiverse selling plans for supersonic model rockets of his own design. Jurvetson periodically launches rockets on the dusty pans of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

Boeing Co., already using additive manufacturing internally, is thinking of more direct returns on disseminating print designs. In March 2015, the company applied for a U.S. patent on a commercial three-dimensional design service. The application spells out a process through which someone would order a design and be automatically billed once the print was completed.

Using this model, it is possible that a product such as a new electric toothbrush from consumer-goods company Philips N.V., will someday be a revenue-generating product that the company never actually makes.