We had the chance to ask some pointed questions of 3D Platform’s President, Jonathan Schroeder.
Fabbaloo: 3D Platform is part of PBC Linear, a well-known maker of precision motion systems. How did such a hardware company get into the 3D printer business?
Jonathan Schroeder: 3D Platform’s roots grew out of PBC Linear, which is a world leading mechatronics manufacturer in Roscoe, Illinois, USA; however, it is a standalone business and separate legal entity.
Our roots provided us with excessive knowledge in mechanical design and linear motion, as well as building equipment for plasma cutters, water jet machines, and machine-tool type applications where an x-y-z motion is required, which is a natural fit for 3D printers.
In the beginning, PBC Linear just introduced a new actuator line called SIMO series, and we needed a good way to demo it. We knew that the market interest was very high in 3D printing, so we built one, and took it to the ATX tradeshow in February of 2014.
People liked our actuators, but they really liked our printer, and that’s when we said: “Maybe there is something here.” We officially introduced 3D Platform (initially 3DP Unlimited) to the marketplace at the RAPID tradeshow in the summer of 2014 in Detroit.
Fabbaloo: What was the steps for the decision to make a separate company?
Jonathan Schroeder: Going back many years, PBC worked with leading printer and additive manufacturing (AM) companies that incorporated mechatronics into their designs. Our engineering team tried figuring out how we could bring AM in-house to print out some of the mechatronics components that we were creating, and couldn’t find a printer that met our design needs. So, they were challenged to make their own.
The PBC marketing team thought the very first printer they built would make an excellent demo for mechatronics, so they took it to ATX, as mentioned before, and people lined up wanting to buy the printer.
Our initial intention was to sell mechatronics with it, but we soon discovered that there was a lot of people with certain AM needs that weren’t being served well. So, we developed and locked down a design of a printer that fit a niche where people had a need, and that is what lead to 3D Platform.
Fabbaloo: 3D Platform was one of the first companies to recognize a market existed for less expensive large-sized 3D printers; how did you make this discovery? What was the trigger?
Jonathan Schroeder: The Workbench is great and meets the needs of customers at a certain level; however, customer feedback is what led to going larger – they wanted a printer that was faster and could produce larger prints at a more affordable price.
With faster and larger print demands, we immediately started developing the Delta 3D printer series, which has the same mechatronics system that is found in the Workbench, but allows users to scale in the z-axis. We also started to develop the Excel printer, which is an even larger format that targets the industrial and manufacturing industries.
Most of our design decisions really come down to the voice of the customer and what they are looking for:
Manufacturing for production support
Manufacturing for end use
Custom and flexible design
Fabbaloo: Since your launch in 2014 you’ve sold a version of a 1 x 1 x 0.5 m 3D printer. How successful has that venture been? I notice you list at least 36 companies on your website using the product.
Jonathan Schroeder: Our meter by meter by half meter 3D printer has been widely successful. It has appealed to customers who have cut their teeth on desktop printers and were looking to do more, as well as customers who had purchased high-end production machines from the lead market players that were looking to go ahead and have more affordable deployments. We have customers ranging from marquee Fortune 500 companies to individual business people/artists.
Fabbaloo: Recently you announced two new series of rather large 3D printers. I’m wondering what caused you to take this step, since it seems to be a bit outside of your current market and deeper into manufacturing. What was the thought process here?
Jonathan Schroeder: That’s a bit of a misconception. Larger printers really aren’t outside of our core market. Most of our printers are used for manufacturing, engineering, and research and design. Our customers came to us wanting larger machines that were capable of printing and doing things that no other machine on the market could do; for example, machines that could do additive manufacturing with both spool-fed and pellet-fed materials; one that had a robot on it that could do automatic pick-and-place; and one that could do subtractive manufacturing and additive manufacturing within the same enclosure. That led us to come up with the excel machine.
Fabbaloo: Tell us a bit about the 3DP Delta Additive Manufacturing Series, which is the tallest 3D printer I’ve heard of.
Jonathan Schroeder: We wanted to make a Delta printer because the demand for large format printers is high.
Cartesian models scale well in the x- and y-axes, but not so much in the z-axis. The Delta allows consumers to scale in the z-axis at faster speeds, allowing them to create larger prints for architectural applications (sculptures, buildings, columns, etc.), organic shapes and designs that have a lot of curves, and full-body prints for medical studies.
Fabbaloo: Tell us about the other new concept, the 3DP Excel Additive Manufacturing Series. How expandable Is this machine?
Jonathan Schroeder: The Excel machine was designed to be super expandable. The engineering has already been done, and the machines have been modeled to be as wide as 4-meters wide to 4-meters tall and out to 100-meters in length. Conceptually, the machine can be made larger if needed, and customized to whatever dimensions that the customer needs whatever the needs are of the customer.
If a customer is going to spend 6 or 7 figures on a machine, then at the end of the day, they are going to want that machine the exact size that they need for their process. That is one of the reasons we chose a customizable design, as opposed to saying, “Okay, here is the machine. Take it or leave it”, which other large format companies have done. That works fine for a select set of customers, but, every customer is unique and we want our printer to be more suitable and adaptable to meet all our customers’ needs.
Fabbaloo: What applications and industries will it target?
Jonathan Schroeder: One of the first industries that we are going to target is thermal forming.
Jonathan Schroeder: The standard Excel machine has a standard 4-foot by 8-foot print bed, and 4 by 8 is one of the most common sizes for thermal forming molds that is in use in the U.S. and other countries.
Fabbaloo: When will these new concepts be available for purchase and delivery?
Jonathan Schroeder: The Delta is scheduled to be available for sale first quarter of 2017. The Excel is available for sale now, and we are negotiating with several customers in purchasing the first set of machines that will be available in early 2017.
Fabbaloo: The Excel will no doubt be integrated into manufacturing operations. Will this require 3D Platform to hire new people to work with clients to install and operate the machine?
Jonathan Schroeder: We will be able to use our existing workforce and service technicians to install and service the machines. However, as our volume of Workbenches increase, and the volume of our Excel machines increase, there’s naturally going to be an expansion that happens for employees. As we continue to grow revenue and the number of machines we can sell, we will continue to work on the growth of the company.
The technology that we are going to use on the Excel machine is going to be adapted and become available on the Workbench, such as the high-flow extruders (HFE) that were originally designed for the Excel machine. We are also incorporating AC brushless servo motors on the Workbench, which will increase the speed of the printer.
Fabbaloo: How will you ensure manufacturers understand the benefits of integrating 3D printing in their production lines? For some companies, this could be very challenging. What is your approach to overcome this?
Jonathan Schroeder: The journey to have 3D printing migrate beyond the office environment is already occurring. The single fact growth applications are manufacturing or manufacturing support related (jigs, fixtures, shadow boards, job aids and the like).
Case studies show the return on investment and time-to-market benefits on this migration will serve to broaden adoption because companies will want to have the same benefits as the early adopters. So, our approach is to give visibility to best-in-class practices, success stories, and case studies. We’re also a strong proponent of industry groups such as AMUG, which their mission as a user group is to share best practices and case studies to help propel AM to new heights.
Via 3D Platform