5 3D Printing Software Challenges for Additive Manufacturing
Operating a 3D printing lab is a careful balancing act of machines, materials, people, and software. Whether you’re running a production lab, service bureau, fab lab, or makerspace, 3D printing is a demanding organizational challenge. We expect technology and software to lessen the mental load of management and provide solutions that simplify processes. In the world of 3D printing, the opposite is often the case. While there are hundreds of 3D printing software tools available, some specific to the industry and others generic, many times it becomes a hindrance rather than a support for the lab technician, owner, or production manager. In this blog post, we will examine the different challenges presented by 3D printing software in running a 3D printing lab and the impact on the overall organizational objectives. We will also see how an end-to-end 3D printing software like Fabpilot, can help you find the perfect balance to manage all the machines, materials, and people in your 3D printing process.
Challenge 1: 3D file analysis and repair
The first obstacle in printing a 3D file is assessing the feasibility of the print and identifying any errors that would result in a failure or crash. There are many 3D modeling software tools that help you to turn an idea into a 3D representation, but there is a big difference between creating a 3D representation that exists on a screen and creating a 3D object that lives in the real-world world. Many times, the ideas conceived and created in 3D modeling software present unique challenges when attempting to translate them into physical objects. These challenges are described in detail in our tutorial article: Repair Your File for 3D Printing.
While there are many software solutions for 3D file repair, you may have difficulty choosing the right one for your lab’s needs. Depending on the size of your lab (both in terms of people and objects produced) you will have different requirements and priorities. The top three factors to consider when selecting a 3D file repair software are the price, the operating system compatibility, and the accepted file formats. With many of the free software options, you will be limited by the variety of file formats or even the number of files you can repair. If you are managing an additive manufacturing lab that produces hundreds or thousands of parts each month, it’s vital that your 3D printing software can keep up and not create a bottleneck in your printing process. We can see how having a scalable file analysis and repair tool that works with a wide range of file formats and integrates seamlessly with the rest of your 3D printing process is so important.
Let’s see what this process could look like in a service bureau. The 3D designer or client emails or uploads a file for 3D printing. The technician downloads the file to his or her computer and then uploads the file to the repair software. After identifying some errors in the print, the technician writes back to the client explaining the issues and obtaining his or her approval before applying the repairs. After the client approves, the technician can apply the repairs and download the repaired file before sending it to the 3D printer.
A lengthy and time-consuming process no more!
Now, let’s imagine the same service bureau but using Fabpilot. The client uploads the file directly into Fabpilot’s cloud-based platform. The file is automatically analyzed and repairs are applied. The client and technician review and approve the repairs in the same software. The technician places the order and the file is auto-routed to the next available job and 3D printer.
With Fabpilot, file analysis and repair is automatic when you upload a 3D file. Fabpilot accepts over 30 file formats including stl and native CAD to ensure you will be able to process just about any 3D design that comes your way. As a cloud-based service, you are not limited by the operating system and can even collaborate with 3D designers to review errors and apply repairs. Fabpilot’s repair algorithms have been developed by the team at Sculpteo over the past 8 years and have been tested at industrial scales with over 10 000 parts produced each month. With end-to-end production capabilities, you can efficiently process hundreds of files in minutes rather than having your technician lose time switching between 3D printing software. Fabpilot simplifies and integrates 3D file repair to save your production team’s time.
Challenge 2: Order tracking
Whether you are producing 3D objects for external clients as a service bureau, internally as a production or research lab, or managing a fab lab or makerspace, it’s vital to know where an order is in the printing process. Within the production team, being able to track individual items through each stage of the process helps you to manage resources and delivery timelines. Many labs are using offline tools or generic software applications to try and stay organized. From post-it notes to kanban boards and spreadsheets, most 3D printing labs have tried it all in an attempt to stay organized, but is it really working?
While post-it notes and whiteboards are very visual and are easily understood, they present many challenges as well; what if the post-it falls and is lost, how do you measure performance, how do you estimate delivery dates, can you scale to manage hundreds or thousands of orders per month? It’s clear to see that post-it notes just don’t cut it when it comes to managing the 3D printing process.
Maybe you’ve tried a generic project management tool like Trello or even good old spreadsheets. These are great for managing more orders or collaborating from different locations but present similar challenges as offline methods; you can’t measure performance, you can’t estimate delivery, and you have to manually enter order details into yet another platform.
Moving beyond post-it notes
If managing a production lab is a juggling act, then having a dedicated order management system, is like having an extra hand. Fabpilot is a 3D printing software built for order management. Within this single web-based software platform you can have all your files, orders, comments, deadlines, and order status, easily accessible by anyone on your team. The ability to keep all of these elements together for each order greatly increases the efficiency of your printing process by eliminating data redundancy. From the initial 3D file upload, all customer and order information is kept together all the way through to shipment.
The major benefit of Fabpilot as an order tracking software is in its ability to measure performance. Now you can see how many orders are being processed by which machines, you can identify bottlenecks in the printing process before they cause delays, and you can see production at a macro and micro level. Production managers can easily access the information they need in order to maximize efficiency and scale production.
Challenge 3: Communication and collaboration (internally and externally)
How does your team communicate? In a successful 3D printing lab, communication within the production team is just as important as communication between 3D designers or clients and production. Communication depends both on the quality of the information itself and also on the methods used to transmit that information.
