Going beyond topology information

August 22, 2016



gonzalo-martinezGonzalo Martinez is the director of strategic research for the office of the chief technology officer at Autodesk.

Gonzalo Martinez of Autodesk shares the advancements in 3-D printing software that will power the evolution of additive manufacturing.


PwC: Gonzalo, can you please describe the efforts under way in 3D printing at Autodesk?

Gonzalo Martinez: Sure. We started looking at 3D printing about five years ago. We experimented with almost every 3D printer that was available then. We experimented with small objects, big objects, multiple materials, and so on. The goal was to understand what we needed to do strategically in terms of software partnership with companies creating and using 3D printers.

3D printing is very strategic to Autodesk, as it enables a different way to manufacture things. It’s not that 3D printing will replace traditional manufacturing; rather, there will be collaboration between 3D printing and traditional manufacturing, so businesses can have the best of both worlds.

Autodesk has a rich history of providing tools for design, visualization, and simulation. We are entering a new area that we call fabrication. In fabrication, we look at what we’re doing with 3D printing, traditional manufacturing, CNC [computer numerical control], and robotics, and we evolve our products to a vision around how these four pieces work together.

“Our vision is to provide the software solutions of choice for subtractive manufacturing, additive manufacturing, and robotics and how they interact.”

PwC: What is that vision?

Gonzalo Martinez: We don’t believe that additive manufacturing is a replacement of traditional manufacturing. They are in fact complementary and will need to work together. Our vision is to provide the software solutions of choice for subtractive manufacturing, additive manufacturing, and robotics and how they interact.

There are already machines that combine additive and subtractive manufacturing for complex geometries, such as the multiaxis milling machines with laser deposition welding. The first operation may be subtractive manufacturing on a milling machine to remove material. Then the head changes on the fly to use laser deposition welding to do additive manufacturing, depositing metal over metal. After that the machine can come back to a subtractive tool to remove a minimal amount to keep the surface in perfect tolerance.

PwC: How are you executing against that vision?

Gonzalo Martinez: While in the past we largely catered to professionals, today Autodesk caters to three distinct groups: professionals, hobbyists- also called prosumers, and consumers. In these three segments, we are building software that touches all of 3D printing.

We are developing many software innovations to aid the ecosystem we serve. A key area of focus is to make our solutions easy to use and access. For example, we are offering our solutions via the cloud, as we have done with our product Fusion 360 for the professionals. This web-based 3D modeling tool is very user friendly while supporting complex designs. You don’t need to own the application; you can rent it and pay for usage only. It can be very affordable depending on how you rent and use.

For consumers we have solutions such as Tinkercad and 123D, which are even simpler and can be accessed from a web browser.

To help make 3D printing more accessible, Autodesk is also developing Spark, an open and free software platform that will improve the information exchange between design software and the 3D printer. For example, software can make automated fixes and optimizations to the design before production begins. We are also including APIs [application programming interfaces] with Spark to enable a broad group-from materials science companies to crowdfunded startups-to access and innovate with 3D printing.

We believe that tightly integrated hardware, software, and materials will be critical to accelerating innovation in 3D printing. Therefore, we will also be releasing a 3D printer as a reference implementation that demonstrates the power of the Spark platform and exemplifies emerging 3D printing user experiences.

PwC: Why is simplification such a big focus?

Gonzalo Martinez: We know that traditional methods of manufacturing require a lot of training to operate the software and the machinery, involving significant time and investment. Such requirements were fine for engineers and trained professionals.

But 3D printing is different. If you have access to a printer, you can produce complex things very, very fast with minimal manipulation between the user and 3D printer. The 3D printer will ask you a few questions, which you answer, and in less than a minute, your 3D printing experience already started.

“The simpler we make the process, the more users can take advantage of 3D printing technology.”

We saw the opportunity and the need to simplify a lot of customization and fabrication. We conducted some experiments inside Autodesk and realized that 3D printing is very much about the overall experience. It is almost like playing a game-a game of designing and making, all very affordably. The software should facilitate this experience and make it seamless. The experience spans design, visualization, and fabrication. Fabrication can be on a connected printer or at a service bureau. The simpler we make the process, the more users can take advantage of 3D printing technology.

