The Home Makerspace: The Autodesk 123D Suite

Update: On Dec. 16th, Autodesk announced they would be shutting down the 123D App family in “early 2017”.  Most apps will become incorporated into their 3 powerhouse apps: Tinkercad, Fusion 360, and ReMake.

This week I took some time to explore Autodesk’s 123D family of CAD/surface modeler/maker-magic software.  123D uses cloud-based social community and project storage to allow makers to sculpt, design, manufacture and share  complex 3D parts.  Autodesk worked hard to provide a free, intermediate level CAD ecosystem which was free and accessible to the beginning to intermediate user.

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Autodesk’s 123D is one of the most mature software families (6 years and running) and serves as a stepping stone to professional level CAD software.  It is appropriate for intermediate skill hobbyists and students with previous CAD experience.  I have had the most success using this software with upper middle and high school students.

I love the concept and the capabilities of the software suite, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Makerspaces are spaces where people make interesting things, projects they become passionate about.  In designing makerspaces for school or home, I like to think about capabilities, rather than specific tools or materials.  Makerspaces can have a woodshop, or it can be a 3D printing paradise.  A makerspace can be artistically bent collection of crafts for the very young, or a sophisticated workspace dedicated to electronics.  The passion and learning matters in the makerspace, not the tools.  But the tools certainly help.  And they are super fun to play with!  This is part of a continuing review of maker tools for use in the home or classroom makerspace with an eye towards young people.

The 123D Suite can be divided into two categories:  programs to design with and programs to make with.

Programs to Design With

Sculpt+

Sculpt+ allows makers to create complex characters and creatures which can be exported for animation, 3D printing and other creative pursuits.

Strengths & Uses:  This software allows artistically-bent artists to design organic shapes and objects.  I’ve found this program quick to start, fun to play but very difficult to master.  It might have something to do with my artistic ability, which resides somewhere between “non-existent” and “goofy-dad-folk-art”.  I can see this as a great tool in an art-centered studio or makerspace with older students (upper-middle and higher) who want to take their work to the next level.

Limitations:  only iOS & Android OS, best used with stylus/touchpad.   If you don’t have the right software, you can’t sculpt.

Catch

Catch is a miracle program: the user takes pictures of a real-life object and the program will generate a 3D “capture” of the object.  When integrated with other software, this program creates 3D selfies, captures public art and really lights a fire in a maker.

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Limitations:  Great idea, many, many bugs.  Catch utilizes cloud-computing, which may or may not work depending on a number of factors.  First and foremost, the user must take roughly 8 to 20 pictures of an object in a clear space with great lighting.  Interrupted internet service on the user or by the cloud server will stall out the process, long downloading and processing times wear on you and many times your photos don’t even work.  I tested two objects; a person and a large statue.  I spent a total of five hours trying to move from photo to usable file for printing.

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Lastly, Catch will eventually become ReMake for the PC.  I’m unsure the plans for the iOS version, but designing curriculum around unsupported software is asking for trouble.  If you are a PC-centered classroom, use at your own risk.

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Strengths:  It worked.  Great photographs make strong captures make great prints.  A definete plus

Design:

Do you need an exactly-measured part, such as a phone case or servo mount?  Do you want to give your kids a taste of semi-professional CAD tools?  This is the program for you!

123D Design

Limitations:  Clunky visual system.  I grew up as a CAD user in the SketchUp ecosystem. When I began teaching CAD, it was the only free software out there.  It took quite a while for me to used to Autodesk’s workflow: workplanes, sketches and Boolean operators.  I’m still not well versed, but I don’t feel the need to table-flip my computer every twenty minutes anymore.

Strengths:  Free.  Upgrades into professional/educational standard CAD programs.  Integrates seamlessly with most 3D printing software, such as Makerbot Desktop or Cura.  Exports in .stl & .obj for uploading on www.thingiverse.com or other 3D libraries.

TinkerCAD

Can’t download or install programs on your computer because your IT guy can’t do his job right?  Don’t really need to create something incredible, just a quick part?   Need something for the absolute beginner?

Strengths:  Great, integrated tutorials.  Access to a huge project library.  Low-threshold, high ceiling, uses building blocks for more power software.  Easy to use toolchains. Completely online and browser-based.

tinkerCAD

Limitations:  Limited constructive ability.  TinkerCAD uses primitives as its main building tool and allows the user access to two Boolean operators, add and subtract, to create more complex shapes.  Super users can program custom scripts

Programs to Make With

Make

Make creates files for use in vinyl cutters, laser cutters and the like.  Any 2D plotter machine can be used to generate sculptures, prototypes and more.

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Strengths:  Best working program in the entire suite.  Easily modified for different machines and situations.  It reads .obj and .stl files, exports in multiple sheet PDF or DXF, so it coordinates with most laser cutters, CNC machines and vinyl plotters.  Highly recommended.

Meshmixer:

Meshmixer can do it all:  modify models, sculpt characters, prep for 3D printing, even build models from the ground up.

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Strengths:  Fantastic 3D prep tools and preview capability for 3D printing.  Meshmixer can take captures from 123D Catch or SketchUp and create “water-tight” models ready to be printed.  Utilizes many of the same organization tools in the 123D family, which means as you increase your skills in one (especially 123D Design) you increase your skills here.

Limitations:  Crashes all the time, so constantly save your work.  Many of the same issues with 123D hold true here – clunky visual system.  The select tool is a big  mystery.  Selecting parts/portions of a model can feel like an exercise in futility.  Documentation from AutoDesk is non-existent, though documentation from users is available.

Thank you for your continued support.

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