Inside Markforged’s Digital Warehouse

New Digital Source platform enables manufacturer-certified parts to be licensed and 3D printed on demand.

It’s been a promise of 3D printing almost from its inception: replace your physical inventory with a digital one to produce parts only as they’re needed. Save space, save maintenance, save time: what’s not to like? Of course, like so many technological promises, the lag between marketing hype and reality has been considerable.

Fortunately, the dream of digital warehouses may finally be coming to pass with the announcement of Markforged’s Digital Source, an on-demand parts platform designed to enable the secure licensing and 3D printing of manufacturer-certified parts. Rather than shipping physical replacements, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) can share their IP on the Digital Source platform so that their customers can print their own parts as needed.

Engineering.com sat down with Tripp Burd, Markforged’s director of new platforms, to learn more.

ENGINEERING.COM: So, the idea is that Digital Source allows OEMs to license their digital part designs to customers, distributors and contract manufacturers. Can you explain how that process works?

BURD: Well, the basic idea has been around a long time: it’s a folder of digital parts. The advantage of our approach is that you don’t lose control or visibility of a file after you share it. Typically, once you share a digital file, you lose control of it: the part can be reverse engineered, copied or modified. The internal settings can be changed in a way that no longer allows OEMs confidence that the part will be produced as intended.

With Digital Source, the OEMs can define a price for the part, as well as critical requirements and intervals—for example, a single-part license so you can print it once and then the file self-destructs. It’s a closed feedback loop, so the customer or the OEM can make sure the printer is up to date, the correct material is loaded and that the part is subjected to the right tests once it’s produced.

At the moment, we have a series of checks built into the hardware and software that can inspect the system the file is going to, but the end goal is to ensure compliance with other requirements, like post processing. So, if a part needs some post processing, I need to be able to ensure that the facility that will be printing it has those capabilities. And, as the OEM, I can get scanned data back in real time to show the part was created successfully and that it meets my tolerances and my customer’s requirements.

That’s what really differentiates this from other digital inventory platforms where, once the file reaches its destination, you lose all visibility into what happens to it.

Can you give us an example of how OEMs can use Digital Source?

Sure. There’s a machine builder in Germany called BMF that makes automated sandblasting cabinets which produce an extremely high-quality surface finish without a lot of the manual labor involved with traditional metal finishing. They’ve got hundreds of machines scattered around the world and dozens of parts for the internal mechanisms are printed on Markforged printers. Given that it’s a media blasting cabinet, the components get torn up and need to be changed every few months.

So, in their case, they were traditionally printing all of the spare parts and stocking them internally. If one of their customers has downtime, they call BMF and have the parts shipped out, which can take a week or more. Now, they’ve taken to bundling Markforged printers along with their hardware and, with Digital Source, they’re able to share secure catalogs of spare parts—so the printer itself is like a spare parts kit.

And the advantage is that these new users don’t have to go shopping for 3D printing or know anything about design for additive manufacturing. All they have to do is keep the machine on and loaded appropriately, and when they need spare parts, they just access the catalog that BMF has shared. That means cheaper parts for the customer, better service, better margins and less overhead for BMF, so everybody wins.

It sounds like this would give OEMs a way to expand their footprint without having to build a whole factory in a new market. Is that right?

Absolutely. This is a digital supply chain tool: we have customers that are expanding globally, so they’re bringing on distributors and service providers. Typically, that means manufacturing locally, so you’re dealing with customs and tariffs and lead times. Instead, you can push all of that distribution digitally because you can push jobs to third-party print services.

So, if I need a component but it’s larger than the build envelope in the printer I have, I can send it out to a supplier and use their capacity instead. Or you might have one machine for on-demand spares, but when you need to make a production run to meet peak orders, you can route jobs to that extra capacity.

If we’re talking about distributed manufacturing on top of the digital warehouse concept, then integration is obviously going to be important. How are you integrating the various hardware, software and materials to ensure consistent production?

For us, that comes down to what we call the Digital Forge, which is an ecosystem designed to bring software, materials and hardware together to make an extremely easy user experience. We handle all of the fine tuning in terms of print settings and material qualification so that all our customers need to do is define their part requirements. We’re not having to recreate all the technology required to process feedback and in-process scanning and reporting because we’re using tools and features that already exist in our core product line. We’re just providing the software backbone to allow people to securely exchange the information across different organizations. Really, this is just the next logical step in how our company’s been growing.

Can you elaborate on the security measures you’re using to safeguard digital part files and protect your customers’ designs?

It is a major challenge, but Digital Source is built on the Markforged platform, and we’re certified for ISO 27001, so we’re meeting enterprise standards for software security. Additionally, the print files that are created when someone orders a part are separate from the CAD file, so they have no access to that or the internal print settings. What they get is an encrypted file that can’t be changed and is encoded only for the printer that it’s headed to, and it can’t be rerouted. So, that prevents modification, duplication and any malicious activity with the file. That meets our enterprise security needs and we’re just opening up that capability from the Markforged cloud and adding OEMs.

What are the long-terms goals of Digital Source?

The goal here is really to accelerate and enable the adoption of distributed manufacturing. This is a promise that everyone has been working towards for a long time. All of the pieces have been available, but in separate little pockets. This is the first time they’ve been combined in a way that provides trust and confidence along with a monetization plan to incentivize adoption.

We want this to be a platform that grows rapidly beyond just Markforged hardware to include other manufacturing technologies so it can become a value-added tool in the manufacturing supply chain. Everyone recognizes the benefits of distributed manufacturing, but so far it has required a lot of education in the form of engineering hours to try and put this technology on the ground.

If we can empower OEMs—who are the ones best suited to answer those questions already—with a platform to communicate with their customers and suppliers, then we’re shifting that workload over to a better solution. Customers can use this without needing to be additive engineers themselves, and once a part has been created for the first time, it’s easy to scale. There are additive manufacturing initiatives all over the place, but very little coordination or collaboration to allow it to scale.

We’re very excited by the value this brings to people looking to adopt additive.