An Interview With Autodesk's Director of Business Development About the Company's Planned 3-D Printer and 3-D Printing Platform, Spark

If you're following 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD  ) , Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS  ) , or the 3-D printing space, in general, you might know that software maker Autodesk  (NASDAQ: ADSK  )  recently announced it's planning to introduce an open software platform for 3-D printing called Spark, as well as a 3-D printer that will serve as a reference implementation for Spark.

I was fortunate to have Aubrey Cattell, Autodesk's Director of Business Development & Operations, agree to answer some questions I had about the company's 3-D printing initiative after reading the announcement. While Cattell could not answer all my questions at this time, he did provide information that gave me a better feel for the company's moves. Hopefully, the information he shared will do the same for Foolish readers.

Autodesk's 3-D printing initiative
First, let's cover some basics. Both the Spark platform and the company's 3-D printer will be open and freely available to hardware manufacturers, software developers, and others. This move marks the first time a major company has entered the open-source space. It seems likely that Autodesk's initiative will make it easier for companies to enter the 3-D printing hardware market, which could cause increased competition for 3D Systems and Stratasys. Autodesk plans to release Spark and its 3-D printer later this year. 

Spark will act as a bridge between the design and 3-D printing of an object, as it translates digital design data from modeling software into a form that's required by a 3-D printer. Given that Autodesk makes design software for 3-D printing, as well as other uses, the company's potential market for its software will increase as 3-D printing becomes more prevalent. So, Autodesk has a big incentive to do what it can to make 3-D printing as streamlined and user-friendly as possible. 

Autodesk's 3-D printer will serve as a reference implementation for Spark. Because the design will be made public, others will be free to copy or change it to suit their purposes.

Foolish writer Tim Beyers weighed in with his opinion soon after Autodesk made its 3-D printing plans public. As he noted, the company's strategy is "reminiscent of how Google used the Nexus brand to accelerate development of third-party Android devices." Tim believes that Audodesk's strategy is a smart one -- and I agree. That said, we'll have to wait to see how the execution goes, as strategy is only half the game

Rendering of what Autodesk envisions its printer will look like. Source: Autodesk

Virtual "chat" with Aubrey Cattell
A representative from Autodesk asked me to email my questions. Given this format, the chat doesn't have the back and forth flow of a conversation, nor the niceties.

Beth McKenna: What mix of end users does the company believe will use the Spark platform?

Aubrey Cattell: The Spark platform will be available to hardware manufacturers who develop 3-D printers for both business and consumer applications. That said, we believe that the greatest opportunity in 3-D printing is to improve the manufacturing process for business applications; so this will be our market focus. Spark will provide the building blocks for innovation that hardware manufacturers, software developers, and materials companies can use to accelerate the new industrial revolution.

McKenna: What will be its (3-D printer's) approximate size? Is there any rough price range you can provide at this time?

Cattell: More details around the printer will be available later this year. We haven't locked down an exact price yet, but expect it to be in the 5K range.

McKenna: The 3-D printer in the (press release) picture is very stylish. Is the photo the actual printer Autodesk has produced or a pretty accurate representation of what the company envisions that it will look like?

Cattell: Thanks. The photo is a rendering created in Fusion 360, our cloud-based 3D CAD modeling tool. It is a representation of what we envision the 3D printer will look like.

McKenna: Why did you go with an SLA machine, and did the expiring patents play a role in that decision? (SLA stands for "Stereolithography," which is a 3-D printing technology invented by Chuck Hull, the founder of 3D Systems.)

Cattell: Right now I'll just say that SLA obviously offers significant advantages, among them, superior resolution. We'll provide more detail here as we get closer to launch.

McKenna: The press release noted that the printer will be able to use a "broad range of materials, made by us and by others." Could you please be more specific? Will the materials go beyond plastics, for instance? Getting into the materials business is a new frontier for Autodesk, correct? Any color about how Autodesk plans to accomplish this would be appreciated.

Cattell: We'll release more details around the range of materials later this year, but similar to the Spark platform and 3-D printer, we'll also take an open approach with the materials in that the specs will be available if a manufacturer chooses to create their own materials for our 3-D printer. We want to make it easy for others to innovate.

McKenna: Are you manufacturing the printers in-house and, if so, what kind of manufacturing experience does the company have?

Cattell: We'll provide more detail here as we get closer to launch.

McKenna: How are you working to integrate your software directly with the printer to make a design-to-print solution?

Cattell: Spark will be closely integrated with Autodesk's cloud-based design software for product development or personal design and fabrication, including Fusion 360 and 123D. Over time, Autodesk expects to integrate the Spark platform across our portfolio of core design tools. And we hope others will do the same -- the Spark platform will be open and available for free, so we encourage other design software companies to use and integrate Spark.

McKenna: [W]hat are the ways Autodesk envisions it will make money from this initiative? One or more appear obvious, but whatever information you can provide would be helpful.

Cattell: The easy answer is that every 3-D print starts with a 3-D model, and we're in the business of making 3-D design tools. By accelerating the use of next-generation manufacturing processes and materials, Autodesk will expand the market for its core design software.

Foolish wrap-up
In summary, here's what we learned:

  • Autodesk's 3-D printing initiative will focus on improving the manufacturing process for business applications. Though the consumer market gets much press, the big money is on the business end, so this is a smart focus, in my opinion.
  • Autodesk's 3-D printer will use SLA technology and be priced at about $5,000.
  • Autodesk will take an open approach to materials, as well as its platform and printer.
  • Autodesk's primary end goal is, indeed, the obvious: increase the potential market size for its design software.

Again, I believe Autodesk's strategy is a smart one, though we'll have to wait and see how the company executes. I'll be keeping Foolish investors apprised of Autodesk's progress as it moves along with its 3-D printing initiative, as well as how the company's moves might affect 3D Systems, Stratasys, and other major 3-D printing companies.

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