Open Letter to Google (Sketchup)

Update: Google responded on my blog! To read it, click here.

Below is my open letter to the Google SketchUp team, aimed at Aidan Chopra, SketchUp Evangelist and John Bacus, the Product Manager for SketchUp. I’m writing an open letter for various reasons. My research on communities, open source and distributed innovation shows how important the whole ecosystem is. It also shows that it’s not just about the number of 3D printers installed but also the community, infrastructure and the accessibility of the whole experience. Another reason is seeing Aidan and John’s presentation (see the video embedded below!), which verbalizes very well what SketchUp is all about: “3D for everyone”. John and Aidan’s explicitly recognize the value of physical models to 3D modeling and vice versa. That indeed makes it into an “awesome” experience to which few people could say no. I actually believe they might be susceptible to my moral bribery to practice what they preach (to the full extent, they already do a great job with SketchUp). If this could stimulate (and benefit from!) the democratization of innovation and decentralized manufacturing, that would have a profound positive impact on society and our planet. Feel free to underwrite my letter or join the discussion! I’ll send it via e-mail too after getting a few days’ of feedback from the community.

Keynote Speech: If a Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words, What’s a 3D Model Worth? from i.materialise on Vimeo.

Hi John and Aidan,

I’m a real fan of the work you’re doing with SketchUp. It is by far the most accessible CAD package, with a very impressive feature set.
I’ve watched your presentation at the i.Materialise conference with much interest, especially because I’m part of, and promoting the RepRap project (and several spin-off projects). You’re probably aware of these fabber projects, but perhaps not of their extent and growth rate. As you know software adoption can be massive (e.g. SketchUp as a perfect example). Likewise, the adoption rate of RepRap machines is also impressive and unlike anything I’ve seen in the physical world: the community has been doubling every ~ 6 months, which means that it grows hundred-fold in just 40 months! It has had this remarkable growth for 4 years now and on a log-graph it shows a remarkably steady exponential growth rate. Today, there are tens of thousands people with their own, or even several 3D printers in their homes. These people are enabling each other to share fixes to physical real-world problems and to innovate with all physical things they care about, To learn to go from thought to object… These are critical skills for this century, and people enjoy learning them. The quantity of 3D printer-adopters today isn’t nearly as impressive as the quantity of tomorrow. And today there are already about as many open source 3D printers in the hands of amateurs, as there are commercial 3D printer units sold, ever (based on industry figures from Wohlers report 2009). This industry took 20 years to develop with – more or less – linear growth rates (while standing still during recessions), and – below the radar – it doubled because of amateurs [1]. They want to learn (from our innate striving for competence), have problems to fix (taps into our desire for autonomy) and find the project meaningful (strong drive for purpose driven people). You and your colleagues at Google seem to have a great understanding of the cognitive surplus (borrowing the phrase from Clay Shirky’s book [2]) and how to harness it (e.g. aggregating 3D contributions in Google Earth) and how immense a societal value this could create. I’d love to see you take it a step further.

I’ve done work in systems dynamics, and feedback loops and variables like the amount of models out there. The variable “accessibility of 3D modeling software” is just as important as affordable ($ 2K or lower), OK-quality printers. Right now, SketchUp’s newly introduced solid features are critical improvements that makes SketchUp perfect for 3D printing, just like you mentioned in your talk. Yet it is only part of the SketchUp Pro 8 package which is quite expensive. Even more expensive than many people’s 3D printers. I think the RepRap community can, and will, create value for the whole 3D ecosystem, by creating printable models, finding business models to keep doing what they’re passionate about (at which point they could afford a license), post online tutorials showing how easy and powerful SketchUp really is, etc. etc. Plus, as you said in your presentation, making 3D models is awesome, but making stuff from your 3D model is REALLY awesome!

On behalf of the whole 3D community, I’d like to ask you to introduce the solid features for users of the free version, too.

Erik de Bruijn
RepRap enthusiast and ambassador
Open source entrepreneur

Notes and references:
[1] Self-replicating devices: the statistics –
[1] When I say “Amateurs” I mean amateur in the original sense of the word: those who are passionate about something.
[2] Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age –
More about myself:

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11 Responses

  1. Funny, I thought you were gonna ask for less format lock-in, by permitting export to more than one filetype in the standard version. However, enhanced modelling is certainly a huge improvement and I’d love to see it reaching the community in a meaningful way. The price of the pro version really, really needs a change.

