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