Interview: CEO John Dogru discusses 3DPrinterOS’ user base, 3D print farms and the ‘stigma’ around desktop machines

A boy sits, after a visit to Radio Shack and harnessing his inherited penchant for engineering, with infrared diodes and resistors, making by hand his own laser tag gun.

Some years later, he is still gathering componentry to build things; this time his own personal computer using the CP/M operating system.

And then more than a decade after that, by this time living in Estonia working at a voice recognition company he helped to build, John Dogru comes across an early MakerBot 3D printer, the kind of desktop machine many hobbyists were self-assembling at home 20 years after the larger frame systems had first been commercialised.

A trend that paralleled with computing, he noticed; and a stigma attached he would come to know and is now trying to break down. As the CEO of cloud management software vendor 3DPrinterOS talks to TCT, he remarks: “people say ‘it’s just a university project’ – No, it’s not. Our vision is one-click manufacturing.”

Prior to Estonia, Dogru had worked at Austin Digital and Dell Computers, but it is on the coast of the Baltic Sea in Tallin where he and his 3DPrinterOS co-founder, CTO Anton Vedeshin, would first meet, quickly deem desktop 3D printing incredibly hard to use and find the variation of software between different machines rather annoying, if also rather familiar.

“It was very similar to computers before DOS or Microsoft, or phones before Android,” Dogru elaborates. “We saw that instead of buying one printer and running it like a cappuccino machine, the future would be the ability to let lots of people access that limited resource, like we don’t all buy servers for our home – servers came out through web browser and enabled millions of people to access servers and clusters in the cloud. We did the same with 3D printing. We wanted to make the experience better and faster in a web browser than any other localised software that comes with each printer. If you imagine ten different printers with ten different software, how are you going to access that on the network with thousands of users? How are you going to deploy that in your enterprise? It’s impossible.”

Projecting the trajectory 3D printing would go on, looking beyond the peak of the technology’s period of hype, Dogru and Vedeshin set about developing a software platform that would host a fleet of 3D printing systems, connecting them together to stop operators having to jump from software to software to run multiple machines of varying processes. It was intended primarily for corporate and industrial clients to allow them to produce several iterations of prototype parts, for example, or even tackle small runs of manufacturing aids and end-use parts. But it was first taken up by universities, leading many to make a deduction that, today, is not wholly accurate, and yet, Dogru acknowledges, a development that allowed the technology to be proofed out in an environment less demanding and more tolerant of teething problems. He had seen this before.

“[At first,] the enterprise laughed at desktop computers, but college students were the early adopters,” he compares, before also referencing Honda’s beginnings as a moped manufacturer with large numbers of sales to students, before expanding into motor cars. “We didn’t purposely go to universities, it just ended up that they started adopting it quicker and we realised we can get much quicker feedback from these people.”

Duke University in North Carolina was among the first to deploy 3DPrinterOS for its Co-Lab, which houses 3D printing and other manufacturing equipment on the Duke campus and is a perfect example of Dogru and Vedeshin’s vision when they first started out. A few years ago, the university had a small army of ten 3D printers, operated by three administrators. Today, Duke’s Co-Lab is spread across three locations, equipped with around 200 printers, including dozens of Ultimaker models, as well as Markforged, Formlabs, 3D Systems and Stratasys platforms, and thousands of users, who leverage this growing 3D printing capacity to produce prototypes and end-use components for their curricular projects. The 3DPrinterOS software system allows each of these printers to be connected with jobs assigned to the (next) available machines and prints able to be commenced from remote locations.

You’re seeing more and more customers using real time printing.

Following Duke to take up adoption of 3DPrinterOS’ software were MIT, Purdue, Berkeley, Harvard and Yale; students at which now have similar real-time access to 3D printing across each campus. 3DPrinterOS had built up a college-focused customer base Honda would be proud of and then, like a rookie football player seizing on an opportunity presented in the form of a seasoned pro’s absence, the company got the call from a big corporate brand.

Bosch Dremel had been working to develop its DigiLab 3D45 desktop 3D printer which was to be powered by the Autodesk Spark platform before the software giant decided to merge Spark’s tools into its Forge product. It caused Bosch to have a rethink, reach out to 3DPrinterOS, and announce both the product and collaboration in 2017. 3DPrinterOS would later partner with other 3D printer OEMs, such as Kodak, while 3D Systems raised an interest in investing in the company at one time, all backing the idea of print farms consisting primarily of desktop Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) platforms the likes of Duke had begun to demonstrate. Voodoo Manufacturing and Slant 3D soon became renowned names championing the print farm concept; the latter is another deploying the 3DPrinterOS system. “World’s biggest print farm,” Dogru reads from a TCT Magazine headline after a quick Google. “They’re producing 10,000 parts a week, clustered a tonne of these printers, now they’re making parts for Amazon.”

It is 3DPrinterOS’ ideal in a nutshell – bundle a suite of cost-friendly desktop 3D printing systems and maximise the capacity to serve real manufacturing needs. Through an interactive map on Dogru’s dashboard, dozens of populations across the globe can be seen operating their own services with the help of 3DPrinterOS’ platform. There is a flash of colour in places like New York, San Francisco and certain parts of Europe where 3DPrinterOS has seen significant adoption, and dots scattered more sparsely in countries like Brazil where the usership isn’t so dense.

“You’re seeing more and more customers using real time printing. They have printing farms, home businesses, fabrication labs. We know this guy has got his own small factory,” Dogru says, zooming in on the map. “It’s worldwide and it’s growing extremely fast, at some pretty phenomenal rates.”  

