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Autodesk launches $100m fund to back 3D printing ideas

04 November, 2014

Autodesk, the company behind AutoCAD, has announced plans to invest up to $100m in 3D printing businesses in the next few years. It has set up a fund to back entrepreneurs, start-ups and researchers who push the boundaries of 3D printing technology and “accelerate the new industrial revolution”.

Earlier this year, Autodesk announced the launch of an open and free software platform that links digital information to 3D printers in a new way. The platform, called Spark, connects to any hardware and will work with any 3D printing materials. Its aim is to make it simpler and more reliable to print 3D models and easier to control how that model is printed.

Autodesk is now inviting the 3D printing community to collaborate, build and improve the Spark platform, as well as its associated Ember 3D printer and materials.

It is asking companies and individuals developing hardware, software, materials and markets to apply to apply for backing from the new Spark Investment Fund. As well as the financial investment, recipients will become part of a partner program and have access to marketing and other services.

Autodesk hopes that the funding will “extend and empower the Spark ecosystem” and spur 3D printing innovation.

“The days of taking a closed, top-down approach to innovating for additive manufacturing are behind us,” says Samir Hanna, vice-president and general manager of consumer products and 3D printing at Autodesk. “Numerous industries recognise the value of tapping into entrepreneurs or start-ups with better ideas and approaches, and 3D printing is no exception. The Spark Investment Fund will empower innovators to improve 3D printing, and to help us unlock the tremendous promise of this technology.”

Autodesk has also been collaborating with Local Motors, as US-based open-source hardware innovator, to create the first large-scale industrial application of Spark – the world’s first 3D printed car.

Printing the 3D car: Autodesk's Spark links the design data to the massive 3D printer

The car, a two-seater electric vehicle called Strati, was created and assembled in five days at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. The body took 44 hours to create from 212 layers of carbon-fibre-reinforced ABS plastic. Conventional parts were used for items such as the motor, battery, wiring, suspension and tyres.

According to Local Motors, 3D printing could cut the number of parts in a vehicle’s bill-of-materials from around 25,000 to fewer than 50. Automotive manufacturers could also change aspects of their designs – or come up with new ones – with little or no extra costs in tooling or time.

The “printed car” technology was developed by a Local Motors team working at the US Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). In collaboration with the machine-tool maker Cincinnati, the ORNL team has created a “big area additive manufacturing” machine, similar to a fused deposition modelling printer. They took a 2 x 4m bed laser-cutter and added custom hardware to transform it into a massive 3D printer. Spark connects the vehicle’s digital design data to the 3D printer.

“The Spark platform is set to accelerate manufacturing innovation,” says Alex Fiechter, head of community management for Local Motors. “From capturing our ideas more accurately to guiding Design for Additive Manufacturing (DFAM) and simplifying the creation of machine code, Spark will help us to turn digital models into an actual physical production parts far faster than was previously possible.”

“Local Motors recognises the capabilities of the Spark platform for industrial manufacturing projects,” says Hanna. “This collaboration is a natural fit to push the boundaries of large-format 3D printing to fundamentally change how things are designed and made.”

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