For the printing process to run efficiently, it’s vital that the information that is shared within the team is both timely and accurate. For information to be of value to the team, it must be up-to-date and, in the world of 3D printing where everything changes so quickly, up-to-the-minute. If a client wants to know where an item is in the production process, it is of little help to know where it was a day ago. Having the tools and software to facilitate timely communication is of the utmost importance in additive manufacturing. Likewise, interested parties need access to accurate information. If a tool requires a lot of manual updating it is unlikely to accurately reflect the current state. For example, if you are using post-it notes but the team does not update the board after each step, the board will present an inaccurate representation of the state of production orders. I’m sure we have all experienced the complications of poor communication due to a lack of timely and accurate information.
The second aspect of communication both within a team and with the client is ensuring the choice of method is efficient and, specifically related to 3D printing, secure. Having multiple communication channels slows the flow of information and creates more opportunities for misunderstanding. Let’s say the sales representative receives an email from the client to make a change to an order, he sends a Slack message to the production manager who verbally tells the 3D printer technician to make the update to the specific order. If the technician remembers, he makes the change and maybe he gets it right (if he’s lucky) but most often the message gets lost somewhere along the line and in the end, the final delivery is not as expected. Or let’s imagine another scenario in an in-house production lab where a prototype is designed and the 3D file must be securely stored. Is email really the most reliable way to transfer the 3D designer’s intellectual property stored in that file? Both of these scenarios clearly demonstrate the importance of efficiency and security when it comes to communication in 3D printing.
Fabpilot is designed to facilitate communication internally and externally, specifically for 3D printing labs. With real-time order tracking, communication is assured to be both timely and accurate. Fabpilot’s end-to-end software for 3D printing ensures that designers or clients and the production team see the same file and can add or update notifications directly on the order. This makes communication more efficient and more secure by eliminating the need for external communication channels. When the entire 3D printing team has access to the same file with the same information at the same time, they are more reactive to changes and more productive overall.
Challenge 4: Scaling growth
Advances in technological development generally produce opportunities to streamline processes, making the industry more efficient and thereby allowing for increased capacity. A simple example is the assembly line implemented by Henry Ford, which unleashed the automotive industry and changed the world (for better or worse some might argue). In the world of additive manufacturing, 3D printers create the potential for rapid prototyping and iterative design, a catalyst for the next industrial revolution. However, advances in 3D printing software to support this evolution have fallen behind hardware developments, leaving so much potential untapped. SLS, Multi-jet Fusion, and other powder-based 3D printers are arguably the most inefficiently used technology in additive manufacturing. With inadequate 3D nesting software, many production managers find they aren’t able to make the most of each print job, limiting throughput due solely to 3D printing software deficiencies.
Another aspect of scaling which is a challenge in additive manufacturing is ensuring you have adequate systems and procedures in place to manage an increase in volume when adding new 3D printers. As we have seen above, managing a 3D printing lab without software to support the process can greatly diminish productivity. With an increase in machines and/or when implementing new 3D printing technologies, it becomes even more important to ensure that your systems and procedures are able to scale. A great example of this came from Dave Vanhove at 3ID Printing in Belgium (read the whole article here). For the most part, Dave was keeping track of orders in his head; which wasn’t an issue until his orders began to grow and he found that his mental method was becoming more and more inefficient. But it wasn’t until he got his HP Multi-jet Fusion printer and received a boost in orders that he knew some type or order management software was required.
For Dave and many other Fabpilot users, enabling growth is a key factor in turning to Fabpilot 3D printing software to manage their additive manufacturing process. As in the Ford example, increases in hardware have revolutionized industries, but advances in software have truly changed the world. Can anyone imagine an automotive assembly line in 2018 without the software to manage the process? We can certainly see that having the right software in place powers growth at exponential levels. Whether your lab has one 3D printer or more than twenty, like Sculpteo, Fabpilot allows users to increase throughput by packing denser jobs, manage the entire production workflow from order placement to shipping, and provide real-time analytics to measure and improve productivity.
Challenge 5: Too many %$%#$% software packages!!
Nesting, quoting, accounting, slicing, modeling, editing and repairing, order tracking, printer management, and communication, additive manufacturing takes a lot of software to function. The volume of 3D printing software itself creates a number of challenges for the production manager. To start, there’s the initial time it takes to train and onboard staff and the daily time lost to transferring files and information between all these different software platforms. You also have issues of integration with respect to hardware requirements but also regarding 3D file types and API to share client information between tools. If you aren’t able to integrate with an API, you have even more issues of data redundancy and manual entry, which increases the risk of missing or out-of-date information being stored in multiple databases. As we have seen, the software can either be a catalyst for growth or it can be the limiting reagent when it comes to 3D printing potential; in this case, more software is certainly not better!
Fabpilot is an all-in-one solution for 3D printing software in the additive manufacturing workflow. Nesting, quoting, slicing, repair, order tracking, printer management, and communication are all handled in one cloud-based platform. You no longer have to worry about hardware requirements and setup costs, your entire 3D printing lab is managed from any web browser via the cloud. Fabpilot minimizes the number of 3D printing software packages you use, making your additive manufacturing lab more efficient and productive.
If you’re running an additive manufacturing production lab and are facing some (or all) of these 3D printing software challenges, give Fabpilot a try today with a 15-day free trial!