You might remember that, in May, rapid prototyping printer maker 3D Systems and CAD software maker Alibre struck up a partnership to bring you a RP-CAD bundle for as little as $1,500. It appears the partnership was just prelude to an acquisition.
Abe Reichental, president and CEO of 3D Systems, revealed, “There was already a deal in progress at the time we announced the marketing partnership in May. It was coincidental, in that our 3D printer channel manager approached Alibre to discuss and suggest a partnership, not knowing the two companies were already engaged in advanced acquisition discussion. So we just allowed [the marketing partnership] to happen organically.”
This month, 3D Systems bought Alibre Software, bringing an affordable CAD package into its portfolio. In the announcement, Reichental explained, “With Alibre in our portfolio we are personalizing and integrating design and manufacturing productivity. The combined affordability and user friendliness of our expanded 3D content-to-print solutions offer a clear and compelling choice for engineers, designers and makers to create and make instantly, at work and home.”
Beside traditional engineers and designers, Alibre also caters to hobbyists, tinkerers, homegrown inventors, and craft-fair traders with its Aliber Personal Edition ($199). One of the hurdles new users must overcome is Alibre’s parametric modeling tradition, well-known among long-time CAD users but not always easy to grasp for beginners.
Reichental said, “Classic parametric technology requires too much of a learning curve … it excludes less expert users … We believe there is room, there is space — particularly for the do-it-yourself users and garage entrepreneurs — to create a simple, intuitive CAD package for those audiences. And also for youngsters, kids in elementary, middle school, and high school ages to partake in this exciting 3D revolution.”
Direct modelers like SpaceClaim have had great success by allowing users to use Google SketchUp-style push-pull modeling methods to create 3D geometry, bypassing the need to learn parametric principles altogether. Other parametric software makers — Siemens PLM Software, PTC, and Autodesk, to name but a few — are revamping their own flagship CAD packages to include more direct-editing features.
Reichental wasn’t specific about how he plans to simplify Alibre software, but one possible approach may be to follow in the footsteps of rival packages like Siemens’ Solid Edge with Synchronous Technology, PTC Creo/Direct, and Autodesk Fusion to include more direct-editing tools. (Alibre offers push-pull modeling in its higher end professional package, but not in its low-cost Personal Edition.)
For Alibre software users, little change is expected, as Reichental plans to use Alibre’s own distribution channel and support network to keep the well-oiled sales machine going for the most part. “We’re very impressed with the quality of [Alibre's] reseller channel … we’re excited about their own online, outbound sales capability,” he said.
3D Systems’ grand plan is to “evolve Alibre from a company into a brand,” revealed Reichental, adding, “In our mind, we’re not in this to be CAD vendors. We’re here to offer design productivity tools. That will include some of the SYCODE plug-ins.”
India-headquartered SYCODE, which develops and markets plug-ins for major CAD packages, was founded by Deelip Menezes, who also maintains a blog about the CAD industry. In April, 3D Systems acquired Menezes’ company and gave him directives to establish 3D Systems India.
“We’re particularly excited about the opportunity to expand the field of use in bona fide education and consumer applications at entry level, and in full-fledged manufacturing applications on the high end,” said Reichental.
Part of the challenge in preparing 3D models for 3D printing is the need to strip out certain features or to adjust the geometry to make the mode fit for print (for example, increasing the thickness of wafer-thin walls so they can be printed without the risk of collapse). Bundling a consumer-level 3D printer with an easy, intuitive 3D editing software will go a long way in making 3D printing more accessible, especially in emerging markets where buyers usually don’t own or routinely use CAD software.
For more, listen to the complete audio interview with Abe Reichental.
On Saturday May 22, as midday approached at Maker Faire Bay Area, I was frantically trying to reach Paul Grayson, CEO of Alibre. It was 30 minutes past our appointment. He was somewhere in that swelling tide of people (estimated 90,000), rolling through 48 acres of fairground. His PR firm has provided me with his cell phone number and his booth number, but neither was of much help. When I got a hold of him on the phone, his voice was drowned out by the sound of whirling gadgets and buzzing electronics. The map that came with the show guide didn’t include booth numbers. I was about to give up when I stumbled on him in the press room, giving an interview to a reporter.
Maker Faire, an annual event organized by the editors of Make magazine (“Makezine” for those in the know), attracts the do-it-yourself types with a knack for arts, crafts, and science. Know how to put together an autonomous robot that tosses balls? Want to learn how to turn your old cigar box into a mandolin? Have a solely-for-pleasure engineering project you want to showcase? This is where you might come to teach, learn, or share.
The maker-tinkerer phenomenon, one of the cornerstones of American entrepreneurship, is as old as the country itself. It gave us Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, among others. What’s new is the fast-growing maker communities, fueled by the rise of social media and the plunging cost of technology.
