An Introduction to Autodesk 123D.

Autodesk 123DAutodesk made the headlines this week with the Public Beta Launch of 123D, Autodesk’s new FREE 3D CAD tool. This time Autodesk are aiming squarely at the amateur  ‘Maker’ market.


Carl Bass moves one step closer to realising his personal dream of empowering a new Generate of ‘Makers’ to use the latest in CAD, Rapid prototyping and the web to craft their designs.

Check out this Video Interview with  Uncle Carl explaining the Philosophy behind 123D and the Maker movement.

So what is Autodesk 123D?

123D is a Windows based 3D CAD program. It is a history free, Direct edit, Solid modeller based on Autodesk’s Inventor Fusion.

And what is 123D for?

The idea of 123D is to help out those people who would like to be able to Design and Create Physical objects  for themselves, but who don’t have the craft skills or the appropriate tools to work the materials.

“It used to be that in order to make things you needed these big expensive machines,” Carl Bass said. “Now you can produce things at high quality, at relatively low volume and relatively low cost.”

123D does not create drawings. The idea behind 123D is that you can use it to ‘Digitally prototype’ your designs, which can then be created with 3D printing, CNC cutting or even exported to your own Makerbot. Autodesk have partnered with Ponoco, Tech Shop and 3D Systems to produce the Physical items.

So let’s have a look at it!I had a lot of fun playing with 123D. For my first experiment I created a version of the Gotshall Block which I recently showed you how to model with Autodesk Inventor.

The interface for 123D looks a lot like a stripped down version of Inventor Fusion.

123D Gotshall Block


Viewing and Navigating

123D View Bar

If you use Autodesk Software you will notice the familiar Navigation Bar and View Cube. The navigation bar has controls for Zooming, Panning, and orbiting as well as changing from orthographic to perspective mode and Visual Styles.

123D View CubeThe 123D View Cube has icons of a Human head on it rather than text, presumably to make it more international.

123D Has built in support for your 3DConnexion Mouse



The Tool Bar

You might also notice that there is no Ribbon! Instead there is a just one simple tool bar. The tool bar can be moved, but doesn’t dock to the side of the screen like the the Navigation Bar does.

123D Toolbar

Clicking on the Toolbar brings up the ‘Marking menu’ – which is similar in function  to  Inventor 2012 and Inventor Fusion (more on this in a bit).

123D Toolbar in Action


The Feature Browser

Down the left hand side of the screen is the Feature browser. Autodesk Inventor users will be familiar with the way this works. Each ‘Node’ in the browser represents a feature in the model. You can edit the features in the model by clicking on the Node in the Browser.

You can also show and hide the Origin Planes and annotation planes from the Browser and switch between pre-set views.

123D Feature BrowserThe big difference here is that Autodesk 123D is Not History based. So there is no need to sort the feature tree or concern yourself with the order in which you build your features.

Clicking on the ‘Toggle Features’ icon shows or hides the sub features in the tree.

Clicking the ‘i’ allows a little tool tip to show up giving you extra information about the feature

Clicking the Cross MAKES THE FEATURE BROWSER DISSAPEAR! So don’t do that.

Tip: If you do do that, you can get the Feature browser back by going to Menu > Options > Controls

Controls at your Finger tips

123D Direct Editing123D is a direct modeller. You can simply click on a feature and the tools you need will make themselves available.

Right clicking away from he model will bring up the ‘Marking Menu’. The tools that you need most are in the circle at the top.

The rest of the tools that are available to you at the current time are in the content menu underneath.

123D Marking MenuThe clever bit about the circle arrangement is that you can use ‘Muscle Memory’ to trigger the command with out selecting it. Right clicking and dragging in the direction of the command is all you need to do.123D Right click and drag




As you progress – you won’t need to click on the buttons in the circle any more.

This could also be a good feature to those wanting to use a Pen tablet, instead of a  Mouse.

Snap Bar and Toggle switches

123D Status Bar And ScaleDown in the bottom right hand corner of the screen you will see the Snap bar and a number of toggle switches.

The Snap bar helps you set the accuracy of the sketching grid snap and allows you to change units.

This is also where you can toggle the Visibility of Sketch constraints, the sketch grid and Value inputs on and off.

The handy little Gauge in the corner is telling you how much memory you have left.


First Impressions

123D Loaded without problems on both my Workstation and home Laptop. However my home laptop doesn’t have anywhere near the graphic card Oomph to take advantage of the Visual styles such as Silhouettes and Reflections.

123D The Icons can fall over themselves to be helpfulUsing 123D is reasonably intuitive, but I didn’t find it to be particularly smooth. The contextual Icons often seem to be fighting for attention.

There are a few differences between  123D and Inventor that caught me out.

Sketches can be used to create solids, but don’t remain associative to the solid. You can only apply sketch constraints after CTRL selecting some sketch geometry, and I can’t for the life of me work out how to edit work planes once they’ve been created.

123D is not parametric, so you can’t create relationships between feature dimensions – although you can enter formula in the dimension input boxes, so perhaps there is a parametric engine hidden under there somewhere…

In conclusion

123D is fun and builds on a lot of the more user friendly additions to Autodesk’s software toolbox, such as Head up display, marking menu’s and direct editing. I’m sure that with practice 123D could be a really useful tool.

It’s worth remembering that 123D is still in ‘Public Beta’. I will be keeping a close eye on it’s progress.

To find out more about 123D you can:

Check out the Autodesk 123D Website

Read the 123D Blog

Visit the 123D Face book page

Watch the tutorials on you tube

Participate in the 123D forums


4 Responses to “An Introduction to Autodesk 123D.

  • If I understand this you can take photo’s of an object the 123D software will make it into a 3D model ? Can I then take that model and send it to a CNG shop to make the object ? and can I make production drawings from the model with my standard CAD software ?

    • Hi Ron,

      123D Catch makes a point cloud from photographs and then maps a mesh onto this. Meshes aren’t great for CNC work – unless you post process it through another piece of software (Like Delcam’s ‘CopyCAD’ for example).

      Meshes aren’t great for creating drawings either! Although you could bring the mesh into Inventor, Inventor would see it as a load of triangles. The drawing could look pretty crappy.

      Not to mention that this model would be built with photo-telemetry – not laser scanning, so it might not be accurate enough for your machine shop ;)

      123D Catch is great for ‘arty’ types who want to capture digital assets to include in visual presentations and animations. It is also pretty useful for people who want to 3D print.It is new and fairly ground breaking technology. If it were capable of replacing your solid modeller – I’m sure that Autodesk would be charging for it!

      Give it a test run – it’s fun :)


  • How long did it roughly take you to make the Gotshall Block?

    • Hi Kai,

      Well, I was learning as I went along and trying out a few different methods (as well as taking screen captures and making notes for this post!) so I spent a couple of hours on it.

      Now I’ve acclimatized myself to the controls, I suspect that this would take a few minutes – max.

      The biggest time factor is the Lag whilst 123D makes up it’s mind as to what tools it is going to offer.