Why TinkerCad is shutting down

In parallel with Tinkercad, we continued development of the core platform. In October 2012, we launched a scripting interface for one of the key components, the Gen6 geometry modeling kernel. And finally, in late 2012, we had several major breakthroughs in our research work on the core platform that opened up application possibilities we had never imagined possible.

In response to these breakthroughs, I’m excited to announce an updated roadmap. There are two major parts to the new roadmap: 1) we are working on an innovative new simulation environment called Airstone, and 2) we will be discontinuing development of Tinkercad. You can read more about Airstone in the official announcement.

via Tinkercad – Mind to design in minutes.

Tinkercad announced they were shutting down and pivoting to a different product, which was a disappointment to many users and fans of the easy to use CAD software for the masses. It honestly came as a surprise to me, as it seemed like they had people that loved their product, and they were growing as the market for 3D printer grows. So it had me wondering, what did they learn that dissuaded them?

I believe their original observation was correct: in order for 3D printing to go mainstream, the tools for making 3D models needed to be much simpler than what was available. Without TinkerCAD, your choice was either professional high-end CAD programs like Solidworks and AutoCad, or Open source and/or free alternatives like Sketchup and Blender. None of the above is easy for someone to just pick up [1]. It seemed like there was a burgeoning market for easy to use CAD programs created by people with 3D printers.

The question then is, are people willing to pay for it? As it turns out, the answer is no. Users did want an easy to use CAD program for their 3D printers, but not at $20/month, or $240 a year. At first, this surprised me, as $240 a year is a heck of a lot cheaper than a standard Solidworks install at $7k [2], and much better than any free alternative for beginners in terms of usability. If so, why didn’t I pay for it?

When I think about monthly paid software, it’s usually for storage (Dropbox), for access to features (Olark), for access to other users (Okcupid), privacy storage (Github), or for ongoing maintenance and ops (Heroku). The aforementioned have in common a perception (real or imagined) of an ongoing service being provided that changes with time. Most people think of TinkerCad as a 3D modeling tool–essentially an editing tool. All text editors or 3D modelers have historically been free or sold as a one-time payment.

As a result, I’m guessing TinkerCad ended up falling into none of these categories that the end user perceives as an ongoing service. So when a potential customer is doing the calculus of whether this is worth their money, they’re likely to say no, even if they love the product.

I’m guessing TinkerCad charged monthly because from their end, they were providing an ongoing service: the Gen6 engine. When you stop to think about it, rendering 3D objects at scale regardless of the number of users or complexity of the model is no small feat. I don’t know what their server bill is, but I’m guessing between non-paying users and the server costs, they realized quickly it wasn’t sustainable. Even though they raised $1 million, that doesn’t go very far after you hire a couple engineers (about $100-$150k each).

When a startup looks at their metrics and doesn’t see growth in users or in revenue that leads to a repeatable and scalable income, something needs to change or they’ll run out of money and die. This change in strategy is usually called a pivot, and it can be done in a number of ways.

One way is to keep your customers, but find some other way to service them. An example would be how Flickr started off as a social game, but when they noticed their users mostly sharing photos, they turned into a photo sharing site.

Another way is to keep the tech that you developed, but find a different set of customers that’s a better fit. I believe this is what TinkerCad did by turning to Airstone. TinkerCad was being run by an incredible Gen6 parallel geometric kernel, and it decided to apply it to a different set of customers that would be willing to pay for their services. I think their decision to service users with simulation needs makes sense: those end users perceive fluid simulation as an ongoing service, and would probably pay a monthly subscription for it.

All in all, I think TinkerCad’s decision was the correct one for them. And they’ve handled the shutdown well, with plenty of time to migrate and export your data.

The market has spoken, and it does not want to pay a monthly fee for easy to use CAD modeling. How this will hurt 3D printing from moving forward will remain to be seen.

So where does that leave us, as we still have a need for an easy to use 3D modeling tool that’s moderately priced? Not with many viable alternatives. If you’re into programming-based modelers, there’s OpenSCAD, RapCAD, and CoffeeSCAD. If you’re into Open Source modelers, there’s Blender. If you’re into free modelers, there’s Sketchup. If you’re aware of other alternatives. Please let me know.

Edit: Additional alternatives: OpenJSCAD, and Shapesmith. Makezine has some other free alternative here.

Edit: It’s not possible to open source TinkerCad without open sourcing the Gen6 engine. Given that they want to do Airstone, the Gen6 engine is what gives them a leg up on other simulation companies. Open sourcing Gen6 wouldn’t make sense in this case, as much as we’d love it. Without Gen6, TinkerCad cannot calculate the resulting 3D model after you union all the shapes and cut out all the holes and grouped them together. So unless you’d want to write your own geometric kernel to back TinkerCad, you’re out of luck.

All your base should follow me on twitter.

[1] Many kids use TinkerCad. I’m not sure Solidworks, AutoCad, and Sketchup can say the same.
[2] Solidworks and AutoCad have expiring versions for free or student versions for $180 or so. Many of us aren’t students.

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Posted in analysis
5 comments on “Why TinkerCad is shutting down
  1. Another alternative: http://OpenJSCAD.org is built-on JavaScript (.jscad), can also import OpenSCAD files (not all functions supported yet), STL import/export, and also command-line interface (cli) computation to create .stl on the server; documentation is here https://github.com/Spiritdude/OpenJSCAD.org/wiki/User-Guide

  2. andrew says:

    Here is anther alternative: Search ‘Design Something’ in Chrome Web Store, or try this link http://www.publishyourdesign.com/modeler

    It is a new browser based 3D modeling tool, which provides similar functions as TinkerCad, and perhaps more. Beside the capability to build models using pre-define shapes, the web app is also able to create shapes from 2D sketch using advanced modeling tools extrude, revolve, sweep and boolean operations. It works offline. You could save model in local and save to cloud when has network access later. Model can be exported as STL for 3D printing as well.

  3. Normand C. says:

    FreeCAD is a true CAD parametric modeler, and as its name implies it’s free (and open source). I do not trust free products, desktop or cloud-based, from commercial ventures. They need to make money, as you eloquently said. At any time they can change their objectives, leaving you hanging.

    FreeCAD may be more difficult to use (it can be used CSG style, or sketch-based style like SolidWorks) but I think it’s worth the learning curve if you work on mechanical parts. I converted SketchUp files to FreeCAD for a RepRap printer and can’t understand how anyone can produce precise parts with SketchUp. The ones I remodeled weren’t. SketchUp simply does not have the tools for that. Iterations are a nightmare and produce errors or non-manifold parts that won’t slice well.

    @ andrew: PublishYourDesign’s modeler is surprisingly flexible. But there is no info on who those people are. They could end the service at any time.

  4. taslaqm says:

    How would you recommend a browser based 3D modeler to monazite ? do you think that making the users pay a relatively good price monthly to unlock features available in the product or to have an associated market place where monitization can happen there

    • iamwil says:

      I think the freemium model works as long as the market is big enough. Typically only 1-3% of all users pay for a service. It may be that either a browser base 3D modeler is a compliment of something else that you sell, in the same way Netscape sold server software and gave browsers away for free. While it’d be a pity for the user to have their 3D modeler tied to a particular marketplace, this may be how the market develops.

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