For engineering software developers like Grayson, this is a new field of opportunity, with plenty or unclaimed pastures and prairies. With a 3D modeling package selling for $99 (less than the price of an iPod Nano), Grayson believes his product has an advantage over Autodesk, SolidWorks, and other big names among this exploratory, hobbyist crowd. That’s why the six-foot-tall Texan (one of the few donning a dark suit at the fair) is marching down the aisles, rubbing shoulders with DJs who transformed their music into psychedelic colors, a Burning Man crowd that reprised their pyrotechnic centipede, and a composer who automated a traditional Indonesian orchestra (the contraption is dubbed The Gamelatron).
Two days before he flew down to California for the fair, Grayson had his PR people issue an announcement. “Alibre announces Alibre Personal Edition, for entrepreneurs and inventors at Maker Faire.” It’s meant as “an industrial-strength, parametric solid modeling system with integrated 3D solid modeling, part and assembly design, associative 2D drafting, and STL export, all at a hobby-friendly price.”
“We want to make it possible for ordinary humans to make things,” proclaimed Grayson. “And that’s really what Maker Faire is all about. Of course, we’re focused on a particular type of things — mechanical products that’s precise, need to be manufactured.”
People who routinely use CAD programs are no stranger to Alibre. Last year, Grayson stirred the engineering software community by slashing its software’s price from $999 to $99. The Personal Edition is what Alibre has been selling for $99 first, later for $97, then back again for $99.
So why negotiate the $3 difference? Grayson admitted, “I’m kind of a crazy marketing guy at heart. I try things. Sometimes my own staff get mad at me because I keep changing it. But it’s part of my nature to want to try new things, experiment, and see how people would react to it.”
In the past, average people couldn’t afford to cut, finish, and assemble their own custom robots, because manufacturing facilities weren’t (they still aren’t) designed to cater to tinkerers looking for a low-volume production run. But today, with an affordable 3D modeling package, you could export your design as an STL file and print it (yes, print it in 3D) at a service bureau. The same workflow has spawned a viable industry revolving around printing customized avatars (from such online games as World of Warcraft or Second Life).
Perhaps you have heard of Zipcar, the company that lets subscribers pick up and use vehicles from a pool of cars for a low daily rate (for San Francisco, the advertised rate is $73 for weekdays, $88 for weekends, or $7 per hour). Gas and insurance are included in the plan. It’s ideal for those who must drive occasionally, but don’t have to (or don’t want to) own a car.
TechShop is the workshop equivalent of Zipcar. Would you ever need to own a laser cutter, a metal welder, or a milling machine? For most, the answer is, “Probably not.” But sometimes, when inspiration strikes, you might want to churn out a pair of laser-engraved earrings or a welded sculpture. For roughly $125 a month, TechShop allows its members to use its 15,200 sq. ft. facility, equipped with grinders, vinyl cutters, sewing machines, chop saws, band saws, 3D printers, and computer workstations. (Fresh brew coffee, pop corn, and WiFi also come with access to the place.)
Something else you get at TechShop: CAD training (for additional fee, not part of membership). On July 6, for example, you can begin a 9-hour SolidWorks course (3 hours a week), to learn not just how to model but also to export your design to be produced in 3D printers, laser cutters, and mills onsite. If you have more time to spare, you can also take classes on mold making, fabrication, soldering, and basic electronics, all under the same roof where you might later put those skills to use.
Currently, TechShop has two locations: Menlo Park, California; Durham, North Carolina. But more shops are set to appear in San Francisco, San Jose, Portland, and beyond.
“None of this stuff was available to the amateurs 10 years ago,” said TechShop’s founder Jim Newton, waving at the hardware he’d brought along to Maker Faire. “Our members like instant gratification. They want to get something done. It may not be a long-term thing they want to do. So a software like [Autodesk] Inventor is particularly good for that.” With this crowd, a complicated software that takes months to learn just won’t cut it.
“Something interesting tends to happen with TechShop members,” noted Newton. “Somebody would have an idea for a product. They’d make 50-100 units. Then they can put it on eBay and sell it. We’ve had lots of people who spin off a business that way.”
The maker movement is a surging force, driven by personal creativity and the desire to produce something tangible. The outcomes range from mildly amusing, wildly impractical, to possibly market-ready. This is also unfamiliar territory for professional software makers. Whereas CATIA, NX, and Pro/E may carry more weight over smaller brands in automotive and aerospace, should they choose to compete for attention at Maker Faire, they’ll probably need to compete on equal terms with Alibre and the rest.
After grabbing headlines with its $99 offer, Alibre Inc. released a new version of its flagship MCAD package. Available in Standard, Professional, or Expert editions, Alibre V12 offers a series of new functions, including the ability to mark features by different colors and generate sheet metal files from 2D line drawings. For more watch the video below:
If you’re still deliberating whether or not you should snatch up Alibre Design Standard for $99, you should know the countdown has begun.
