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As as an educator, I am strongly in favor of free software. Classrooms have a difficult enough time without having to pay for expensive technology. While I personally favor Open Source, I have long been puzzled at why more companies do not provide free education software. It is in their best interests to ensure a continuous cycle of users and how could a company guarantee that better than by providing them an opportunity to learn their software at a young age.
Autodesk, has taken steps to support the maker and STEM community by releasing Autodesk123D for free to the public. Autodesk is famous for its CAD (Computer Aided Design) software which allows for fast and high quality designs of most major products on the market. Many who could have learned this software were unable to because they were unable to afford the high cost for a software licence. Free alternatives exist but they have either a steep learning curve, or were not powerful enough to do effective designing.
Note: Students who are members of the FIRST Robotics Competition have access to free student versions of all Autodesk Software. As if you needed another reason to start a robotics team.
Autodesk 123D's website provides you with the option to download the software (Windows Beta currently), as well as search and find already created models. This can expedite the process when you only need to modify a design as opposed to creating it from scratch. You will also find resources for printing out your model when it is done. Yes, that's right, the 3D Revolution is here and the cost of printing a prototype for fun or marketing has dropped dramatically.
Once you have downloaded the software, you will find introductory videos to get you started. Clicking on Learn More brings up the Support Website which has great videos to take you through the steps to make your first design and beyond. Considering how much Autodesk training usually costs I am happily surprised at their realization of how much this will benefit them in the long run by creating a larger base of users.
Autodesk123D has the feel of Autodesk Inventor with enough features to create a design. It is similar to Google Sketchup in many ways while being oriented towards CAD more than architecture.
Users will be able to get practice working with the workflow and part hierarchy which is critical to good CAD design. This allows the designer to see how parts are connected and see the settings and features of each part and sketch.
The design buttons are similar to Google Sketchup so if you have any experience with that software you should be able to pick up the process faster. It starts with a sketch which is then extruded (pushed/pulled) to the size you want. Like Autodesk and Sketchup you can specify the exact measurements. The other buttons allow for the insertion of Primatives or basic shapes, duplication and reflections, and assembly. The familar view block and zoom/pan tools are there as well.
My other favorite part of this program is the wise decision by Autodesk to not cut off its effectiveness by cutting it off from the rest of the community. Autodesk123D allows for saving and opening in its own special extension but will also work with STEP, Autodesk 2007, DWG, and STEP files. This allows users to access the FIRST and VEX CAD libraries of premade parts. One can also open Google Sketchup files showing they are willing to play nice with others.
This is a great piece of software but also a great decision by a company who is and will likely remain an industry standard for a long time based on decisions like this. This product is capable of inspiring and empowering design and creation and I hope more companies decide to provide free and useful versions of their software for training but also for those businesses and organizations that cannot justify an expensive software licence. There are so many tools out there that make this an exciting time to be apart of STEM. The more people who have access to these creative softwares, the better for us all.
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