2008/03/20

Open Source 3D Software: Summer of Code

The Google Summer of Code is a perfect vehicle to improve the capabilities of 3D software for use in the MIT Fab Labs.

Whilst researching the options available for 3D software which might be used with 3D printers and other tools in the Fox Valley Technical College / MIT Fab Lab, I read about the possibility of a coder getting $4500 for working on K-3D as a Google Summer of Code project.

If someone is interested in this opportunity, the K-3D wiki says the proposal deadline is 31 March 2008. In order to have our proposal, we'll need to get in gear quickly!

The 3D printers in the Fab Lab need 3D computer files describing the objects to be manufactured by the printer. Those files can be generated by a 3D scanner if both a scanner and a copy of the object to be made by the 3D printer are available. If the scanner or a copy of the object are not available, the 3D object source files for the printer need to be generated with a 3D modeling program such as SolidWorks or Catia.

It's unreasonable to expect everyone who will use a Fab Lab to buy SolidWorks and Catia for use at home, school or work -- the programs cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. The Fab Labs themselves are also unlikely to allocate funding to buy more than one copy of these expensive programs if they can find satisfactory open source software to use instead of SolidWorks or Catia.

Very expensive software programs tend to also be very powerful but very complex, with a long learning curve. Many people using a Fab Lab will not have the time or desire to become skillful at using the complex 3D programs even if they were willing to spend the money to buy the program. While some Fab Lab users will be skilled 3D program users, it is highly desirable to have an entry level design program available for 'the rest of us.'

Finally, one of the goals of the original Fab Lab was to be able to learn from others and build on their ideas and designs. This goal can best be encouraged and facilitated by use of free or open source software. Designing 3D objects with software tools that are free to use and free to be modified is a good way to promote free sharing of designs and computer files for those designs.

With the above scenario in mind, it would be beneficial if the FVTC Fab Lab could identify and develop one or two packages of free or open source software for designing 3D objects. There should be a basic design package for use by individuals with minimal knowledge of 3D computer programs and another package for people who are either very knowledgeable about 3D modeling or are willing to spend the time and energy to become skillful with a powerful 3D design program.

The open source 3D power package currently focuses on Blender. Blender was originally written as an animation program, so it has some issues with respect to 3D object designing and modeling. However, Blender appears to be the main free or open source 3D design program for Fab Labs. The Blender community is pretty active and the program is a good starting point for Fab Lab users to learn about open source 3D modeling. Some additional 3D modeling tools listed on SourceForge include:
  1. K-3D
  2. Art of Illusion
  3. BRL-CAD
  4. FreeCAD
  5. MeshLab
At this point, it appears the basic package will start with Google SketchUp. It is much easier and much more fun for a beginner to build a 3D object in SketchUp than it is for them to do the same item in Blender. This program is not open source, but it is free and the SketchUp 3D Warehouse is a good example of people sharing their designs with the rest of the world. There is information available on how to import a model from SketchUp to Blender, which can then be used with the 3D printer.

Back to the purpose of this post -- a Google Summer of Code (GSC) opportunity to develop a great 3D modeling tool for use in the Fab Lab. Wouldn't it be cool if one or more programmers were hired by GSC to work on open source software for use in Fab Labs around the world?! We know for sure that the K-3D project has two opportunities for GSC. There might also be opportunities either this summer or during the summer of 2009 to do some GSC work with Blender. And since SketchUp is a Google product, there might be interest in having a GSC coder develop strong collaboration between SketchUp and one or several of the more powerful 3D modeling tools such as Blender or K-3D. If the right proposal is developed and some good connections made, we should be able to pull in 3D printer manufacturers to support these coding efforts with gratis 3D printers and/or collaboration with their in-house software writers.

The opportunity is there. The question is, can we mobilize quickly enough to get a project going in the summer of 2008, or will other priorities mean that the primary goal will be developing polished proposals for the 2009 GSC program?

If interested in helping with a proposal for either 2008 or 2009, please contact the Fox Valley Technical College Fab Lab or me (bwaldron [att] gmail {dott} com).

*****

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