3D Printing is the process of making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive layers of a material. For more than a year, according to Google Trends, 3D printing has been catching the attention of tech media and consumers alike. It has also created it's own set of specialized publishing magazines including 3ders.org and 3dprintingindustry.com. In fact Gartner placed consumer 3D printing at the top of the Hype-Cycle for Emergent Technologies, 2013. Clearly, this technology is moving fast.
InNumero LLC, a Swiss startup, released the first web API for 3D printing, CR8 • CREATE. This API computes the geometric and topological properties of STL, OBJ and PLY files, which are commonly used in 3D printing. On top of common measure like volume and surface, this API uses fast proprietary algorithms to check for thin walls and self-intersecting faces.
Here is an interview with Alessandro Usseglio Viretta, founder of the first Web API for 3D printing, CR8 • CREATE.
ProgrammableWeb (PW)- What’s the rationale behind the move of creating a web API for 3D printing?
Alessandro Usseglio Viretta (AUV)- 3D printing used to be a technology employed almost exclusively in engineering, industrial design, and a few other business areas. More recently, 3D printing started evolving to serve more consumer-oriented applications. Most of the software to create, process and analyze 3D models is still oriented towards large-business applications. I’m talking about market leaders like Autodesk and Magics. Not everybody is ready to fork out thousands of dollars to license a professional software package. In fact, Shapeways, a leading 3D-printing-as-a-service company, provides extensive tutorials on the use of open-source software for 3D-printing application.
Unfortunately, the available open-source software is desktop-based, fairly complex to use and cannot be readily employed to process a large numbers of files, which is a requirement of many new businesses. Our API fills this gap in the market.
PW-What’s the basic functionality of InNumero’s CR8 • CREATE API?
AUV- CR8 • CREATE API performs several geometric and topological measures on STL, OBJ and PLY files, which are the most widespread in 3D printing. In a nutshell, it provides all information needed to compute the manufacturability of a model and quote its print price. On top of measures like volume, surface, water-tightness, facet, edge and vertex count, our API can accurately locate walls thinner than a given threshold and robustly count the number of connected (adjacent) and disconnected mesh components.
PW- What advantages does CR8 • CREATE offer?
AUV- Blender’s 3D Printing Toolbox can also compute the 3D model’s wall thickness.
First of all, Blender’s algorithms suffer from some issues that make them unreliable in a number of circumstances. On top of that, their performance decreases rapidly with the vertex count of the 3D model. After studying the performance of the available solutions, we developed enhanced, high-performance algorithms written in hand-optimized C, which are presently the state-of-the art in the field.
PW- What’s the target market of your API?
AUV- On the top of the list are 3D print service providers, 3D design marketplaces and the developers of the software bundled with 3D printers.
The leading 3D print shops, like Shapeways and Sculpteo, developed e-commerce solutions that can sometimes still be a bit slow to analyze and measure 3D models. Smaller shops are processing the files by hand, one by one, which is a waste of time and money.
3D design marketplaces can use CR8 • CREATE to process in real-time the designs uploaded by their users, to check their manufacturability and to attach metadata that can be used to index them in a search engine.
Finally, our API can make the life of the producers of 3D printers easier by taking care of part of the processing needed before a model can be printed. Using a web API instead of a desktop application also has the advantage of allowing the development of 3D-printer specific web apps.
Think of a Dropbox for 3D models, where all the model’s measures, print time, print costs and possible print-related issues are pre-computed and displayed side-by-side with the 3D model.
PW- How do you intend to extend and enhance CR8 • CREATE?
AUV- We are already working on the next features. To give you an example, CR8 • CREATE’s next update will be able to measure whether the distance between any mesh component in a single file is within a given range. Think of a wristwatch band, where the distance between the moving parts cannot be either too small or too large, so not to affect its manufacturing or functionality.
PW- Is there any limit to automation in the processing of 3D models?
AUV- Mesh repair is a hard nut to crack. Although simple mesh defects can be easily repaired automatically, major issues with a 3D mesh still need to be solved by a human expert. The reason is that repairing a mesh in the right way often requires an understanding of the object that the mesh represents, pretty much like the correct translation of a sentence requires some understanding of its meaning. Just like automatic translation systems are getting better and better, I expect to see automatic repair improve dramatically in the next few years.
PW- Who are the customers of CR8 • CREATE API?
AUV- As some startupers like to say, “we eat our own dog food”. CR8 • CREATE API is extensively used by our e-commerce solution for 3D print shops. I mentioned earlier that the leading 3D print shops developed their own e-commerce website solution. We provide a more modern and faster one to all those 3D print shops that do not have the experience or resources to develop one.
Think of Shopify for 3D print shops.
PW- What got you interested in 3D printing?
AUV- How did I get here?
I follow very closely technology trends. I spotted an opportunity, a market gap, and set to exploit it.
3D model file processing is just yet another challenge that requires the set of skills that I honed since my young years. I worked in several fields, from particle physics at CERN, to computational neuroscience, from molecular biology and genetics to financial risk management. Data analysis, number crunching, mathematical modeling, software design and coding are the common background of all my previous occupations.
I have Physics background and PhD in Neuroinformatics from ETH Zurich.
PW- Any risk factors that your foresee?
AUV- If I dont’ mistake, it was Y Combinator’s Paul Graham who once said that every startup needs a miracle to succeed, but should not need more than one. The miracle I need is the widespread adoption of 3D printing.
So, 3D printing is definitely here to stay!
Summary- Well 3D Printing is definitely an increasing technology to watch and the entrance of APIs in this space mark a new milestone. Can I use an API to print my shirt, my gun or my gadget by 2020. I guess the brave new future will tell.
Dr. Alessandro Usseglio Viretta is a physicist with a doctoral (PhD) degree in Neuroinformatics, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology - ETH Zurich. Alessandro is the founder of CR8 • CREATE, a Zurich-based Swiss company that develops and markets solutions for the 3D print industry. CR8 • CREATE's first product, an e-commerce solution, is in private beta