Each user, whether it’s one person operating a home business, a university managing printers across several locations or a growing print farm, has complete access, visibility and transparency over everything through a single interface. Administrators can see who is doing what, which designer is using which design, which machines needs maintenance or repair, how the material inventory levels are looking, and what analytics are being produced. This is all available in real-time, as parts are printed, with the entire lifecycle of each and every job able to be tracked. 3DPrinterOS also guarantees complete privacy and security.

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Designers, meanwhile, benefit from a host of available plugins, including for SolidWorks products, Dassault Systémes software and Autodesk’ Fusion 360 and Inventor models. The firmware on hardware products can also be overridden – Dogru highlights how many MakerBot innovation centres are using 3DPrinterOS – while there are STL editor, visualisation tools and design repair and preparation tools too.

This all happens – both the design work and the monitoring by administrators – on the same platform, enabling user reports to be generated in real time and design files and other examples of intellectual property being more secure within the organisation, for example.

“This is what the nightmare looks like today,” Dogru says, moving his cursor over an infographic with arrows pointing in every direction between operators and engineers, machinery and Excel spreadsheets. “On one side, you have all the different machines and on the other, you’ve got a person that wants to build parts and all day they go back and forth, sending emails and Excel files. This is a security nightmare for customers.

“What we’ve done is create this operating system – we’re neutral to all the inputs: doesn’t matter if it’s CAD/ CAM scanners, augmented reality; we’re neutral to all the outputs: desktop, industrial, robotics, CNC; and we’re neutral to the application – but it needs to be housed in one true cloud platform that has App Engine. That way you can get copyright protection, authorisation, you can have marketplaces, you can lock down the exact firmware and get repeatability. USB sticks and SD card vulnerabilities are taken care of; we have secure cloud in private sectors; encrypted secure ethernet and audit logs. We’re controlling every variable down to the firmware.”

These capabilities are important for 3DPrinterOS because its clientele doesn’t stop at universities implementing a network to support students in completing their studies, nor does it at service bureaus. Google, Microsoft, NASA, and Governmental defence agencies all directly use its software, while through Slant 3D alone, the likes of Amazon, Nickelodeon and Haddington Dynamics also rely on its capabilities. Universities were the company’s ‘proofing ground’, per Dogru, but the focus was always on supporting enterprise. It’s also why the company doesn’t just support FDM desktop machines – it realises some companies need to scale to bigger volumes, or print bigger parts, than those machines can allow. But such is the application of its technology by the likes of Duke and Slant 3D, the company is defensive of the capabilities of FDM desktop-powered farms.

It unlocks innovation at a scale we’ve not seen before.

What it sees happening at these organisations, even what it sees in some of the smaller, independent businesses that 3DPrinterOS and FDM desktop technology facilitates, is not too dissimilar to how the likes of Jabil, Ford and Volkswagen are applying the same equipment. Dogru also has to hand a hype cycle graph, labelled extensively with a host of different 3D printing processes – material extrusion is ahead of the rest, currently on its way to the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ from the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’, while the likes of stereolithography and powder bed fusion lag behind still in the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. These measurements are from a Gartner study, now 18 months old, but serve to back up Dogru’s next point about a perceived stigma around FDM, and particularly desktop FDM.    

“I think there’s a big problem in the industry where they are discounting these inexpensive machines when the quality here is sometimes equal or better to some of the high-end machines. Jabil are the third largest contract manufacturer in the world; they’re using stacks of FDM printers to improve production. Same exactly like we started in the universities. Here they call it industrial, and then there’s a stigma in the universities that they’re not industrial. What’s the difference? They’re making real parts. These lower end, cheaper printers clustered together are serving an industrial purpose.”

Dogru and Vedeshin saw this potential way back when they first started out on this venture. In dealing with a range of customers has seen the efficiencies at which a university would prototype a part versus the way an enterprise might – “[A student could] push a button at night in their PJs and have five iterations in the morning. Think how important it is for enterprise to have that lower latency; they’re wasting millions of dollars internally in just time-to-market.” And with the current supply chain disruptions, as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, motivating 3D printing users far and wide to leverage their equipment to produce PPE and medical equipment for local healthcare workers, another of their visions might be coming to pass.

The ability to connect multiple 3D printing systems at multiple locations within the same network, digitally transferring design files and keeping manufacturing processes secure, becomes, 3DPrinterOS hopes, an enabler to decentralised manufacturing. Currently, the company is supporting volunteers around the world in the manufacture and delivery of face shields and the like to help medical staff and other key workers in the fight against COVID-19, in what 3DPrinterOS believes is the power of community and cloud, ‘connecting dots’ – or manufacturers – ‘in a way they never have been before.’ It is allowing people to distribute files, rather than parts, and produce them at the point of need. 

3DPrinterOS thinks – as it has since Dogru and Vedeshin were working with a sole MakerBot printer in Estonia – that this, producing parts with a single click, no matter where or when, is the future of manufacturing.

“To get to one click manufacturing,” Dogru concludes, “the big challenge is how do you connect all the wires. This is what we do. Anton and I have worked on everything from firmware, assembly, up to the cloud; we’ve both worked on pretty advanced projects and it was difficult, but once we saw the utilisation of the likes of Duke University, it proved our thesis. That gave us the confidence to say, ‘this is the future’ – you can go from design to production instantly and it unlocks innovation at a scale we’ve not seen before.”

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