3D printers have gotten to the point that they can print just about anything you can imagine (yes, even food). But while we've been focusing on better machines and more insane prints, you may have forgotten about the most important step that magically turns a digital file into a physical object--the software.
Last weekend, I got the chance to spend some time with software developers at MakerBot's first ever hackathon. MakerBot, in partnership with Thingiverse, invited programmers from all over New York to its scenic World Headquarters at One MetroTech Center to develop new 3D-printing apps using the Thingiverse API. It was an enlightening experience that demonstrated how much easier it has become to create a 3D-printable file, and let me get a glimpse of a coming 3D printing apps revolution.
The importance of software evolution
Years ago, creating a CAD file for use with 3D printing was something only savvy users of AutoCAD could do. Eventually, in 2006, Google heard the cries for a simplified--and less expensive--3D rendering tool, and released a free version of SketchUp.
The software, which is now owned by Trimble, makes modeling as simple as drawing lines in Microsoft Paint. Last January, Thingiverse worked to make 3D printing even easier by developing the Customizer app to allow you to modify 3D objects without having to draw anything at all.
Tony Buser, MakerBot's senior Web editor, told me how the Customizer app lets anyone create a 3D-printable model file without any previous design experience. The goal of this event was to open up the same API that powers Customizer and allow programmers to develop other apps that work with Thingverse.
To someone like me who doesn't know that much about programming or design, taking a digital file and turning it into a physical thing seems like magic. And Tony explained that making the transition from your screen to the real world is not so simple. He gave me an example of how an object rendered on your screen might look fine, but the actual printed object might be thinner than it needs to be. In other words, you have to account for the physical limitations of both the material and the printed object itself.
"[W]hat we're trying to do with this hackathon is to make the programming side easier for average users," Tony told me. "So they won't have to know all about these limitations or specialized skills to create printable objects. The programming we're doing is to make that as simple as possible."
At the same time, the increasing popularity of 3D printing means more demand for new 3D printing apps. This MakerBot hackathon might just be the next wave of new uses for 3D printing.
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