Max Freeman, Alibre’s VP or marketing, notified me in an email: The offer ends September 29, 2009.
Alibre began offering its basic MCAD program, Alibre Design Standard, for $99 in the first week of August. The company is also getting ready to deliver the next release, Alibre V12, sometime in September. So the “ridiculously low price” (Alibre’s words, not mine) for the current version, V11, seems to be drawing to an end.
But in the final four weeks of the sale, Alibre plans to lure more CAD buyers to its site with special deals on a few optional add-ons:
- Training Bundle (currently $99, regularly $399)
- Alibre Translate (currently $99, regularly $499)
Though less publicized and less dramatic in discount, Alibre is also running special offers on Alibre Design Professional (now $944, regularly sold $1,848) and Alibre Design Expert (now $1,494, regularly sold for $2,398). Note that these prices include support and product updates for a year.
What Exactly Do You Get for $99? I tried answering this question by downloading and running the 30-day trial from Alibre. But figuring out the content of Alibre Design Standard, I discovered, takes some deductive reasoning. (Will Sherlock Holmes please step forward?)
What you get to try out is not Alibre Design Standard but Alibre Design Professional, with some add-on modules turned on. To figure out what you’ll be left with if you choose Alibre Design Standard, you need to identify which features will go away after 30 days (because they require either a license of Alibre Design Professional or an add-on, which costs extra). Working backward in this fashion, I arrive at the basic chart shown above.
The grumbles it overheard about the confusion caused by its downloadable trial’s setup prompted Alibre to take swift action. The company recently added to its site a page detailing what you get and (perhaps more importantly) what you don’t in each edition of Alibre. This page greets you once you’ve completed the personal info form for the special offer:
For more on this topic, read the following posts and watch the video below:
In what’s described as “the boldest marketing initiative in the history of 3D CAD,” Alibre this morning begins offering Alibre Design, a product previously sold for $999, for just $99.
The whopping 90% discount is bound to get CAD buyers’ attention. It’s already fueling a lot of retweeting (voluntary redistribution or the news) on Twitter among CAD developers and users. The unprecedented move suggests Alibre is waging an all-out war against not only its competitors but also the grim economy.
In his blog, Alibre CEO Paul Grayson characterized the offer as “a massive market share grab.” He pointed out,”The [Alibre] technology is virtually identical to that offered by Autodesk Inventor, Dassault SolidWorks, Siemens Solid Edge, and PTC’s Pro/ENGINEER. And those products normally cost $5,000 and more per seat.”
Though Alibre says the offer will run for “a limited time” only, it has yet to declare a deadline, suggesting the campaign might run so long as it continues to generate sales.
Earlier this year, in February, Alibre ran a “buy one, give one” campaign, which enables Alibre buyers to give a second seat of the same software to a designated recipient. In the announcement, the company clarified, “The recipient can be an associate, a subcontractor or supplier, a coworker, or a deserving engineer.”
In addition, the company offers Alibre Design Xpress, a lighter version of its CAD software, as a free download to entice prospective customers.
This morning, as Alibre launched its latest $99 campaign, market watcher CIMdata issued a mid-year update (a revision, to be exact) to its previous product lifecycle management (PLM) industry forecast. “The global economic situation has been even more severe than anticipated,” acknowledged CIMdata.
In March, CIMdata predicted the comprehensive PLM market (which includes CAD sales) would achieve a 6.3% compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) over the next five years. The company revised its report to indicate PLM investments in 2009 will decline 2.1% (from 2008 results) and the five year CAGR will be 3.5%.
At online CAD software distributor Novedge‘s site, Alibre Design is currently listed for $799. Franco Folini, president of Novedge, said, “From my experience, [the $100 software segment] is not an easy segment where to sell a CAD system. It can be difficult to do business in this segment for resellers such as Novedge, unless the product generates huge volumes or quickly push for upgrades to higher versions.” Folini emphasized this is his personal opinion, not Novedge’s official position.
Max Freeman, Alibre’s vice-president of marketing, said, “[Our reseller arrangements] are basically set up to where we will not out-price them and the vast majority of them are on board with the [discount] initiative.”
At this price, Alibre Design costs more than a consumer-level photo-editing product like Corel’s PaintShop Pro Photo X2 ($49), but less than Google SketchUp Pro ($495) and Autodesk Autosketch ($200 for download, $250 in a box), and the same as IMSI/Design’s TurboCAD ($99).
The price dip also puts third-party developer SYCODE, which markets its Alibre add-ons for $195, in an awkward position. In his blog, SYCODE CEO and founder Deelip Menezes revealed he’s considering a price slash too, at least to put the add-ons on par with Alibre Design’s new price.
For more on this topic, read Menezes’ blog post.
Note: A quote in the post was subsequently revised to better reflect Franco Folini’s sentiment. New information was also added to provide SYCODE’s perspective.