CloudDDM's New Strategic End-of-Runway 3D Printing Service
Andrew Wheeler posted on July 30, 2015 |

As additive manufacturing (AM) in combination with other 3D technology continues to affect industrial manufacturing and design processes in the global marketplace, an increasing number of companies will be faced with an important investment decision: For 3D printing needs, do we invest the resources to purchase an industrial 3D printer or do we use a 3D printing service bureau?

It's an interesting question. Most companies that use industrial additive manufacturing on a regular basis are still using them mainly to create prototypes. But as the capability of the technology expands, the adoption and regular use of industrial AM will only increase. More companies in more industries will rely on industrial additive manufacturing. As a result, there will be a demand for investing in AM systems for in-house fabrication, which will involve a serious internal analysis of the resources (time, money, training) needed for implementation and integration. As industrial manufacturing continues to supplement and replace traditional manufacturing methods, there will also be a surge of companies sending out industrial-sized orders to 3D printing service bureaus. 

There are many service bureaus to choose from, and many of them have grown in reputation as being reliable and honest companies. But we can speculate — with an increasing degree of comfort — that the demand for larger volume and repeat orders of high-end 3D prints is only going to grow from its current rate. Companies will have to be able to depend on a 3D printing service bureau to come through with repeated precision and reliability. It raises an interesting question: Why are there no 3D printing service bureaus that are optimized for speed, precision and reliability for industrial AM applications?

Mitch Free, CEO of CloudDDM, took a look at existing 3D printing service bureaus, liked what they saw, but also recognized that there was room for improvement. Free, along with Rick Smith, David Crowder, and Anthony Graves, went on to co-found and launch CloudDDM (DDM = Direct Digital Manufacturing) to create a new, streamlined 3D printing service that offers customers the ability to order and receive large batches (500-5,000) of prototypes, jigs, fixtures, molds, visual prototypes, functional prototypes and dimensionally accurate end-use 3D printed products faster and with a new degree of autonomy. 

How exactly do they do this?

CloudDDM's 3D printing factory is fully integrated with the UPS Worldport ecosystem, the world's largest package handling facility. Yes, they 3D print at the UPS Supply Chain Solutions campus, and their orders are fully integrated with UPS's shipping service. This gives CloudDDM an average of six extra hours to complete prints versus other service bureaus who are not printing directly from a package handling facility. When it comes to turning around orders, this innovation certainly makes them faster. 

The team at CloudDDM also operates industrial 3D printers that are fully integrated with the CloudDDM platform. CloudDDM's 3D print factory allows them to take on large industrial orders, which they receive from customers via their cloud-based app. They've customized their hardware to print large volumes of jobs, and the closed system affords them freedom from third-party hardware or software, making them more flexible at adapting new technologies and processes to improve their service. 

CloudDDM has also put a lot of thought into streamlining the customer experience when it comes to quoting and ordering. A user starts by uploading an STL file to the CloudDDM app. During the upload, the file is checked for errors and saved to the cloud. Getting an instant quote is as simple as opening the file and picking from a few print options. If the user is ready to purchase, they just follow a simple checkout process, like the ones you would find on any ecommerce site. A few seconds after the order is placed, the CloudDDM printers will begin printing. 

If you order from CloudDDM, your parts will be in one of the four most commonly used thermoplastics: ABS, PC, PC-ABS and ULTEM (1010). Once an order is placed, the customer knows that their order is being 3D printed. There are no queues, and no need to check in. This gives the customer more autonomy, as though they're connected directly to CloudDDM's 3D print factory. 

How and why did they create this system from scratch?

I asked CEO Mitch Free to shed some light on the origin of this 3D printing service, and he said, "The key thing that allowed us to create an industrial-scale solution was the fact that we were developing a system that wouldn't have to be resold. If you have a product that's going to be mass marketed and widely distributed, you start out with a lot of limitations. With retail systems, or systems sold commercially, you have to be thoughtful of reliability and field service so you don’t push the limits. To do so would be inviting trouble. Removing those constraints, as we were able to do, allowed us to create a system that can be quickly adjusted and tuned to maximize speed, quality and reliability. Here’s just one example. Using a machining analogy, let’s say we start out running at 100 [inches per minute]. We dial up the speed until we reach a point where we start to get undesirable results, then we can dial it back a bit. If you apply this principle across the entire platform, you get a highly optimized or ‘tuned’ system that helps increase our overall capacity while maintaining our ability to consistently produce high-quality parts.”

On the importance of quality in the process, Free said, “If you have a part that's going to be machined, and you go to three different job [(machine)] shops, the part is going to come out the same. If you need a part 3D printed on an industrial machine, and you go to three different service bureaus, are all the parts going to be the same? Will they be printed on the same machine, with the same capabilities [(resolution)], and with the same material? When somebody orders six or 60 parts from CloudDDM, or even 30 one month and 30 the next month, they are going to get the same quality parts produced with the same system. Every part, component, prototype, object, or whatever it is, will be exactly the same."

CloudDDM's high-quality automated additive manufacturing facility is nearly fully automated, requiring just one employee per eight-hour shift to run and maintain their entire system. The automated and streamlined design of the facility alone, would speed up the print jobs. The fact that CloudDDM is integrated into a world-class shipping center gives the company an important option to offer designers and engineers the ability to order high-priority, dimensionally-accurate 3D prints and have them shipped immediately after they are ready. 

Having the shipping and logistics expertise of UPS on hand certainly didn't hurt the CloudDDM team fine-tune their system to help them respond and ship to customers. Every single order is sent out via UPS's priority overnight (Red or Next Day Air) shipping service. 

As we know, the majority of industrial AM use is reserved for prototyping. But a growing percentage of industries are seeing the advantages of 3D printing the part of their supply chain that is low-volume but needs to be highly customized. 

The majority of orders CloudDDM receives are for visual and functional prototypes, but as the multitude of job shops and manufacturing facilities realize that other objects like jigs, fixtures, molds and end-use parts can be fabricated inexpensively by industrial 3D printers, the company can expect to see those types of orders increase as well.

I asked how CloudDDM would weather technological advances and changes in 3D printing technology, and Free assured me that their system was designed to remain scalable and modular, and the team is always engaged in research and development to stay nimble.

Currently, CloudDDM is focused on getting the word out about their 3D printing service, but has some significant additions to offer customers in the near future, including adding metal AM and fully-polished post-processing (currently they offer unfinished and smooth, semi-gloss matte) as an option.

The idea is sound, and the prediction for industrial AM is spot on. It's easy to see an increasing number of companies looking to place large repeat orders that are dimensionally accurate as the number of industrial applications for AM continues to grow. CloudDDM appears to have designed a system that is not only capable of filling large orders (500-5,000 parts) right now, but is prepared to scale to even further heights in the near future.

Free summed up the potential of CloudDDM, "There's a reason why Apple goes to Foxconn, because they have the scale and capacity to produce their products."

To learn more, go to http://www.cloudddm.com.

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