Autodesk CEO Carl Bass first saw a 3D printer in the mid-1980s. He was the head of his own computer graphics company then and was invited down to a factory to check one out. He expected to walk into a full industrial warehouse and instead found an empty space with a 3D printer the size of a soda machine whirring away in the middle.
“There was this vat of fluid with lasers going, and this thing just emerged out of it,” he says in a board room in Autodesk’s offices in San Francisco. “I thought it was magic. I thought within two years we’d all have them.” He adds that people, even him, often forget how long it really takes for something to become mainstream.
Where to outsiders it seems that 3D printing and maker culture went from overnight obscurity to getting name-dropped in this year’s State of the Union address, Bass has watched the weather change in real time. He joined Autodesk in 1993 when it bought his company Ithaca Software. He left in 1999 and returned in 2002 when Autodesk bought his next company, Buzzsaw, and he rose up the chain to be named CEO in 2006.
Autodesk has been making engineering, construction and manufacturing software for three decades. Such is the technical nature of what it makes, you’ve probably either never heard of it, or are intimately familiar with its products.
To Bass, the manufacturing revolution and explosion of maker culture is a confluence of different trends. In the early 2000s, 3D-modeling software started to take over from 2D blueprints in manufacturing. Detailed, digital prototypes could be made easily that mimicked the real thing, allowing for complex simulations and structural analysis.
“It means that today, if we built this room I could understand all the details of it, the acoustics, the lighting, before I even built it,” Bass says.
A few years on from that shift, mobile devices and cloud computing became prevalent, which has supported easier project collaboration and allowed for “immense amounts of calculation.” Bass says that the shift into the cloud changed our perceptions of computing from that of a fixed to an infinite resource.
And then when you take those changes in software and computer power and add in a forever expanding range of lower-cost consumer 3D printers and CNC-mills alongside much more robust and sophisticated industrial models, the stars have aligned for a manufacturing revolution, Bass says. It has put hardware within the reach of the proverbial “three guys in a garage,” which excites him.
Bass isn’t so sure that the tools emerging from this revolution get their due, but instead are being overlooked at the expense of the culture that has driven it. His “a-ha” moments, as he puts it, have been around looking out at groups of people coming together to share and create of their own fruition. Autodesk’s Instructables site, where people share the stories behind making everything from pie to metalwork, gets 20 million hits a month. Autodesk released an app called Sketchbook, allowing someone to sketch with their finger on a screen, and it was downloaded 25 million times. There’s a new generation of tinkerers and hobbyists set to emerge.
On the consumer side, Bass doesn’t see 3D printers ever making it into every home the way televisions and telephones have, but that doesn’t mean everyday consumers won’t be using them.
“I think what you’ve seen recently in technology is a shift to a world of access, not ownership,” he says. “Look at Airbnb, or Zipcar, or even TechShop. Young people want the access and exposure without the burden of ownership.”
Every local community may one day have their own futuristic Kinkos equivalent. It’s a trend we’re already starting to see with TechShops and MakerSpaces popping up in cities across America. But every home? Probably not.
The industrial manufacturing sector is changing rapidly with new technology. Quality used to be a maniacal focus of manufacturing, but quality is now table stakes, rather than a differentiator, Bass says. 3D printing and new manufacturing styles allow for high quality products to be made at low cost. For today’s manufacturers, agility, time-to-market and innovation are the most important factors. 3D printing will allow for high-value, low-volume production runs to be done close to home.
“All we’re seeing now is glimpses into the future,” Bass says. We don’t yet know how this will end up.
This new renaissance is blurring the lines between hardware and software companies. For its entire 32-years in operation, Autodesk has been a software company that works closely with manufacturing equipment to ensure its serving its customers in the best way.
“I wouldn’t rule of the possibility of hardware in the future for Autodesk,” Bass says. “Eventually the machines will become more indistinguishable and differentiated mostly by the software.”
“Look at Google,” he continues. “With Android, some days they’re a phone maker and some days they’re not. Look at their self-driving cars. Is Google going to become a car manufacturer? It used to be that things were sacred. But I no longer see that hard line.”
3D printing and new styles of manufacturing have the power to remake even a mainstay like Autodesk. Bass is a devout maker. He’s making a go-kart with his son in Autodesk’s facility in Pier 9. Still he shies away from fixed predictions, timelines and forecasts. The revolution is heading somewhere big, but with the pace of change today, it’s nearly impossible to predict where.