We are finishing our series of articles summing up the Additive Manufacturing Europe 2016. In the end I would like to write about the frosting on the cake – Ultimaker – the biggest manufacturer of low-budget 3D printers in Europe.
As I had written before, the star of the trade was Zortrax. It achieved it thanks its perfectly prepared stand and a presentation of its new device – Zortrax M300. However, when we put its marketing cases aside – the next 3D printer, which premiere on the market is still not known, spectacular 3D prints, sexy hostesses and their indefatigable barista, serving the strongest coffee in the world… and focus on content, it turns out, that there isn’t a lot to remember… Utimaker which stood close to it, left no doubt. Currently it is the best and the most innovative company in the industry of low-budged 3D print, which successfully does something, which is only told to be implemented by another companies – it brings low-budged 3D printers into industrial solutions.
In Amsterdam we had an opportunity to meet key persons from Ultimaker and to take part in their company’s party, which took place after the first day of the trade, in Zandvoort at the seaside. We were there the only people from “outside” – I mean – we weren’t co-workers or resellers or distributors of the company. Unfortunately I can’t reveal all of the information I heard, nonetheless, everything which can be said, is still very interesting. On the one hand, these are the concrete technical solutions presented by Ultimaker during the trade, on the other hand their conception of carrying out of the whole business.
Let’s start with their vision. The party, which took place in the club (Nautique) situated on the beach. It was started with a speech of the co-founder of the company – Siert Wijnia, CTO. At the beginning he thanked the gathered co-workers and resellers for fantastic financial results. The company met assumed targets and is on the good way to achieve historic success in the end of the year. Patrick Roeffen – Channel Sales Manager of Ultimaker, told me, that it wasn’t a corporation propaganda. The company does well in Europe and its position on the American market is still growing.
In the next part of the speech Siert Wijnia pointed sources of the successes. In contrary to another companies on the market, Ultimaker doesn’t focus only on manufacturing and selling of 3D printers, but also on creating of the whole ecosystem in which they can work. A device is not a subject of activity of the company – its aim is creating of complex solutions, in which a 3D printer is only an element of the bigger system. Wijnia called it – “The Ultimaker Experience“. This expression is a key to understand a vision of functioning of the company. The Dutch don’t want their customers just to buy their 3D printers – they rather want to deliver something which will guarantee a higher level of work.
It sounds like a truism and a typical corpo-chit-chat. However, after whole day of looking for the Ultimaker’s solutions during the trade and talking to representatives of the company I understood, that the words of Siert Wijnia are realised in reality.
What is exactly “The Ultimaker Experience“? The key is here an open-source policy, which is one of foundations of the company. In opinion of most people it means, that after launching of a new model of a 3D printer after some time (usually after six months) Ultimaker releases open source files for them and lets it to replicate itself. Generally speaking it boils down to it, that users can copy its products, but when they want to earn from them, they have to cut off the brand.
At first site this policy bears marks of commercial suicide, however after quick analysing it turns out, that it is not so obvious. First of all, a percentage of people who decide on building of their own version of Ultimaker, instead of buying it, is relatively small. Secondly, most of the users who can choose between buying an original one or a fake, will decide on buying an original alternative. Finally, regardless it the sources of your 3D printer are open or closed, when someone really wants to copy a device, he will copy it anyway.
Why do they release open sources? For marketing? – by no means… On the one hand Ultimaker lets to copy its products legally, but on the other hand it enables – or rather encourages to change and modify them, to adjust them to your needs. Thanks to it someone created a version of Ultimaker printing from chocolate. Also replaceable parts are produced (Olsson Block), which make work faster and easier. In Canada there is a start-up offering a module which lets to 3D print from silicone. The company doesn’t sell a closed product – it gives to its client a device, which can be adapted for diverse projects, according to your needs.
Ultimaker is carrying out quite interesting project (connected with this concept) in the whole world. It chooses different companies, institutions or organisations which are diverse according to their activities – from advanced industry, through medicine, finishing with artistic and creative groups and it gives them its machines, to recreate them according to their own needs.
Do you design medical implants and you would like to 3D print them from medical PEEK? Tell us, what we should change in out 3D printer and give us some time – we will see, what we can do with it. Do you need to print from materials of low temperature resistance? – We will check which components need to be replaced in our construction to make it possible. If we do it, you will be the first who will try it.
That is “The Ultimaker Experience” – a system based on constant changing and modifying of the existing products, adjusting them according to diverse requirements of the users.
Back to the trade… Ultimaker showed in Amsterdam some impressive things. First of all, an installation called: “Ultimaker Print Management System“. It is dedicated productive system, managed via an application on touchpad. The presented version was equipped with 9 3D printers, but for the time being, you can manage with approx. 70 machines. Is should manage with over 100 as a a target.
