In the last of a five-part weekly series, The Manufacturer talks exclusively with Autodesk’s senior marketing director for consumer and 3D printing, Mary Hope McQuiston about the future of 3D printing, education and engaging the next generation.
The Manufacturer (TM): What is Autodesk doing to herald a greater industrial adoption of 3D printing?
Mary Hope McQuiston (MH): Autodesk wants to help all participants in the 3D printing eco-system, whether hardware manufacturers, materials scientists or product designers, to really push innovation forward because even though the technology has been around for more than 20 years, it’s become pretty stagnant.
[In 2014] Autodesk really focused on bringing the future today. We decided that there really needs to be a big push to drive more revolutionary change versus just the incremental change. The potential of the technology is huge, not only in terms of what things are made in the future, but how. Despite the hype and interest in 3D printing and additive manufacturing, the actual reality has fallen way short so far.
What’s holding the technology back is the fact that the process of getting digital information to 3D printers is complex, fragmented and closed. We hope by opening it up and getting it connected, we’ll see some real innovation, hence our Spark [a free, end-to-end open software platform for 3D printing], Spark Investment Fund and Ember printer [a reference design for Spark].
TM: [Autodesk CEO] Carl Bass has commented that the key to pushing additive manufacturing forward is the intersection of software, hardware and materials, would you agree?
MH: Absolutely. The intersection of not only design software, but also that which is used to prepare a model for printing and the actual software that drives the printer itself, combined with hardware and look to see what’s possible on the types and properties of materials in order to get away from prototypes and plastic small format items and really push it to a much larger scale.
The opportunities offered by 3D printing are really only limited by people’s creativity. By providing the platform, we hope to see people take it further and develop numerous applications on top of it. I don’t think we can even begin to anticipate what users are going to do with it.
TM: What is Autodesk’s strategy to encourage industry to embrace such a disruptive processes?
MH: We, as a company, are disrupting ourselves, and we would encourage manufacturers to do that themselves. In the consumer world, the experience seems to be that if you provide the crowd access to tools (both digital and physical) and access to capital through platforms such as Kickstarter, then some incredible things are produced.
Many of our manufacturing customers have expressed a firm interest and are excited by the opportunities the technology could bring, especially considering that some of the larger companies are currently maintaining multiple 3D printers in their organisation, so are in desperate need of standardisation. That’s one big pain point that they’ve expressed, and we’ve addressed with Spark.
TM: How is 3D printing and additive manufacturing helping to engage with the next generation of engineers, mechanics and designers?
MH: Autodesk has a very strong presence in education and we provide access to all of our tools, both professional and consumer, for free to students, teachers and institutions. That’s key, but I also think that having champions is equally important, individuals who are willing to go out into the community and be the face of these technologies and have compelling projects that get the kids interested.
I’ll never forget the queue snaking around the building for the first 3D printing show I attended, and the reaction from the children was just fantastic. They are now so used to the digital world, for them to watch something physical being made and see the design on the screen really made them go wow and get excited about the possibilities. So we’ve got them interested, but the important thing is having the projects in place to capture that initial enthusiasm and nurture it to keep them engaged.
We have seen the next generation do incredible things already. A young Belgian boy was so enthused after attend being introduced to 3D printing at a TED X conference that he convinced his Dad to allow him to start designing on Tinkercad [a web-based CAD tool]. He ended up producing eye glasses for kids in developing countries and has a foundation which helps him to achieve that goal. You just have to give them access and let them go.
One thing we heard is that almost half of all 3D printers sold into schools end up sitting idle because there’s not the curriculum and tools in place to really take advantage of them. So in the US we’ve been trying to help teachers by giving them the complete package, and trying to educate the educators.
The reality is that often the students understand this technology better than the teachers, so how do you enable them to be the facilitators and the guiders versus them having to be the experts on every bit of technology themselves. Looking at how teachers can self-serve and help students progress from beginner to intermediate to advanced.
TM: How have Spark and Ember been received since being announced?
MH: We announced Spark in May 2014 and we have 16 initial partners, which we will continue to move forward with; but it’s less about the total number and more about looking at those who can help us push the platform into different areas.
We announced the Spark Investment Fund at the end of October 2014 and so far we’ve had more than 400 applications. We are just getting started on Ember and getting it into the hands of material scientists, hardware engineers and researchers who are wanting to push it, take it apart and challenge it; that’s the first wave.