While 3D printing is disrupting norms and breaking boundaries, software application development is dancing in tandem; opening the door to an array of tools that improve design collaboration.
While 3D printing hardware is steadily maturing, the process taken to design an actual object is also making great strides, achieving new ways to advance from concept to final prototype. It’s causing us to reengineer how we work with our clients, initiate changes, engage partners, and accelerate fabrication. The days of emailing your CAD files to clients already seem like a distant memory. Significant software advancements are changing the way we think about design collaboration.
Collaborative software is rapidly broadening in choice and capability, beefing up the design process with enhanced workflow, change communication, extensible APIs, utilities, and marketplace ecosystems. Throw in a dash of open source seasoning and you’ll soon have customized tools that bend to your will, helping your clients or partners realize the additional value add of working with you.
In this post, I’ll identify six solutions that take the collaborative design process in different directions, albeit achieving similar goals. From group file sharing and messaging to dynamic BOM generation and materials sourcing, they offer a versatile buffet menu of capabilities that make life easier before, during, and after the development cycle.
Autodesk’s SPARK 3D Platform is a full featured, open source, collaborative ecosystem that provides customizable suite of features for engineers, designers, and entrepreneurs. Companies are lining up behind SPARK for different strategic reasons. Microsoft recently announced full integration with Windows 10, HP has added it to the Multi Jet Fusion line, and companies such as BigRep One, Ultimaker, Dremel, and ExONE have also committed. At this time, the SPARK API is open for early access testing with further adoption on its way.
So what is SPARK? According to Autodesk, SPARK is designed for customized workflow on-the-fly; supported by an extensible API library that enables businesses to add and customize 3D printing functionality around its applications. SPARK hopes to alleviate the clash between proprietary technologies and fragmented workflows. By improving the process of how it’s made, as opposed to just making it, a convergence of software, hardware, materials, and service will dance in unison. It’s essentially a universal 3D printing pipeline, complete with backend synchronicity that spans and supports your entire creation and fabrication process.
Creation, Input, Preparation, Output, and Fabrication are the governing phases in SPARK’s workflow. Under each of these phases, a host of open source API options will be available to help unify disparate technologies that are specific to your business. Print preparation not in sync with your service bureau’s output? SPARK may have an app for that. A consistent, universal language that will transition your design through the pipeline with ease. One ring to rule them all.
When it comes to focusing on engineering collaboration, GrabCAD Workbench represents. Across multiple industries worldwide, engineers rely on GrabCAD to help streamline people, content, and technology together. Acquired by Stratasys in 2014, GrabCAD is a free, cloud-based collaboration tool for sharing, viewing, and managing of design data. Backed by almost 1 million free CAD models for download, GrabCAD is feature packed for community or team based design projects. Originally developed in 2010, GrabCAD is now used by GE, Autodesk, and Tiffany & Co.
At its core, GrabCAD Workbench helps engineers manage and work with files while engaging with clients, partners, or other team members. It acts like a maestro to an orchestra, helping to ensure each instrument is played on-time, on cue, and loud enough so everyone else hears it. All changes are communicated and coordinated, versions of models synced and tracked, and real-time information awareness is achieved between parties. Workbench brings all of the players together for the dance: customer, designer, supplier, and manufacturer on one single platform to get the job done.
Designed with the engineering team-process hierarchy in mind, Workbench features an abundance of utilities to help move the design forward while preventing duplicate work, lost revisions, or unauthorized file changes. It links desktop, mobile, and online access together, streamlining changes through a “CAD Agnostic” approach thanks to its ability to work with nearly every CAD file known to man. It also provides file storage and backup for your team; integrated with engineering specific functions that traditional applications such as DropBox just won’t do.
GrabCAD features include neutral format conversion (STEP, IGES, STL, etc.), version history tracking, revision communications, change overlay viewing, and even the ability to markup models live in front of an audience across the web. Search filters provide an easy way to navigate through assemblies and once parts are found, users can reuse existing components from other designs instead of having to recreate it. In the complex web of distributed teamwork, GrabCAD serves as a link to all parties involved. From change authorization to dynamic BOM generation, everyone is singing the same song.
