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Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing by Hod Lipson, Melba Kurman

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Chapter 6

Design software, the digital canvas

Design software shapes our world. Behind almost every architectural model, product prototype, and completed product lies a computer design file. The chair you are sitting on, the stapler on your desk, your car, even the buttons in your shirt were digital before they became physical. Computer design files are the language of modern engineering.

Design software is the heartbeat of 3D printing. Like the pencil and paper hand drawings that guided Victorian shipbuilders through the construction process, a design file tells a 3D printer how to print.

A word processor for drawing

The first crude, primitive computer-based design tools appeared in the 1950s and were used by researchers and scientists for specialized calculations and crude computer-based simulations. Early commercial design software came onto the market in the 1960s and cost about $500,000 (sold by a company called Control Data Corporation). When I was an undergraduate, we envied the PhDs who “got time” on a CDC mainframe. This gigantic computer took a minute to render a design model, something your cell phone can run thirty times a second.

In 1982, John Walker, the CEO of a small software company called Autodesk wrote an internal memo to his employees. He described his vision for a radical new design software product. He passionately pitched this new product as a low-cost “word processor for drawings” that would run on a microcomputer. At about the same time a few thousand miles ...

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