You've probably heard about 3D printing, a way of converting a computer file into a solid, physical object using a specially designed printer. The technology has been around for more than a decade, but it's always been the realm of industrial designers and manufacturers that could spend tens -- even hundreds -- of thousands of dollars on printers the size of refrigerators.
Now it's coming to your desktop, courtesy of AutoDesk, a developer of sophisticated software known as CAD (computer-aided design).
AutoDesk this week launched two impressive software applications: One allows you to convert a picture (actually a whole bunch of pictures) into a digital file that can be printed as a solid plastic or metal model, while the other is used to convert a computer model into a sort of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle made of cardboard or other materials. And best of all, the software is free, and if you don't have a 3D printer (who does?) you can upload the files you create to an AutoDesk partner, which will give you a cost estimate and then manufacture and ship as many of the objects as you want.
Actually, 3D printers have gotten a lot cheaper; the folks at AutoDesk told me you can buy one for as little as $1000, but I assume you won't run out and acquire one right away. I'll give you the highlights of my 90-minute visit with AutoDesk to talk about 3D printing, but I'd urge you to visit the company's Web site (and the links I provide below) to find out more.
Print in 3D or make a 3D jigsaw puzzle
3D printers are similar to inkjet printers, but instead of depositing ink on a page, they create three-dimensional objects by laying down successive layers of liquid plastic, powdered metal or other materials on top of a base. The better the printer, the more resolution-- that is, detail -- the object will contain.
The statue of Buddha, pictured above, was printed and rendered into plastic using AutoDesk's new program called 123D Catch and a 3D printer. To start the process, an AutoDesk employee slowly walked around the statue, taking a series of 50 or 60 photos from different angles. Those photos were then uploaded into the program and sent via the Internet to an AutoDesk server where they were converted into a 3D file.
The file was then moved to a 3D printer, which produced the statue. Because it's so large, it would cost about $800 for you to do the same thing, but a smaller version of the Buddha statue would only cost about $50, said Hendrik Bartel, an Autodesk senior product manager.
The program also allows you to convert those same photos into a 3D animation you can post on YouTube or email to someone else.
Because all of the complex calculations to turn the photos into a 3D file are performed in the cloud, you can run the program on a standard Windows PC. A Mac version of 123D Catch will follow in the not-to-distant future.
A second -- and for now, Mac only -- application called 123D Make takes a 3D image of an object and converts it into a file that in turn instructs a laser-guided saw to inscribe a pattern onto a flat surface such as cardboard or wood. The patterns can then be cut out and assembled by the end user (you) to form a 3D model of the original image.
The easiest way to grasp this is to think about starting with a solid object, and then slicing it vertically or horizontally or at an angle. Before long you'd have a bunch of flat slices sitting on your desk. The program numbers each slice and prints out directions for reassembling the slices into a 3D model that you glue together. The original images can be imported from another 3D program or you can work with one of the images that comes with the application.
Obviously, very few of us have laser-guided cutters, so you can simply upload the file to AutoDesk, get a cost estimate from one of the company's partners, who will then send you a stack of cardboard with the puzzle pieces laid out and ready to be cut with a sharp knife and assembled. Those puzzles would make great holiday presents, though some younger recipients might find the puzzle a bit, well, puzzling.
Catch and Make are part of a larger family of AutoDesk consumer 3D printing products which you can read about here.