PwC: How is that different from traditional manufacturing?

Gonzalo Martinez: In traditional manufacturing, the typical scenario starts with a blank canvas on which engineers create their designs. We saw the opportunity to do something more interesting by giving users a starting point based on a product or object they had. Today, everyone has the capability to take photos with their smartphones and such. What if you take pictures from different angles of the physical object and ask, “Can you build me a three-dimensional model from these pictures?” The Autodesk 123D Catch app builds 3D models from pictures. You can then manipulate the model or send it to a printer.

PwC: A key trend in 3D printing is to move toward multiple materials and colors in a single print. How does software handle this capability?

Gonzalo Martinez: This issue is less about the design software and more about the communications formats or standards. That aspect is completely broken today. The information from CAD [computer-aided design] software to a printer is transmitted in STL [STereoLithography] file format. The STL file format is basically the shape or the form of the product and is very simplistic. It does not understand multiple materials or colors.

There is movement to go beyond STL to AMF [Additive Manufacturing File Format], and there’s something even beyond AMF that the hardware manufacturer and the software manufacturer are looking at.

When design software communicates multi-material or multi-color information, then in printer software a person must assign what materials and what colors will take part in that process, and that assignment can be tedious. We are working to simplify this communication.

We must solve this issue for the full ecosystem to make finished products and not just prototypes using 3D printers. Once you start making finished products, the material choices will go far beyond the 150 or so that are in use today.

“It is no longer enough to communicate just topology information.”

PwC: Given the history of Autodesk, it is natural that you would create design software for 3D printing. What other types of software are you investing in?

Gonzalo Martinez: Today, if you want to 3D print a part from titanium or stainless steel and you try to compete with traditional manufacturing, 3D printing would cost more. On the other hand, you could hollow out the part and keep material just where you need it for strength and other requirements. So you could have a part that is one-tenth the weight but as strong as the part made by using traditional methods. For certain applications, this approach would make business sense-in aircraft or cars, there will be tremendous savings on fuel over the life of the product.

The challenge is how you make things lighter using software. At a microscopic level, you might use a lattice-like structure or honeycomb-like construction. Such challenges are ripe for software applications. You can build honeycomb structure in between the walls of a product to make it lighter and stronger and easy to produce using 3D printing, but building that structure would be close to impossible using traditional methods.

PwC: It sounds like software has a role in optimizing the design, such as for weight in the example you used. Are there other areas?

Gonzalo Martinez: Yes, optimizing designs for key performance characteristics, be it weight or thermal performance or others.

In the other areas, the optimization has to do with printing. One issue has been the reliability of the print. Some designs print OK; others do not. Designs might lack the appropriate orientation or support structure during printing. The printer might give error messages on open gaps and so on.

In some cases, we are improving solutions already out there. For example, some automated support-generation solutions use a lot of additional material. We developed the algorithm that can reduce by 90 percent the amount of support material used and still provide the necessary support structure to build that complex geometry.

Along these lines, we are doing a tremendous amount of work to make sure that our core products-such as AutoCAD, Inventor, Fusion, and others-would generate 100 percent proof STL files that are ready to be printed reliably.

Also, on our research side, we are investigating how to accommodate multiple materials, since the STL format communicates only the shape and topology and no information about materials or colors.

PwC: Already, 3D printing has the capability to print a complete system and not just a component. How will software support that capability?

Gonzalo Martinez: Yes, indeed, 3D printing can print complete complex systems. We are thinking beyond that, as engineering of the future will be different from the way it is today. Since 3D printing can allow electronics or sensors to be embedded during the fabrication process, the design tools should accommodate that capability and integrate those details in information communicated to the printer. It is no longer enough to communicate just topology information.

For example, any product with embedded sensors and electronics will use multiple materials. So we need to communicate what material goes where during fabrication in a single process. Today CAD software doesn’t do that. If there’s a particular way the printer will fuse the metals at a certain point on the metal sintering devices, you should be able to specify it

Today, the CAD software provides the shape and then the 3D printing software will help you to indicate what material and color you want and so on.

PwC: So there’s a shift here from communicating only topology to communicating a lot more than topology.

Gonzalo Martinez: Yes. It’s communicating materials, circuits, sensors, and other aspects of any complex system.



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