Is 3D printing ready for prime time? Even its most ardent enthusiasts would likely answer no to that question — the startup costs and technical training needed to get the most out of a 3D printer continue to make the technology an exclusive one enjoyed by hobbyists and employed for industrial purposes, but used by few mainstream consumers.
Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8.1 update could change all that. With Windows 8.1, a preview of which was made available last week, Microsoft has added a "direct pipeline" from 3D printing applications to 3D printers, according to Rob Roberts, a product manager in Autodesk's Consumer Group.
The addition of a 3D printing pipeline to Windows 8.1 means a 3D printing file of an object could be emailed to a recipient, who could then simply open the file and hit "Print," pushing it over to a 3D printer to begin constructing the model.
Perhaps that doesn't seem like such a huge deal. But as Roberts noted, current 3D printing requires users to go through a complicated set of steps with 3D printing "mesh" files to ready them for printing. Using the new Windows-enabled pipeline in an application makes 3D printing as near to a simple plug-and-play operation as regular old 2D printing.
Autodesk has done just that with its free 123D Design application, which Roberts demoed on the exhibition floor at last week's Microsoft Build developer conference in San Francisco. In conjunction with a MakerBot 3D printer, 123D Design utilises the Windows Blue 3D printing pipeline to take 3D printing files and push them directly over to the printer to construct objects.
Autodesk's updated 123D Design software isn't yet available to the public and Roberts said the software company doesn't yet have a timeline on when it will be released. But he said the in-house version demoed at Build is the first 3D printing application to take advantage of the new 3D printing pipeline in Windows 8.1 — in fact, there's even a big "Print" button that pops up in the demo software's Main Menu screen.
So what does 3D printing with Autodesk 123D Design look like?
This is a screen capture of Autodesk's free 123D Design (showing the Windows version, but it also runs on Mac and as a powerful online web app). Autodesk is the first company to write apps with "Print" in its Main Menu. The entire suite of 123D apps (available free at 123dapp.com) has the 3D Print button. When you click it your model is sent to the Autodesk 3D Print (A3DP) Utility.
When the A3DP Utility opens the model it immediately checks it for errors. The user then can choose the printer and colour of material. When you download a 123D app like 123D Design or 123D Catch or 123D Make, the installer will ask if you'd also like to install A3DP. You are not using just Autodesk apps — if you already have a 3D model (maybe you downloaded it from the web or a friend emailed it to you) you can open it directly in A3DP and optimise it for 3D printing. From there you can send it to a MakerBot or save out an optimised model (a mesh actually, the most common file format being ".STL") and print that on any 3D printer.
Hollowing the model is a mesh operation that allows you to save plastic and printing time by instructing a 3D printer to use less material inside an object it's layering. Objects built by 3D printers can be completely solid, completely hollow, or partially filled with lattice-like structures that provide structural integrity.
At the end, when you press "Print," the Autodesk 3D Print Utility attaches the model to a print ticket and submits it to the MS Printer Pipeline (just like a normal inkjet 2D print work flow is handled). The printer driver runs in the background, no more windows open, and the printer just starts printing. In this screenshot you can the new Microsoft 3D Print Queue opened on the right side of the screen, which informs us what's in line to print.
Microsoft Windows 8.1 also has some built-in 3D printing tools like the new 3D Viewer for Windows, which you can see on the right side of this screenshot. It looks and functions just like the Picture Viewer we're all used to — you can move the model around, choose a printer, and press "Print." It's very basic and doesn't have any mesh-optimisation features. You need to already have a 3D model from somewhere for this to open as it is not a content creation tool.
Last month we took a look at Buccaneer, the 3D printing startup that has made waves on Kickstarter.