Software maker Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK) announced today that it's collaborating with Local Motors, a leader in open-source 3D printing hardware innovation. Local Motors will be using Autodesk's Spark, a new open platform for 3D printing, as it continues to develop the Strati, the world's first 3D-printed full-size car.
First, let's look at Autodesk's 3D printing initiative and its just-announced team-up, and then we'll explore the potential ramifications of the success of this partnership.
Audodesk's 3D printing initiative and the Local Motors team-up
Earlier this year, Autodesk announced plans to introduce Spark. Spark is aimed at making it simpler and more reliable to print 3D models and easier to control how those models are printed. Essentially, Spark acts as a bridge between the design and 3D printing of an object, as it translates digital design data from modeling software into a form that's required by a 3D printer. At the time of this announcement, Autodesk also said it would be launching a 3D printer, which will serve as a reference implementation for Spark (for those who don't already have their own hardware).
The Spark platform can be used for the full range of 3D printing applications from consumer to industrial. Aubrey Cattell, Autodesk's Director of Business Development, told me via a phone interview that the company views the manufacturing space as having the most potential. So, it's no surprise that its first Spark team-up involves a large-scale, industrial project.
The Strati project, which I've previously written about, is a fascinating and timely one. No doubt, the timeliness factor is why Audodesk released its announcement today. Just last week, the first Strati was 3D-printed live at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago. The body of the vehicle was printed in a carbon-fiber-reinforced ABS thermoplastic by the BAAM (big area additive manufacturing) machine, which was just developed by privately held Cincinnati and the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Lab. I brought Foolish readers news of this partnership last February. The BAAM machine is an ultra-fast, large-scale polymer 3D printer that reportedly is 200 to 500 times faster and capable of printing polymer components 10 times larger than commercially available printers.
While the 3D printing of the Strati was successfully accomplished at the IMTS, there were some bumps in the road, as would be expected with any new technology. That's where Autodesk's Spark comes in. Spark will help connect automobile digital design data to the BAAM 3D printer in a streamlined way for easier visualization and optimization of 3D prints.
"The Spark platform is set to accelerate manufacturing innovation," said Alex Fiechter, head of community management for Local Motors, in the press release. "From capturing our ideas more accurately to guiding Design for Additive Manufacturing (DFAM) and simplifying the creation of machine code, Spark will help us to turn digital models into actual physical production parts far faster [emphasis mine] than was previously possible."
Spark's goal: Lighting a fire under the adoption of 3D printing
Both Autodesk's Spark platform and the company's 3D printer design are open and freely available to hardware manufacturers, software developers, and others. This move marks the first time a major company has entered the 3D printing open source space.
Why would Autodesk introduce such a platform?
Simple. Autodesk makes computer-aided design (CAD) software for 3D printing, as well as other uses, so the company's potential market for its design software will increase as 3D printing becomes more prevalent. Thus, Autodesk has a big incentive to do what it can to make 3D printing as streamlined and user-friendly as possible.
Autodesk isn't the only player in the 3D printing design software space, but it's one of the biggest. France-based Dassault Systemes is also a major force in this market.
Fellow Fool Tim Beyers nicely summed up the company's strategy after Autodesk made its 3D printing plans public earlier this year: It's "reminiscent of how Google used the Nexus brand to accelerate development of third-party Android devices," he said. Tim says that he believed Autodesk's strategy was a smart one -- and I agree. Autodesk doesn't have much to lose and has everything to gain. After all, 3D printing is a huge growth space. According to Wohlers Report 2014, the global 3D printing industry is expected to grow from $3.07 billion in 2013 to more than $21 billion by 2020; that's greater than a 31% compounded annual growth rate. Furthermore, if Spark can speed up the adoption of 3D printing, then Wohlers' estimates could prove to be conservative.
Beyond Autodesk, there are certainly other potential winners if Spark helps increase the rate at which industrial companies adopt or further embrace 3D printing: manufacturers of 3D printers and companies that provide 3D printing services for industrial applications. This includes, to varying degrees, 3D Systems, Stratasys, ExOne, Arcam, voxeljet, and Materialise. Materialise doesn't make 3D printers like the others; however, it does provide 3D printing services.
Foolish final thoughts
If the Autodesk-Local Motors team-up can demonstrate that the Spark platform increases the ease and efficiency of Local Motors' 3D printing efforts on its Strati project and beyond, Spark could accelerate the adoption of 3D printing for industrial applications. This would likely benefit some or all of the publicly traded 3D printer manufacturers and 3D printing service providers. It could also light a fire under Audodesk's 3D printing design software sales.
As with the Strati, investors should stay tuned. We'll be keeping you updated as to the progress of this team-up as well as any new Spark partnership agreements that Autodesk inks.
Beth McKenna has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends 3D Systems, Dassault Systemes S.A. (ADR), ExOne, and Stratasys. The Motley Fool owns shares of 3D Systems, ExOne, and Stratasys. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.