While it hasn’t launched yet, Talk3D takes a more intimate level when it comes to one-on-one collaboration between designers and clients. Talk3D focuses on “3D communication”, providing a series of tools to help visually communicate design changes or modifications using an integrated online viewer. The platform provides record keeping for designers, allowing them to maintain customer profiles, notes, or follow a project’s history.
Revisions are marked and tracked, messages are disseminated between team members, and an integrated payment system lets designers send quotes to clients in real-time. Talk3D will soon offer a built-in escrow service, providing additional payment security for all parties involved.
3D Printer OS is a unique player in this area, essentially being the first to design an operating system specific for 3D printing. It’s a multi-faceted tool, allowing users to optimize files for specific hardware, track user information, and manage a network of 3D printers in unison from any location. Additional tools are developed and integrated into the OS, with the strategy of developing a library of utilities for all of your 3D printing support needs. Current tools include 360 ° viewing of models, automatic file repair, cloud-based slicing, extensive management for multiple file types (.AMF, .STL, .OBJ, Gcode, etc.), and NETFABB Basic for advanced fixes.
There is also a professional services component attached to 3D Printer OS, allowing their team to help your business debug firmware, write custom APIs, or even white label a product on their behalf. For educational institutions, 3D Printer OS allows students and teachers to manage 3D printers, share files, and manage multiple print jobs at once.
SyncFAB bills itself as an “on-demand design & local manufacturing platform” and they mean it. There’s a host of activity going on each day. Through a built-in RFP and RFQ process, manufacturers and 3D printing service companies collaborate and bid on everything from prototyping to full run production projects. Designers and Engineers are answering the call to 3D modeling, concept design, and engineering projects. At the same time, entrepreneurs and inventors are searching the site for localized services to help them with their next big idea. To round out the party, materials manufacturers and 3D printing service providers are working with potential clients to fabricate goods or plan production capacity.
Everyone involved is essentially collaborating within the SyncFAB platform; planning, bidding, quoting, tooling, and creating ideas. From design challenges to buying and selling 3D models, SyncFAB is a fusion of distributed manufacturing and engagement. Membership is broken down by type (Novice, Professional, Executive, Academic, and BioAcademic). Within that hierarchy, customers decide on who they should approach (Manufacturer/3D Printer, Designer/Engineer, Entrepreneur/Sponsor, and Materials/Services). This integrated web of archetypes help customers navigate the process for launching concepts, acquiring 3D models, receiving advice, building prototypes, manufacturing products, and of course, getting paid.
SyncFAB is well established, working its way on becoming a collaborative supply chain sourcing platform that oversees the entire process. As a result, users with different skillsets are working together to help democratize design and production.
If Skynet ever becomes real, there’s no doubt that BOT Queue may be involved. Version 1.0 has been released on GitHub, allowing users to control multiple 3D print jobs for production purposes. As 3D printing advances small scale manufacturing, BOT Queue intends to run a small army of 3D printers in unison around the clock, initiating mass production. This open source application enables distributed 3D printing, tasking multiple 3D printers to grab jobs in the print queue and manufacture them. After each print is completed, BOT Queue nags the user to remove the object and verify its success. If the print looks good, BOT Queue starts the next print job automatically and continues until the print queue is empty.
What makes BOT Queue dangerously cooler than Skynet is the ability to access, manage, and control all of your 3D printers from anywhere in the world. The aim of BOT Queue is to help maximize a 3D printer’s running capacity while streamlining the manufacturing phase for design collaboration. If you’re working with a client on small production runs, BOT Queue may one day be the “hive mind” that’s collaborating with other 3D printers for you.
Wide, wide, world of collaboration
Software collaboration for 3D printing is beginning to hit its stride, helping to fuel creative approaches for solving the cross sectional complexities during product development. With incredible possibilities for all parties involved, collaborative solutions for 3D printing has an interesting trajectory ahead of itself.