For those of us constantly keeping up with the wildly unpredictable 3D printing market, we may sometimes become too consumed with the desktop market, putting the professional-grade service bureaus on the back-burner of our attention span. But, for companies like NASA, Lockheed Martin, and Ford, 3D printing technology has gained prominence as a complementary manufacturing technique, one that is continuously becoming more relevant for production-grade components. I had the opportunity to speak to one of the pioneering companies looking to change ‘the shape of manufacturing’, the Gaithersburg, Maryland-based manufacturing solutions provider Xometry.
Since operations began in early 2014, the manufacturing firm has already seen the power behind 3D printing technology formulate itself into a tool for creating product-ready components. The company is far more than a 3D printing service bureau, featuring a wide array of manufacturing solutions that complement additive manufacturing, including CNC machining and urethane casting. As far as 3D printing technology goes, their extensive process includes Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Metal Binder Jetting, Fused deposition Modeling (FDM), and many more. Xometry’s customers range from SpaceX to General Electric, with many more in between.
In order to better understand the professional-grade services being offered by Xometry, I spoke with CEO Randy Altschuler, as well as the Director of Project Engineering, Greg Paulsen. We chatted about their comprehensive and informative services, the best ways to utilize their vast amount of different 3D printing technologies, where they think the additive manufacturing industry currently stands, and much more…
Xometry’s ideal customer is a business entity that has vast expertise in product design, but needs assistance with the manufacturing of it. According to Altschuler, the lack of information available on these vastly different technologies leads to a lack of understanding of which process is best for their product development.
“The customer keeps hearing about all these new manufacturing technologies, hearing about metal 3D printing and different plastic 3D printing opportunities, and even innovations in machining, milling, and injection molding,” Altschuler told me. “There are all these different innovations, but from the customers perspective, their expertise is in designing a part, it doesn’t lay in the manufacturing of it. Since it’s such a large, fragmented market, and there is so much inefficiency on the information side.”
In order to assist in this complicated dilemma, Xometry was developed to help handle the entire manufacturing process for these companies and customers. That includes information on which process is best for their product development, which varies depending on the aim of the customer.
“When you upload something to Xometry, you get a price not only for being printed in plastic in SLS, but you get it in other plastics, or you can metal 3D print it with DMLS or binder jetting, and also if you want it machined or a urethane mold made of it too,” said Altschuler. “All of those prices, along with the pros and cons in terms as lead times, limitations, manufacturing feedback is all given to you on our website. Effectively, we’re telling you the best way to do it, if you want the cheapest price or the fastest lead time, we will show you the best way to accomplish that.”
When we discussed what sets them apart from other 3D printing service bureaus, the difference was quite clear. In Xometry’s case, 3D printing technology is just a complementary component to their available manufacturing services, which also include machining, milling, and urethane casting. Their company isn’t exactly ideal for a maker tinkering around with a 3D design, instead, their primary focus is on businesses looking to move into the stage of production.
“We’re really focused on the B2B market, our customers range from Fortune 500 companies to smaller OEMs, and we also do plenty of startups and people with neat ideas,” added Altschuler. “But, when you come to Xometry, you get a very high level of precision and professionalism that is required when you’re using this for a business application, rather than someone just experimenting with 3D printing.”
According to Greg Paulsen, one of Xometry’s primary services comes in the form of the real-time feedback they provide to their customers. Once a 3D model is uploaded, the Xometry team will analyze and provide feedback on the part, detailing the potential issues in the product design, as well as which manufacturing process should be used, depending on the circumstances and needs of their customer.
“In one case, there was a certain feature that would have added a couple hundred dollars per part, just because of a certain divot that needed an extra long tool to reach,” Paulsen told me. “Although we don’t design for them, our manufacturing feedback allowed them to give a new iteration of the design, helping them save money when it went to production. We’ve already touched several rounds of production with them now on that same product. It’s really neat to see the transition from a short, quick fail-fast stage, where you go from a prototype which you evaluate within about a week to see what you’re getting, and then these guys go into the production phase.”
Equipped with a wide-array of manufacturing technologies, Xometry has the solution for almost any type of product development. For instance, their metal binder jetting provides customers with an affordable way to test out metal 3D printing, which is usually a costly endeavor.
“One interesting trend with binder jet 3D printing, which is a more affordable metal 3D printing process. We’ve got a lot of customers who want to check that out,” said Altschuler. “Binder jetting is a relatively inexpensive way to dip your toes into the water of metal 3D printing. I think metal is what a lot of people are hearing about, but they’re still learning about the limitations of the material itself, the properties, and what the finishes and turn times will look like. The price of metal 3D printing sometimes shocks people and pushes them back to traditional manufacturing methods, but binder jetting is a way to alleviate that.”
All in all, Xometry is helping to push 3D printing technology towards the stage of use-end production, but they’re doing it in a complementary way, rather than one that focuses only on additive manufacturing. In fact, Altschuler believes that the 3D printing market has been negatively impacted by the proneness to look at it as an end-to-end solution in and of itself.
“I think a misconception on the market was that you can go to your desktop 3D printer, print something, and it will look like it just came from the store. There’s a growing awareness now of all the accompanying technology, skills, and equipment that are needed to really create product-ready parts,” Altschuler finished. “If people want to have beautiful metal parts they either need to find a local machine shop or build their own one, you’re not going to find exactly what you want fresh off the printer, you’re going to have to invest some time into the finishing, I don’t think people truly appreciate that enough yet.”