Today we’re looking at a new entrant to the low-volume manufacturing space, MakerFleet.
The company, which started development only this year and recently launched to the public, offers an ability to easily 3D print small quantities of objects at a very reasonable cost.
Low-volume manufacturing is one of the key 3D printing business models that offers profitability. The idea is that traditional manufacturing requires a relatively large setup cost (usually to develop patterns for injection molding) that can only be afforded when its costs are defrayed over many thousands (or even millions) of objects. Thus there is a point below which it actually is less expensive to 3D print small quantities of objects rather than doing the full traditional manufacturing sequence.
This is the space being explored by MakerFleet and a few other operations.
MakerFleet’s operation is a bit different in that they have chosen a low-cost approach, mainly through the selection of the 3D printers making up their fleet: Prusa i3. These very inexpensive desktop units have been beloved by hobbyists and professionals.
They’re focusing on making the entire experience of using a 3D printer farm as easy as possible. In fact, their tagline is “A Factory at Your Fingertips”. The idea is to sign up and immediately start using their printers as if they were your own.
We spoke with founder Harnek Gulati to find out how it works.
Fabbaloo: When did the service begin development and when did you launch?
Harnek Gulati: “Development started on May 5th, 2018. I launched this past week the day before Thanksgiving. We’re still in the baby phase and are getting our name out there, especially to Boston colleges and schools.”
Fabbaloo: Why Prusas? Why not more expensive machines, or cheaper Asian machines?
Harnek Gulati: “We spent a lot of time looking at what machines we wanted to invest in. We needed something that had a great open source slicer (Slic3r PE), could be easily repaired (Prusas can make more Prusas), and could work with a ‘set and play’ kind of functionality. Furthermore, as we move towards complete automation (think large X-Y gantry systems that remove 3D Prints, like the Form Cell), we need removable beds, which Prusa’s machines offer.
We had a 300 row Excel sheet with all the 3D Printers in the market and ended up with Prusas as our final decision.”
Fabbaloo: What is your target market? Why? Individuals, like 3D Hubs used to do? Or true low-volume manufacturing?
Harnek Gulati: “We’ve had a lot of success with startups, schools, and incubators that are trying to iterate on models very quickly. We have medical device companies that are trying to finalize their models, but an individual with no 3D Printing experience can also get started with a quick Thingiverse model and get started. The whole idea is to provide users with the experience of the 3D Printing process so they can feel more in control of the things they can build.”
Fabbaloo: What is the size of the farm today, and will it grow in the future?
Harnek Gulati: “There are currently 18 3D Printers that can be directly accessed. We’re planning on reaching around 50 FDM 3D Printers, and a couple SLA printers as well, with the same model of providing users direct access to the manufacturing equipment.”
Fabbaloo: How are you financed?
Harnek Gulati: “I coded almost the entire thing myself as a fun project to get better at software programming and architecture. The 3D Printers are financed from my previous company that went on Kickstarter and was advertised on reddit as the fourth all time best /r/diy post.”
Fabbaloo: What are the rates for use?
Harnek Gulati: “It varies by print quality and model, but approximately $3.50 per hour of FDM 3D Printing.”
Fabbaloo: What software is used to control the fleet? Did you write it internally?
Harnek Gulati: “We dockerized OctoPrint because we wanted to use its functionality, but its streaming capabilities weren’t capable of working at scale. We then run our own servers to manage scaling live streams, secure model uploads, etc.”
Fabbaloo: Who decides the printing parameters? The customer or you?
Harnek Gulati: “Customer decides the printing parameters. The customer can therefore take something that they printed out on their own 3D Printer, connect to our 3D Printing Farm, and print 100s of their models using the same tactics.”
Fabbaloo: How do you handle bad requests? Do you check models before printing?
Harnek Gulati: “We try to provide as much feedback to the user as possible and are doing more and more to improve the process.
We want the users to have as much control over the process (Imagine an AWS-like service, where people can do whatever, and they just pay for usage). We believe the future of manufacturing is this AWS-like service where clients have control and understanding of how the machines work. That way they can understand how to take their designs to the real world as quickly and easily as possible.
That comes at a price, of course. It’s cheaper and faster for the user to not need to go through a 2-7 day ‘3D Print check’ process, but we believe in a future where designers and people interested in this learn the basics about 3D Printing and making things.
The crux of all of this is software-backed feedback, hence the live streaming, the surface quality check, viewing GCODE instantly and more. And we’re only adding more.
We hope to make it so easy for users that they can understand all the issues beforehand, but that’s still in the works.
One of our main issues was surface quality of the part with FDM printing, which we then wrote code for to provide users ahead of time of those issues.
We fix models (STL issues) before they’re printed.
In the future, we’ll be providing the user with the exact specifications of what gets printed, what doesn’t, etc.”
Fabbaloo: How do you handle a print failure? Is it the fault of the requester (as they specified the print parameters), or do you refund failure costs? Are customers charged for failures?
Harnek Gulati: “We charge only half of the printer time if the print fails and is unsupervised. We usually can catch the issues in the first hour, but once people get the hang of printing, they usually don’t need much supervision.
Users also have the ability to cancel the print themselves and they’ll only be charged for half of the printer time.
In cases where it’s our fault (Power outage, bad bed adhesion, etc.), we just restart the print and eat the cost of the failure. If you have a need to 3D print a quantity of parts and you don’t have 18 printers lying about to do so, why not give MakerFleet a try?”
If you’re seeking an inexpensive path to producing smaller quantities of identical or custom parts, you might want to check out MakerFleet.