What is Autodesk’s Forge Platform?
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on June 22, 2016 |
The integration of Spark 3D printing APIs into the Forge Platform represents a holistic view of manu...

At the end of 2015, Autodesk announced the creation of a new cloud-based platform for developers of cloud-based applications related to design and manufacturing, along with a $100 million investment fund with which Autodesk can support those who sign on to build apps for the program. An all-encompassing ecosystem, Forge features numerous application program interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) that allow for a wide variety of applications, from viewing and presenting 3D models to transforming 2D images into 3D models. 

Since the initial December 2015 announcement, the Forge Platform has continued to evolve. Among the updates surrounding the platform are the integration of Autodesk’s Spark 3D printing ecosystem into the larger umbrella of Forge and news of the first three companies to receive Forge investments.

While the incorporation of Spark into the Forge Platform may seem minor at first glance, the change represents a new approach that Autodesk is taking in regards to manufacturing. In an interview with ENGINEERING.com, Ulf Lindhe, lead of business development for additive manufacturing with Autodesk, and Mark Forth, industry strategy and business development manager, explained Autodesk’s bird’s-eye view of the future of fabrication technology.

Autodesk Spark

The Spark Platform was formed in 2014 as a means of driving innovation around 3D printing. With access to a number of open APIs related to print preparation, printer management and running a 3D printing service bureau, developers could create apps for their businesses. Examples include healing 3D models for 3D printing, making online galleries of 3D models and allowing users to 3D print directly from an app or website.

Spark was Autodesk’s first foray into 3D printing, developed at the same time the software manufacturer also became a hardware manufacturer with Autodesk’s first 3D printer, Ember. Similar to Forge, Spark was also launched with a $100 million fund with which the company would invest in promising companies, such as Carbon and Voxel8.

With the creation of Forge, Autodesk has decided to roll its Spark ecosystem into the broader Forge Platform, meant for the development of cloud-based apps in general. The company’s 3D printing APIs are still open to the public, but are now located on the Forge Developer Portal. Those already working with Spark-based software are in the process of moving their technology over to the Forge Platform with the help of Autodesk.

Autodesk Forges Ahead

The integration signals Autodesk’s intentional shift to a more holistic view of design and manufacturing, in which the method for fabricating an object should not be the primary concern for a designer or engineer. In other words, it does not matter how an object is made to the person creating it, as long as it can be made. Therefore, whether it be additive manufacturing, subtractive manufacturing or some other technology, the most important part of creating a product is the design itself.

Ulf Lindhe and Mark Forth elaborated on this more integrated approach to design for manufacturing. Both Lindhe and Forth joined Autodesk as the result of acquisitions, with Lindhe coming onboard with the purchase of Netfabb and Forth with the purchase of Delcam. While Netfabb’s print preparation software is heavily utilized by the industry for repairing files and generating optimized structures for 3D printing, Delcam has a long history of developing software for manufacturing, including metrology, inspection and milling software.

Forth described the direction that Autodesk is heading in: “We want to make all parts faster, not just in an additive context. It doesn’t matter if it’s additive or subtractive. It’s about all manufacturing processes and getting the parts to the machine as efficiently as possible.”

Lindhe used the example of Arcam hip implants to illustrate Forth’s point: “Now, doctors don’t know whether or not these implants are made with additive manufacturing. They don’t care. They’re helping a patient.” He continued, “I think 95 percent of hearing aids are 3D printed. Do most people know that? No. Once 3D printing goes mainstream, that’s the end of the hype for 3D printing. That’s a good thing because then it’s about making things and not just about using a particular technology to do so.”

To get there, Autodesk will need to incorporate all of its software into a single workflow, Forth said. “At the moment, we have our individual products and they’re beginning to talk to one another, but over time, we will create the seamless workflow we want,” Forth explained. “One way to do so is to understand exactly what the existing consumer workflow is. Then, from that perspective, we can start to migrate the products from their individual desktop solutions into the Forge Platform. Then, that Forge Platform for production innovation will move into the Fusion product.”

He continued, “At the moment, the Fusion product is an entry level into cloud-based computing and solutions. Eventually, all of the desktop products that we have that have lots of credibility in their own ways will merge to create this much better workflow and user experience. We need the credibility in each of those different silos at the moment, and then we’ll make the different connections. Ultimately, they all travel to this über solution. When that arrives, we don’t know, but we want to be developing it with that intent and that vision.”

