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Autodesk 123D: A Fusion-Spawn for a New Market

Autodesk 123d, a free push-pull 3D modeler based on Inventor Fusion, now in Beta.

Autodesk 123d, a free push-pull 3D modeler based on Inventor Fusion, now in Beta.

123D contains sweep, loft, revolve, mirror, and other sophisticated commands traditionally found in professional mechanical modeling packages.

123D contains sweep, loft, revolve, mirror, and other sophisticated commands traditionally found in professional mechanical modeling packages.

Symmetry function, under Freeform command, lets you create symmetrical geometry on either side of a workplane.

Symmetry function, under Freeform command, lets you create symmetrical geometry on either side of a workplane.

The dam broke when Google unleashed SketchUp, a free software that makes modeling as easy as pushing and pulling on faces. The software’s easy, intuitive approach did something most parametric CAD programs couldn’t do — allow someone to start modeling a part in less than an hour. By its success, SketchUp forces CAD software giants — and many CAD users — to rethink the conventional wisdom that 3D modeling has to be difficult.

Following SketchUp’s emergence, Dassault Systemes released 3DVIA Shape, an easy-to-use, push-pull 3D modeler that lets you create fairly detailed objects without a lot of efforts. Aimed at attracting people with little or no experience in mechanical modeling or industrial design, the software is a dramatic departure from Dassault’s professional products, like SolidWorks and CATIA.

In May, Autodesk launched its own easy 3D modeler, dubbed Autodesk 123D. The software, currently a free Beta download, is described as “a free solid modeling software program based on the same Autodesk technology used by millions of designers and engineers worldwide. Not an engineer? No problem, with Autodesk 123D you can design precise and makeable objects using smart tools that let you start with simple shapes and then edit and then tweak them into more complex shapes.”

The software looks and feels like a limited version of Autodesk Inventor Fusion. Current export/import options are limited to the software’s native .123d, DWG, STEP, and STL — not an extensive list that would allow you to freely exchange and edit files with suppliers using other CAD programs, but enough to create something ready for a rapid prototyping machine or a service bureau.

It offers the same push-pull geometry editing and face rotation that Autodesk introduced in Inventor Fusion. The software comes with a Freeform command, which lets you pick a spline or an edge and reshape its profile by manipulating the control points. The same command gives you Symmetry, which lets your geometry edits from one side to reflect on the other side.

But there are a few peculiar interface behaviors I noticed. In creating solids using the Sweep command, for example, you’d have to select the profile, select the sweep path (so far, so good), then select the Boolean glyph and set it to New Component (that threw me off a bit). Until you execute the two later steps, you won’t be able to see a preview of your sweep profile. After selecting the profile and the sweep path, the software doesn’t give you a text prompt about the Boolean glyph (what is that anyway?), so you might be at a loss as to how to proceed. (I was, until I begrudgingly decided to consult the online Help.)

Such quirks, of course, are not uncommon in a Beta release, so we can expect Autodesk to refine 123D’s interface in later versions. The new software is a spawn of Inventor Fusion, technically a history-free CAD program, so it may not be that easy for those unfamiliar with CAD protocols to figure out on their own (that is, compared to a package like SketchUp). That’s where the vast collection of multimedia tutorials Autodesk has created will come in handy.

Autodesk 123D’s launch is accompanied by the debut of a new content-sharing portal, similar to Dassault’s 3DVIA.com and 3DContentCentral.com. The searchable content database includes certain standard mechanical parts (such as fasteners, shafts, pipes, tubes) and popular objects (such as vehicles, electronic devices, and spacecrafts). Currently, the models are only available in the .123d format, native to Autodesk 123D software. The embedded viewer at the site lets you preview mesh models and shaded models from your browser before you download it.

The 123D initiative also involves 3D Systems, a rapid-prototyping machine maker; TechShop, a member-accessible workshop locations; and Ponoko, a service bureau that will help you create your digital model into a physical one for a fee. These partnerships advance 123D from a simple digital modeler to a physical part making tool. It also brings Autodesk closer to a new market — amateurs, hobbyists, 3D enthusiasts, craft-fair participants, garage-bound tinkerers, and homegrown inventors. Sometimes called DIYers (Do-It-Yourself-ers), they are characterized by a desire to experiment, tinker, build, and produce personal objects.

It’s a market also courted by SolidWorks, a Dassault subsidiary, and Alibre Design, a Texas-headquartered CAD developer with a low-cost option ($199) for personal use. Autodesk and SolidWorks both lobbied to place their software into the hands of TechShop members, through CAD classes offered at the workshop locations. Currently, Autodesk software classes heavily outnumber classes devoted to other CAD software brands at TechShop. Alibre continues to recruit users for its Alibre Design Personal Edition at the annual Makers Faire, a haven for craft-makers, artists, and the do-it-yourself crowd.

Though Autodesk and its major competitors currently cater to the professional market, they’re evidently keeping an eye on the horizon beyond, where many younger consumers, nurtured by Google SketchUp, may be ready for their first taste in an introductory CAD program.

For more, watch the video report below:

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About Kenneth

Kenneth Wong has been a regular contributor to the CAD industry press since 2000, first an an editor, later as a columnist and freelance writer for various publications. During his nine-year tenure, he has closely followed the migration from 2D to 3D, the growth of PLM (product lifecycle management), and the impact of globalization on manufacturing. His writings have appeared in Cadalyst, Computer Graphics World, and Manufacturing Business Technology, among others.


  1. Hi Ken,

    Nice article, I missed a mention of our (PTC’s) Creo Elements/Direct Modeling Personal Edition – our 3D CAD software for free lifetime use introduced in 2007.

    The Personal Edition uses the same 3D direct modeling approach and technology used in our commercial version, and we’ve seen that users who come from a 2D design background find the approach much easier to use and apply when working in 3D.

    The software has over 200,000 registered users, and the latest version can be downloaded from http://www.ptc.com/offers/tryout/pe3.htm

    Best Regards,
    Geoff Hedges

  2. Anyone reading this article knows the important role sketching tools play in the design process, but they also know that concepts can take a LONG time to manifest themselves into a final product. For example, it took 400 years for Leonardo Da Vinci’s first sketch of a helicopter, called the Helical Air Screw, to become reality – when French inventor Etienne Oehmichen built and flew “the product” one kilometer in 1924.

    As part of its new Creo app family, PTC will be unveiling its latest sketching tool – Creo Sketch – in about a week at its PlanetPTC Live user group event. Creo Sketch is a dedicated, easy-to-use, fast 2D freehand drawing tool. Users can be up and running, creating first sketches and designs in minutes.

    For more info check out: http://www.creo.ptc.com.

  3. Hi, I found your blog when looking for a story behind the (IMO for AutoDesk pretty revolutionary) GUI. Didnt find it here, but you wrote an interesting post!

  4. Thanks for your interesting and informative review.

    As one of these shed-workshop ‘DIY-ers’ and I find Autodesk 123D to be quite a powerful and useful tool.

    I do agree that the user interface is nowhere near as intuitive as sketchup, but then sketchup has far fewer functions.

    Autodesk 123D has in my opinion quite a generous set of export formats. I export in *.stl format into the excellent CamBam and from there into EMC2 and that works perfectly for me, and just as important the price is right! (free)

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