Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Do you have 3D CAD?

Today's guest blog is from Scott Harmon, Z Corporation's Vice President of Business Development.

There is presently a great deal of interest in the notion of consumer 3D printers. The key question on everyone's mind seems to be when will we have one of these magical machines? However, as I have said before, 3D printers are pretty useless without 3D CAD. So to answer the question about when will 3D printers show up in the home, it might be pretty interesting to figure out how many people have and use 3D CAD.

I have personally heard estimates that range from 1 mm to 5 mm seats. Of course, these estimates are based primarily on professional CAD packages like Solidworks, CATIA, PTC, Invento, and the emerging Spaceclaim, etc. Most of the experts I have spoken to think that the approximate number of real, active seats of 3D CAD is around 1million. Not a small number, but there are 6 billion or so people on the planet. 1mm seats of 3D CAD would suggest that the penetration of CAD seats in the world is somewhat akin to the percentage of communists in Texas. Not zero, but not exactly ready for mass adoption.

Now obviously this is a bit misleading. There are a lot of ways to make 3D data that don't require real professional 3D CAD. There is a wide array of what could be referred to as 3D visualization tools available. These range from professional tools for animation and architecture like Maya, 3ds Max, FormZ, Mudbox to free tools like Blender and Google Sketch Up.

So yes, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can acquire software that allows them to create 3D items. Some people clearly do. I suspect that most do not.

I know many of you are engineers and architects. So what do you think?  How many seats of engineering 3D CAD do you think there are in the world?  How many seats of other CAD do you think exist?


  1. Hello Scott,
    I posted a comment on your March 16th blog and it also very much applies here re the notion of consumer 3D printers and your statement that 3D printers are pretty useless without 3D CAD. Consumers and CAD do not mix easily and free tools like Blender and Google Sketch Up are still CAD which still pose challenges for more general consumer use and working creatively. People on the arts and applied arts side do want to, and are engaging with this amazing technology but the gatekeepers (i.e digital design/technology teachers/technicians) still mostly have an engineering/CAD background and do not seem to grasp that there is an issue regarding 3D modelling software usability, cost and steep learning curves especially if you are from the arts and applied arts. I look forward to comments about and around this very interesting topic.

  2. Hi Ann Marie,

    We agree 100%. For 3D printers to become a serious hit with consumers, the tools to create 3D data will need to become much more intuitive and easy to use. Cloud9 is a great way to step into 3D modeling, especially for people without training in or access to CAD. The software is robust and easy to use. It also integrates with the most inexpensive haptic controller, and it outputs great files.


  3. Hi Scott,

    If a goal is to expand the market of 3D printing to the consumer, expecting consumers to model ideas from the ground up, via CAD, presents a few hurdles as Ann Marie pointed out. Creatives are more apt to dive in but the average consumer likely considers it impossible or too time consuming to CAD a quality model that can justify them "getting in the game." It seems this and other factors keep 3D printing beyond reach of the consumer.

    In my opinion, to truly generate momentum in the consumer market requires a simple "capture-print" solution. Printing something in 3D must be a simple and rewarding process/experience at the consumer level. As you mention, this starts with the creation of an 3D object or file.

    Consumer grade 3D scanners will be integral to progression and mass consumer adoption of 3D printing. Although your above article focuses on CAD, not scanning, the current line of zcorp solutions suggests you have an eye on the aspect of "3D capture" as well. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this side of things.

    I have invested much time and research in line with this topic and would jump at the opportunity to discuss more with you. If you are willing, please feel free to contact me at your convenience.

    So glad I came across your article!

  4. Hi Brooks,

    Excellent point!! You could not be more correct. There are two paths to 3d data, and consumers may well be more inclined to do 3d data capture then 3d design. The other advantage is that 3d capture is largely a matter of processing power, which as we all know is getting faster and faster. There’s already an iphone app for 3d capture (Trimensional). Admittedly, it’s pretty primitive right now, but it’s only the beginning. I have heard from some pretty reliable sources that 3d still cameras will be in consumer hands in 3-5 yrs. There are some pretty cool companies already working on consumer services for 3d data capture, like iAM ( and Vizardz (, and I know that more are on the way. I’ll try to do a more complete posting on low cost / consumer oriented scanning in the near future.


  5. I agree with Scott! I think the 3d Cad software will expand in popularity once the public can easily access them and know their functions.