You upload your file, place your order, and in less than four seconds your product is being printed. That’s the answer to the question I asked Mitch Free about how his new venture is changing 3D printing and bringing automation back into the spotlight. It’s also the answer to why they’re able to ship the part to you the same day. CloudDDM is unlike any other 3D printing service out there today and their plan is to take the hassle out of 3D printing. Oh, and kick some ass a long the way.
The number one questions I get about 3D printing is this: “What is the best service for production level 3D prints?” If you’re in a design/manufacturing environment, you’ve done your research. You have a folder of local printers and online printers, old quotes, new quotes, test files, test prints and unacceptably long email chains trying to get the best price and turnaround time. Maybe one service for prototype prints and another for production prints. It always comes down to turnaround time, which is why I always recommended working with a printer as local as you could find.
But let’s back up a bit.
In 2013, 3D printing exploded into the media. (Seems so long ago, right?) Patents were expiring, new printers were coming out weekly and spools of filament were spinning off the racks. Interest fizzled a bit in 2014, then shot back up with the interest in new players and products. We’re seeing a lot of the same tech though–minor improvements here and there, with a handful of companies innovating with faster processes in additive manufacturing. Now, with interest still high, were in a period where those who are shaking the foundations of 3D printing are those exploring new ways to automate and deliver parts.
No One Else is Doing It
Why does the combination of 3D printing and automation matter? Simply that no one else is doing it. Yes, there are online print services, but CloudDDM doesn’t see itself as a competitor to folks like Shapeways, just different. “Our focus is on the commercial or industrial use customer,” Mitch says. “Whether that be prototypes (most common with around 75% of the parts produced being prototypes) or handling production jobs for end-use parts. And the latter is becoming more commonplace as designers and engineers now have someone in the market capable of handling those types of jobs.” So this is where CloudDDM enters the scene, with two aspects that make what they are doing completely unique.
First, they’re independent of any other 3D printer manufacturer. They’ve developed and manufactured their own machines, hundreds of them spooled up and ready to print the next order. On top of that, they had to add in repeatable quality and instant scalability.
Second, they’re positioned to produce parts over more hours per day and ship parts faster. Based out of the UPS Supply Chain Campus at UPS Worldport, the world’s largest package handling facility, they gain the strategic edge of being an end-of-runway service, which immediately adds an extra six hours of production time to get parts made and into your hands fast. It also doesn’t hurt that UPS has invested in CloudDDM through the UPS Strategic Enterprise Fund. (Someone big obviously sees something special about what CloudDDM offers.)
How it Started
CloudDDM was started by Mitch Free, founder of mfg.com, a site he says came about when he realized “there was great potential for an online service that could match manufacturing buyers and suppliers.” Last year, he had the same realization for additive manufacturing. You remember that folder of quotes and emails you have? Then, you’ll completely agree with his assesment. “Sourcing a single part or two wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t easy or efficient, but it wasn’t a problem. But it was a hassle. Sourcing hundreds of parts, that was an entirely different story all together. It was difficult to find a single supplier who had the capacity to fill a complete order.”
Even after decades of additive manufacturing history and interest like never before, there were no sites focused on supplying 3d printed parts that meet all the requirements for speed, industrial quality and scalability. They didn’t exist, he found, because 3d printers are not optimized for automation, for uploading a design and getting it (or 100 or 1000) the next day. He would have to build it, and that’s exactly what he did.
How it Happens
At the heart of CloudDDM are new printers, custom manufactured technology that allows for speed and automation. Wouldn’t they want to sell these machines? Not when they’re focused on the service. “Our system was designed, not to be sold commercially, but to serve a specific purpose – produce parts with repeatable quality as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
How do the printers work? “Think of a cell of many printers (if you want to call a print head a printer) that are all connected.” Mitch explains. “We considered how to minimize material handling, manage part flow, integrate a system for removing support material, and move parts around very quickly. We also had to design a system that produces repeatable, high-quality parts. After all, what good is producing large volumes of parts if the quality is all over the place? Then we had to build in redundancy so we never had to worry about being off-line.”
Right here is where we miss, or rather, take for granted what 3d printing often removes–the need for molds and/or setup. Tooling can often be eliminated, you can start low and scale up, and that’s one why their focus on repeatable quality is so critical. The machines are one part of that, the other part rests in the materials.
For prototypes or production prints, the quality and whether we’re able to use it as a production part comes down to the material. They’ve done their research, offering the most used materials first. “We focus exclusively on the four most common industrial thermoplastics; ABS, PC, PC-ABS, and ULTEM (1010). Our research showed that these four materials represented 85% of all FDM printed parts,” and that last one takes care of many high-end applications requiring materials that meet specific regulations.
All of this comes together on the CloudDDM website, with you very much as the driver of the machines and their automated processes. When you upload your part and select the criteria from the CloudDDM