Designing for Innovation

The duo used a 3D-printed Formula 1 engine made for Toyota to underscore just how important the end product is over the process used to make it. Companies may design for 3D printing for the sole purpose of adopting a new, much-hyped technology. In turn, their approach to designing the part might simply be to take the existing component, typically made with metal casting, and place an order with a service bureau to have it 3D printed.

Ulf Lindhe, lead of business development for additive manufacturing with Autodesk, with two 3D-printed engine components. In the foreground is a part optimized for 3D printing. Just barely visible in the background is a part that has not been optimized.
Ulf Lindhe, lead of business development for additive manufacturing with Autodesk, with two 3D-printed engine components. In the foreground is a part optimized for 3D printing. Just barely visible in the background is a part that has not been optimized.

Holding up an example of the engine 3D printed with those design principles in mind, Lindhe explained, “This is designed for casting. It weighs 5 kilograms and provides a certain amount of horsepower to the engine and speed on the racetrack. It takes about 90 hours to be 3D printed on a [selective laser melting] machine.” In this case, the part would cost about 10 times as much to 3D print as it would to cast and would have no practical benefit for the company.

The part optimized for 3D printing features a complex interior geometry that reduces weight and improves performance.
The part optimized for 3D printing features a complex interior geometry that reduces weight and improves performance.
As a result, the company may not choose to use 3D printing to manufacture it. Things change, however, if the part is optimized for additive manufacturing. Lindhe then held up another version of the component that had been improved for 3D printing with Netfabb. “This one weighs 2 kilograms,” he pointed out. “It has increased cooling area, so it’s performing way better. Put this on a racecar and the car is going to be lighter, have more horsepower and go faster. You’re going to be a second faster per lap. Suddenly you’re going to win races instead of being placed 15th.”

He added, “When it was designed for additive manufacturing, the cost also dropped. From 90 hours of printing, this went down to 4 or 5 hours with less material. The cost is about 40 percent less.” 

In some cases, designing for 3D printing may cost more or less than using traditional methods, but the innovation achieved may be worth any added cost. Lindhe concluded, “Cost and quality are becoming less of a competitive edge. It’s innovation that’s really the competitive edge. You really have to help people innovate. This engine is an example of innovation and where additive can demonstrate how we innovate.”

Forging the Future

At the company’s recent Forge DevCon, Autodesk announced the addition of new tools on the Forge Platform, as well as the first three companies that had been awarded investments from the Forge Fund. The APIs and SDKs added or expanded upon with the announcement include:

  • 3D Print API: Essentially the Spark APIs previously discussed, this tool moved to its new home under the Forge banner.
  • Reality Capture API: This API enables the translation of a series of photos into 3D data for potential use with geotagged drone photos.
  • Viewer: This tool displays 2D and 3D design files from over 50 file formats for Web and mobile presentation, with the ability to comment, mark up and measure within the viewer.
  • Design Automation API: With this tool, AutoCAD scripts, such as converting thousands of DWG files to PDF automatically, can be run in the cloud to free up space on one’s computer.
  • Model Derivative API: Files can be translated across formats, be made available for online viewing and/or have geometry data extracted for use in other apps.
  • Data Management API: Data can be managed across various Autodesk products—such as A360, Fusion 360, BIM 360 Docs and the Forge native Object Storage Service—in a single interface.
  • Authentication: This tool offers a secure way for authenticating and authorizing users to access and work with developer apps.
Autodesk has created three examples to demonstrate the applications possible with the Forge Platform. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Autodesk has created three examples to demonstrate the applications possible with the Forge Platform. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)

The first three companies to receive investments from the Forge Fund cover the areas of data capturing, online manufacturing and Internet of Things (IoT) product design.

  • 3D Robotics was awarded funds for its work in aerial data capturing using drones. With the money, the firm will continue its work with the Forge Reality Capture API to convert aerial photos into engineering data for infrastructure, surveying, construction, mapping and more.
  • MakeTime is an online manufacturing platform that leverages Fusion 360 and the Forge Viewer as well as Data Management and Model Derivative APIs to enable the purchasing of parts produced through a network of CNC machine operators.
  • Finally, Seebo relies on Fusion 360 and Fusion Connect to allow users to create IoT products through the dragging and dropping of components, like sensors, Bluetooth and GPS modules. 

While these three are the first to receive investments from Autodesk, they are not the only ones using the Forge Platform. Others working with Forge have developed apps like simulationHub, which allows for the online display of simulation models, and Vrok-it, a collaborative virtual reality app.

The Forge Platform is free to use until Sept. 15, 2016, so developers may want to get in on the ground floor now before the next evolution of Autodesk’s design ecosystem takes place.

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