Own the 3D Printer?

An alternative is the cloud. On the grounds of a major shipping hub, a new business lets manufacturers quickly obtain 3D printed parts by uploading a CAD file.

Here is a prediction: In the future, machining facilities will routinely make use of 3D printing. We will consider 3D printing to be a commonplace machine shop resource.

Some will use it for additive manufacturing—making end-use parts. But the prediction doesn’t require this, because shops make other items as well. For example, they make prototypes for customers who haven’t finalized their designs. And they make fixturing, along with other tooling such as jigs or hard gaging. All of these non-production items are generally one-offs, and all of them generally don’t have to be made by any particular method—they just have to work. Thus, the dollars-and-cents argument says: Do not spend valuable capacity and time on making these items through machining. 3D print them instead. In other words, I expect growing use of 3D printing not as a replacement for machine tools, but as a way for shops to liberate machine tools to do only the valuable work.

Yet this prediction suggests a question: Will shops own these 3D printers? Seemingly yes—they will own these machines just as they own machine tools. But with 3D printing, there is another option. Because it can build the complete part in one cycle without setup or other human attention, 3D printing provides for not only a different method of part making, but also a different business model for accessing the capability.

A business newly opened in Louisville, Kentucky, is built on this model. CloudDDM is a manufacturing facility currently outfitted with 100 identical 3D printers. “DDM” in the company name stands for “direct digital manufacturing,” while “Cloud” stands for the way this capability is deployed. Customers upload CAD files to the company’s website to trigger an automatic system that queues the job for 3D printing, after which the printed part is quickly delivered to the customer, thanks in large part to the benefit of the company’s location. Founded on the grounds of the UPS Worldport facility, CloudDDM is an “end of runway” business that can obtain next-day shipping on jobs handed off to UPS as late as 1 a.m. (making it technically same-day shipping at that point).

Mitch Free is the founder of the company. He was also the founder of an earlier manufacturing business that leveraged the Internet, MFG.com. Mr. Free has been working toward opening the cloud-based 3D printing company for more than a year, he says, because the seemingly simple concept for the company actually was far from simple to realize. To continuously run one 3D printing job after another with little pause, the printers had to be custom built for this application. (Specific details of the custom build is information he wishes to keep secret.) In addition, the system permitting the online customer interface required software engineering in order to be able to reliably and automatically analyze the part to confirm its fitness for 3D printing, and also to correctly orient the part geometry for the most accurate and efficient printing cycle. In the area of part orientation, Mr. Free says the company is still learning, so the software’s logic is still improving.

The service is for industrial customers, he says. There are consumer businesses permitting cloud-based printing of inexpensive trinkets, but CloudDDM is not like that. The 3D printers use fused deposition modeling (FDM) to generate precise and solid plastic components with strength and toughness comparable to parts made through injection molding. In short, this is a service for making functional, industrial parts or tooling. For now, only three color choices are available (black, white or ivory), because adding aesthetic color choices would mean dedicating machines to those colors, restricting capacity. (Though adding more color is an expansion that is likely in the future, Mr. Free says.)

The process the company has implemented around its machines is extreme in the degree to which it realizes one particular advantage of 3D printing: labor efficiency. To oversee all 100 3D printers, the total staffing CloudDDM employs on each shift is just one person. This solitary employee tends the machines like a farmer, harvesting parts as they are grown to perform simple postprocessing such as removal of support material before handing the parts off to UPS for shipment. Thus, while the cost of UPS shipping is a factor in using CloudDDM, the cost of labor essentially is not.

Mr. Free says he hopes the service will be used for short-run production of end-use parts. There is no functional, logistical or economic reason why this wouldn’t make sense. But so far (in the very earliest days of the company’s existence), all of the orders have been for one-offs—either prototypes or tools.

That’s good, too, he says. The business and the business model can thrive off of just this work, because there is potentially plenty of it. That is because any prototype or tool that a machine shop obtains through 3D printing potentially helps that shop thrive as well, since the best use of a shop’s machine tools is to keep them focused on production machining.