  2. You have my vote.
    I really like Sketchup. My favorite tool after OpenSCAD.

  3. Erik says:

    Built-in STL support would definitely be a huge improvement, perhaps that’s something to add to the list, though STL2.0 is in draft, and it might be better to support that right away than have another “soon to be legacy” format as an option. Collada is not that bad (though they should perhaps not obfusicate the file extension (e.g. allow you to save as .dae).
    Having a 3D printer, I think I would buy the pro version at a $ 100 price point (if it worked slightly better on Ubuntu in Wine).

  4. STL support is already available as a plugin. Download and Install and you can import and export STL.

  5. Erik says:

    Robert, you’re right. It’s not that hard. Still a shame that it’s not built in. The process from thought to print should be as short as possible, so being able to export to STL without too much trouble is definitely a benefit. But only with the CADspan plugin you can get a watertight model again, while designing it as a watertight would seem like a better option…

  6. J says:

    The BoolTools[1] plugin for Sketchup is $10 and does essentially the same thing as Solid Tools.

    You do need to model carefully, but it is it posible to create manifold models using SketchUp. The Solid Inspector[2] tool is a simple yet effective way to check a model for manifold.

    Sketchup does export directly to .dae in all versions.

    SketchUp’s biggest limitation in this areas is it’s lack of true Arc entities. Everything is exported as lines, so to get smooth curves you need to model using a higher segment count. But this adds geometry quickly, and can slow down sketchup.



  7. John Bacus says:

    Hi Erik,

    I’m happy to respond in a more formal way to your request, but I think you’re missing one key point that we could discuss briefly here. We have already included “Solids” in our free version of SketchUp 8– it is only the high level boolean operations (Intersect, Union, Subtract, Split and Trim) that we have reserved for our Pro users.

    Free users of SketchUp 8 can create “Solid Groups” and “Solid Components”, determine the volume of those entities and export them to .dae for further processing. Additionally, they can perform “Outer Shell” operations, which we judged to be the most relevant when pre-flighting a model for 3D printing.

    Additionally, we’ve exposed the two most critical functions (a manifold test and a volume calculation) through our freely-accessible Ruby API where 3rd party developers can access them when creating dedicated 3D printing plugins.

    I’m happy to discuss this in further detail if you like. We happen (also) to have an open channel for new feature requests in SketchUp available through the end of this month. The ideas you bring up here are important to SketchUp, and should be posted to “Questions and Ideas for Google SketchUp” so that others can see and vote on them.


    • Erik says:

      Hi John,

      Thank you for your reply! And for finding this post even before I sent it. It’s probably what can be expected for Google employees (You’ve got a Google Alert on your name, too?)

      I wasn’t aware of the solid features being in the free version too. This kind of makes my request mostly obsolete. Yet I think it’s really great to hear that you’re definitely keeping the DIY 3D printing community in mind.

      I will try to use the intended channel to voice the community’s other requests. Some of them will be pretty generic needs, such as being able to run more stable under wine, or even better a Linux port.

      Again, thanks for your reply, and let’s keep in touch!


  8. Robert H says:

    I just bought alibre the other day. The personal edition is $99 and it seems WAY more suitable for designing precise 3D models than sketchup. Just my 2 cents, I’m just starting to dig in so don’t take my word for it, but something to look into. It’s not free, but neither are 3D printers.

  9. Wade Bortz says:

    I also use Alibre – it works very well for solid modelling, and the price was right.

    I’ve tried to use Sketchup several times in the past, and while it is relatively easy to model things in, I was never able to get it to export a format that I could slice with Skeinforge or the RepRap host. Without a compatible format for exchange, it’s not very useful.

    There are stl export plugins available, but none would run for me; it was easier in the end to just buy a reasonably priced package that did what I needed out of the box.

  10. Erik says:

    Alibre indeed seems like a good option. If I’m ever going to pay for something, that will probably be it. Rhino is very popular, but in the end it’s a mesh modeler, I believe. It does have scripting capabilities, though. Which I wouldn’t want to miss after having tasted OpenSCAD!