Stratasys is developing a cloud-service platform that comprises expandable, server rack-like modular 3D printer units configured under one software platform to work simultaneously to mass produce parts.
The assembly line-style 3D printing platform will reside both in Stratasys' own facilities as well as on the premises of business partners who can use the new Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator system to build their own parts or allow customers to use it for their own manufacturing needs.
Each 3D "print cell" (an individual 3D printer) in the array can produce a different print job to enable mass customization in volume production environments. Additional print cells can be added at any time to the scalable platform, and there is no theoretical limit to the number of cells, according to Tim Bohling, chief marketing officer at Stratasys.
"Any customer can decide how they'd like to implement this," Bohling said during a press and analyst briefing last week.
The Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator system is under development with Stratasys development partners, who are currently piloting the technology. Those partners include the Savannah College of Art and Design and production parts manufacturers Fathom and In'Tech. Both In'Tech and Fathom already offer 3D printed parts as a service.
Roger Kelesoglu, director of NA Sales Enablement at Stratasys, said one issue facing Fathom is the ability to scale beyond manufacturing runs of 400 parts using additive manufacturing technology. The Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator will enable manufacturing runs of greater than 1,000 parts.
"The Stratasys 3D Continuous Build Demonstrator is enabling us to look to the future where our shop can look like a 3D printing server farm where there are just rows and rows of Stratasys 3D Continuous Build Demonstrators," said Rich Stump, Fathom co-founder and principal.
Stratasys executives did not say when the Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator would be available for purchase or for general use as a service.
The smallest Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator array consists of three 3D printers working in unison. Each print cell can create items up to 5-in. x 5-in. x 5-in. in size.
"Certainly, the cloud-based software enables the connectivity between these units to present this virtual capacity and specificity to where jobs are requested," Bohling said.
When a customer sends a manufacturing request to the Stratasys Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator, it's not going to a specific device but to a cloud service that can map that request across arrays, whether in one location or distributed across many manufacturing sites, Bohling said. The system offers 99% availability to cloud customers.
"Our development customers today have Continuous Build 3D Demonstrators on premise. At the university, students may submit part requests online to be printed and pick up completed 3D prints," Kelesoglu said. "Our customers using the systems for production parts run the systems on premise and take care of packaging, shipping and handling parts they produce for their customers as required."
The Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator modules used Stratasys' production-class Fortus FDM Printer technology. The Fortus FDM printer extrudes thermoplastic filament layer by layer atop one another to create an object.
"With the proven print engine technology that powers our current Fortus line of 3D printers, we can ensure we're delivering a part quality that can be used today in...manufacturing applications," Bohling said.
As print jobs are completed, the parts eject into bins beneath them and the next job in the queue automatically begins. If a single print cell fails, the job is automatically rerouted to the next available cell.
The printers use GrabCAD 3D printing software. Job requests are simply CAD-generated .stl files that are submitted to the cloud for printing.
Target applications for the 3D Demonstrator include service bureaus, rapid prototyping centers, and volume manufacturing environments that can benefit from part production without tooling and from zero-inventory supply chains.
While sending parts designs to a service provider raises the issue of intellectual property privacy and security, Kelesoglu said the 3D CAD designs or STL files processed through the Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator cloud "is secure and not accessible by other customers."
"Thanks to its cloud-based architecture, manufacturing as a service with 3D printing is now a reality, as users located anywhere can send jobs at any time for immediate production," Scott Crump, Stratasys founder and chief innovation officer, said in a statement. "With this announcement, Stratasys is beginning to close the gap between additive and conventional manufacturing, combining the benefits of both to bring new value to our customers."