3D Printing Drives Growth In On-Demand Manufacturing

Despite the pandemic, inflation, the labor and chip shortages – and everything else hampering global supply chains – optimism about one manufacturing solution is so strong it propelled three companies public in 2021: Fathom, Shapeways, and Xometry. A fourth, Fast Radius, is set to debut on Wall Street in February. 

This new breed of on-demand digital manufacturing company is highly invested in software and digitally driven manufacturing technologies, such as industrial 3D printing. They not only promise faster and more efficient part manufacturing locally, but digital solutions that enable cost-saving product innovations and accelerated time to market for nearly any type of product.

“There is a growing awareness about how the infrastructure to design, make, and move things today does not meet the needs of this time – it’s rigid, wasteful, outdated, and it’s also not sustainable,” says Lou Rassey, co-founder and CEO of Fast Radius headquartered in Chicago.

The company’s newest microfactory on Chicago’s Goose Island features industrial 3D printers from Carbon and HP along side digitally integrated CNC machines, as part of Fast Radius’ Cloud Manufacturing Platform. The microfactory will produce component parts for companies across industries including electric vehicles, medical and healthcare devices, and consumer goods. The World Economic Forum named Fast Radius one of nine best factories in the world implementing “technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution” or Industry 4.0.

Digitally Integrated Manufacturing

Companies in this sector are often lumped together under the on-demand digital manufacturing umbrella, when in fact, they offer a range of approaches to 3D printing, Industry 4.0, and modernizing the manufacturing supply chain.

On one end of the spectrum, companies such as Shapeways and Sculpteo (owned by chemical giant BASF) offer an easy upload-and-print online platform. This on-demand 3D printing model focuses on ease of use; anyone can upload digital part files, click to choose materials, and receive parts and prototypes in hours or days. This modern, consumer-like experience aims to bring manufacturing to the masses by facilitating 3D prints of everything from product prototypes to architectural models.

Other companies, such as Materialise, which went public in 2014, have a wide customer base for their software solutions that help companies 3D print their own digital files in-house and run their own fleet of 3D printers. The software is also used by other on-demand 3D printing services to track and print customer orders. Materialise’s on-demand manufacturing at one of Europe’s largest 3D printing facilities features six 3D printing technologies.

Fathom began as a small- to mid-volume contract manufacturer that embraced new methods, including 3D printing, early on. They still offer traditional manufacturing, but it is integrated into an end-to-end digital production process.

“The big differentiations for us and our platform is that we have decades of experience and deep entrenched customer relationships,” says Ryan Martin, CEO of Fathom. “We focus on providing large enterprise customers with a unique solution to their manufacturing challenges.”

Fast Radius is a marriage of software-driven services, engineering expertise, and factory floors of state-of-the-art hardware. They are one of the only on-demand manufacturers to own and operate all their own production facilities, which enables them to integrate their software solutions and automate production.

The company’s software can suggest improvements to a digital file, guide customers through their material and technology options, and provide transparency into the production process. But on-demand manufacturing is just one Fast Radius solution, says Rassey. “We offer custom microfactories built specifically for unique customer needs, near where the customer needs parts so that they can build flexible supply chains.” Customers such as Satair (a subsidiary of Airbus) use the Fast Radius Virtual Warehouse to store their parts digitally, ready to manufacture at a moment’s notice, freeing up physical warehouse space and eliminating overstock. 

The growing number of on-demand digital manufacturers has made selecting one a challenge for many companies. Xometry and another start-up, Craftcloud, offer online portals that are marketplaces of these manufacturers. Customers upload their digital file and manufacturing partners around the world bid on the project. 

“Often, customers are looking for the fastest solution or the most economical solution for their 3D printing project,” says Mathias Plica, CEO of Craftcloud. “We match them with partners locally that have the expertise to deliver in the materials and quality they need.”

Regardless of business model, what all these companies have in common is the application of smart manufacturing technology to enable a highly automated manufacturing process from concept to fulfillment. This involves cloud computing, AI, IoT, machine learning, big data, digital simulation, and, of course, 3D printing (also called additive manufacturing).

Evangelists of Additive Manufacturing 

Although Fathom, based in Heartland, Wis., has 90 industrial-grade 3D printers for plastic and metal parts, and nearly 450,000 square feet of manufacturing capacity across 12 U.S. facilities, its most powerful offering may be its staff.

“Companies come to us to understand how to use additive manufacturing,” says Martin. “In some cases we introduced companies to additive manufacturing, which is a huge growth area for us. One of our automotive customers reached out to us last week for our engineering expertise to figure out how they can develop more applications for it beyond prototyping.” 

The message from on-demand digital manufacturers is that customers don’t need to know much about 3D printing to benefit from the flexibility, speed, and cost savings it can offer. Nor do they need to invest in 3D printers with six-figure price tags or hire experienced engineers to get parts, prototypes, and tools that are lighter, stronger, and cheaper than those made by traditional manufacturing methods.

Large enterprises may opt for on-demand 3D printing because it offers a wider range of materials and technologies than would be practical to have at an onsite facility. Fathom counts among its clients, Tesla, 3M, Google, and Amazon. Shapeways says it works with Target and prosthetic manufacturer Fillauer, and Xometry boasts engineers at Bosch, NASA, and BMW among its customers.

Fast Radius offers a service it calls Additive Launch to help customers tap into the latest 3D printing technologies and design tools to accelerate product development.

“We’ve worked with companies like Rawlings, Steelcase, and Aptiv to bring new products to market that are only possible with additive manufacturing,” says Rassey. The new REV1X Rawlings baseball glove features internal 3D printed padding in the thumb and pinky that significantly reduces the glove’s weight without sacrificing protection or durability, according to Rawlings.

Volvo recently turned to Materialise to streamline production of lighter-weight manufacturing tools and fixtures for its factories. At Bell Helicopter Textron, engineers turned to the on-demand manufacturing wing of 3D printer maker Stratasys, called Stratasys Direct, to 3D print flight-certified components that cut weight by 13% and manufacturing lead time by 75%, the company says.

Beyond expertise in 3D printing, another tailwind driving growth for these on-demand manufacturers is advancements in additive manufacturing software and the 3D printers themselves. These, and other smart manufacturing technologies today, are more mature, reliable, and affordable, says Rassey. This makes it possible for companies like Fast Radius and others to establish profitable business models around these tools. 

“With Industry 4.0 taking off, we’re on the cusp of a significant growth opportunity,” says Martin. “Product lifecycles are so much shorter than they were even five years ago, and companies need an on-demand advanced manufacturing partner who can move quickly and serve all their requirements without sacrificing quality.”

If the growing number of service providers is any proof, more companies appear to be waking up to idea of agile digital manufacturing platforms and the benefits of transitioning their production from traditional to digital manufacturing through a trusted on-demand service provider.


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