One of the difficulties in making personal fabrication a reality is the difficulty of most CAD packages. Learning how to use a program like SolidWorks takes 2,000+ hours, or a year of 40 hour weeks. That will slow down adoption, not to mention the need to understand material properties and engineering principles. A couple new products are attempting to make the learning curve a little shallower by building some aesthetic algorithms into their software.
Beautiful Modeler for iPad
“Beautiful Modeler” is an iPad/desktop hybrid app. You touch a series of dots on the iPad screen and as you drag them along the surface, the physical model on a desktop deforms in response. It is a very neat, “Minority Report” style interface.
Once your model is complete you can export the file to .STL format it and send it to a 3D printer. The main weakness of the systems is that unless you are a digital Michaelangelo you end up with something like this:
If you are curious it is a “lamp“. Technically interesting, but aesthetically lacking and functionally suspect.
Slicer is a simple plug in for Google SketchUp that takes a 3D model and turns it into thin sheet data. This is a very helpful tool if you are trying to turn 3D data into 2D parts. For instance if you want to make ribs for the hull of a boat, or some kind of flat pack furniture with organic curves. The downside to this software is that it presupposes a significant level of skill with a 3D modeling package. Thanks to @DrWave for the link!
Ultimately, to make great 3D objects you are going to need to invest time becoming a great digital sculptor or an amazing technical developer. Tools like these are interesting shortcuts for niche applications, but lack the depth to replace bespoke solutions and designs. If you want to get a sense for how difficult developing truly entry level CAD systems can be read Chris Hecker’s “Liner Notes” on the technical development of the game Spore. The Spore Creature Creator was an amazing feat of software engineering that allowed anything you created to come alive. It cost $20MM to develop and still flopped so even if you have the technical skills and funding, market risk still exists. Getting there will be a challenge, but we do it will be an interesting time for creativity.