Autodesk looks to future of 3D printing with Project Escher

Like so many organizations these days, Autodesk is a company in transition. It was until recently a traditional boxed software company selling licenses. Today, it’s moving to a subscription model. Yet its own business model disruption is only part of the story. As a company steeped in the manufacturing design process, it’s seeing its customers looking to change as well — and it wants to be part of the leap to whatever is coming next.

Autodesk sees solving problems around 3D printing as a way it could add value to its manufacturing customers who are looking for ways to use this new technology in the product creation process. There are in fact a lot of difficult problems to solve around this approach and Autodesk is hoping to help by coming up with some clever solutions and acting as a resource for their customers.

To that end, they have launched Project Escher to help deal with a sticky 3D manufacturing problem around the limits of a single nozzle approach to printing complex parts. The difficulty is that you can only push so much material through a nozzle before you reach its physical limit, Corey Bloome, hardware lead at Autodesk explained.

The answer to overcoming the single nozzle barrier is surprisingly simple. You just add more. The devil, however, is very much in the details. Coordinating those nozzles, it turns out, is a very sticky digital problem, one Autodesk is hoping to help solve with this project.

Project Escher 3D printer with multiple nozzles.

The challenge is making sure that the nozzles don’t crash into each other, which is harder than it sounds. It’s in fact a complex programming exercise to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Project Escher is a study of sorts in speeding up the 3D printing process and providing the fastest output possible, to take what once took hours or days and reduce that timing dramatically. That speed issue has been a real challenge for manufacturers, Keith Kmetz who covers 3D printing at IDC, explained.

“Project Escher provides the brains for multiple tools to work in tandem, so that multiple sources are working on the same object at the same time. This exponentially increases the productivity of the entire system by combining the efforts of multiple tools to work on one job together. It’s another way to address the perceived speed drawback — in this case, via the coordination (the brains) of the software and multiple printing sources,” he said.

Project Escher system producing a complex part.

The printer manufacturers themselves have struggled to search for ways to overcome this limitation, says Kim Losey, product marketing manager at Autodesk. “Big industrial companies [have been] spending tens of thousands of dollars developing 3D printers specific to their applications, and if we use our control systems (Project Escher), it allows them to have a more compelling product to sell [more quickly],” she said.

Autodesk is well suited to this task, says Tim Caffrey, senior consultant at Wohlers Associates, a firm that tracks the industrial 3D printing space. “Autodesk sees 3D printing and additive manufacturing (the terms are used interchangeably) as part of a larger digital manufacturing ecosystem. The software that Autodesk sells is a key enabler to that digital manufacturing ecosystem,” he explained.

A completed part created with Project Escher printers.

The move might seem like a shift to another business from making the software to design the products, but Autodesk doesn’t see it that way. They are trying to look around the corner and see what the future of manufacturing could look like.

“This is not necessarily a pivot. This is us looking at the manufacturing business and how we are going to play a role with these customers in the future as we look ahead a few years and try to come to market [with products and solutions] to help them before they become problems,” Losey said.

And lest you think perhaps they are too far ahead of the curve, they have designed the underlying architecture to be as flexible as possible, so if the technology changes, the software can adapt.

“We design for what we can anticipate and leave openings for things we can’t,” Bloome said. He rightly points the vision gets blurrier the further out you look, and they have tried to build in flexibility into this system to compensate for that.

All photos courtesy of Autodesk.