As I heard from Bas De Jong – product manager responsible for this product, it is the next solution, which was created because of suggestions of their customers.
We started to work on this system, because a lot of our customers turned to us with a problem: “I would like to buy a bigger number of your 3D printers, but I need a solution, which will let me to use and manage with them easily.”. If he has one or two 3D printers – there’s no problem. When he has 9 or 10, or even 50, it’s problematic.
3D printers are closed in a special cabinet, which can be closed. On its top there are pipes which transport vapours which are produced during 3D printing (independently from ventilating system). The devices are connected with a cable, but it is possible to communicate with them via WiFi. De Jong paid attention to it, that more clients prefer the first, more classical solution. Although the system can work in cloud, the customers tend to connect 3D printers to their local network.
Besides the 3D printers, each place is equipped with a camera, which lets to control each machine separately. There is also a hiding place for tools.
The heart of the whole system is the dedicated software. It is user-friendly – it bases only on four main options:
- dashboard – where basic information about the whole system is presented (about a temperature inside the system and status of 3D printers),
- jobs – list of orders/ projects which were/are or will be realised,
- printers – detailed monitoring of all 3D printers in the systems: how your files are printed, how much time is left, which time each detail will be finished, status (printing, ready, etc.) and detailed information or video monitoring,
- manage – a possibility to put the 3D printers into groups (f.e. choosing a part of them to print from defined material, or picking them to work on one, concrete project).
When each 3D printer finishes to work, you have to remove a 3D print with hands. After starting the next print, you have to confirm in the software, that the working bed is clean and ready to work. Obviously, when you confirm it without removing of a 3D print, a 3D printer will start to work what causes to “failure”– however checking if everything is ready to work, it a minimum which you have do yourself.
For now the Ultimaker Print Management System is tested by chosen customers. It works in systems equipped with approximately 50 devices. They produce prototypes and final elements.
A business model of the project is B2B. When a customer wants to buy the system, Ultimaker (or its authorised representative) comes to him and installs everything on the spot. The system will be ready to purchase within the next several months.
The second thing worth to see on the Ultimaker’s stand was Audi RS5, equipped with a 3D printed exhaust system. The company which is responsible for the project is British Eventuri, specialising in recreating of drive units in cars of S and E class. Besides Audi, the company has also creating of alternative solutions for Jaguar, BMW or Honda on its account.
Eventuri designs new versions of exhaust systems for each car, prints them with Ultimakers and than assembles them in the motor to test the next iteations of the model. When any part doesn’t suit, or the tests show, that it could have been designed better, it is re-created and tested as long as it will meet the requirements of designers.
A factor, which decided about choosing of 3D printers from Ultimaker, is a possibility to use almost all materials available on the market. It lets to test diverse solutions or very resistant plastics. Independently from it, the designers from Eventuri print a lot of models from standard PLA.
The third thing, which attracted attention of visitors, was a version of Ultimaker printing from silicone. It is carried out by company Structur3D from Kitchener in Ontario, Canada. Founders of the company worked out a station cooperating with Ultimaker, which lets to use silicon during 3D printing. It costs 399 $ and additional cartridges (in form of syringes) 59,99$.
The story of the project is really simple – the creators of Structur3D looked for a 3D printer printing from silicone, but after fruitless searching, they decided to create their own machine based on Ultimaker 2, thanks to the fact, that it is open and it is possible to modify it. Structur3D implemented its idea and started to manufacture it. Ultimaker praised it and invited them to Amsterdam, to exhibit their product on the stand. It doesn’t earn from it. What is more, Structur3D sells in Canada 3D printers of Felix… so a potential rival of Ultimaker. Interesting, isn’t it?
Imagine, that Zortrax could invite to its stand Julię Truchsess of Pragmatic Designs, so a creator of famous Z-TEMP – a device which lets to change a temperature in Zortrax M200. So, there is a “tiny” difference between Ultimaker and another companies from the market. On the other hand – no one invested 44 mln PLN in return for 15% of shares in Ultimaker, but it’s a topic for a longer discussion.
All things considered, Ultimaker had a little bit chaotic stand and you couldn’t have drunk coffee there, but it showed to its rivals, who really rules on the market of low-budget 3D printers in Europe. I can add, that we are waiting for Ultimaker 3. Like in case of 2, GO, Extended and 2+, I won’t expect any revolution – but it’s not a strategy of the company. It’s still an evolution, which aims to be as close as possible to customers and make that they feel like a part of the whole process of creating of new solutions.