3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker made an important software announcement this week at the TCT conference, describing an upgraded product and an entirely new package.
The upgraded software is Cura, their well-known open source 3D print slicing and print preparation software. Cura is used by Ultimaker, but also by a large number of other parties as it is easy to adapt for use by other systems. The new version, 3.0, apparently makes this process a bit easier.
Ultimaker is a bit vague on the details. Here’s what they say about Cura 3.0:
Updated interface. You’ll notice a clearer look and feel, plus choosing your settings is now more intuitive
Open for more plugins. Ultimaker-curated plugins create a seamless workflow with other software, including SolidWorks and Siemens NX
Improved performance. Ultimaker Cura 3.0 release comes with the usual improvements and fixes
Ok, all that sounds good, but it would be terrific if there were more details. Exactly what are the “usual improvements”?
The focus for 3.0 seems to be the plugins, as Ultimaker is likely attempting to broaden their ecosystem by involving more parties. I believe this is a very smart move, as users of any 3D CAD software that have enabled the Cura plug-in might be more inclined to purchase Ultimaker 3D printing equipment.
We expected Ultimaker to upgrade Cura to 3.0 eventually, but here it is. Not quite, it will be available on October 17th. At that time we will be able to give it a test and see all the details of the new features.
The other software announcement from Ultimaker is more interesting, and unexpected. They’ve announced something called “Cura Connect”. what does it do? Here’s all we know, from Ultimaker:
With Cura Connect, we set out to give users a more efficient way to manage one or multiple 3D printers. Easy queuing and a maintenance schedule make it ideal for maximizing uptime in the office or studio – all you need is one or more network connected Ultimaker 3 and Ultimaker Cura.
Manage your 3D printers. Group 3D printers, then check progress of your prints and maintenance needs, all in one place on your desktop
Print and forget. Intelligent queuing allows you to send multiple print jobs at once and get on with other things
Easy to set up. Cura Connect runs on the Ultimaker 3 so there’s no server needed and no complicated setup
I am extremely interested to see more about this system, as it may prove a way to dramatically increase the throughput on a set of 3D printers - if they are Ultimaker 3’s. Note the key phrases: “runs on the Ultimaker 3”, “no server needed” and “all you need is one or more network connected Ultimaker 3”. This is apparently a hardware feature on their equipment, as they also say that they will issue a firmware update on November 7th for Ultimaker 3’s to enable Cura Connect.
There have been some attempts by other 3D printer manufacturers to move towards efficient methods of managing fleets of 3D printers, which has been very challenging. The reason for this is that most desktop 3D printers have been designed for a single installation with management by a human operator. When you have, say, 100 units, managing them becomes ridiculous.
MakerBot may have been the first to launch such a system, with their MakerBot Innovation Center a few years ago. It’s been installed in a few educational institutions, but the big deal for MakerBot was that it enabled them to sell large quantities of units to buyers in one transaction. Bulk sales are great for any company, especially 3D printer companies.
Since then some other companies desired to get that same type of business. Now it seems that Ultimaker may be launching their version with Cura Connect.
Their writeup is frustratingly brief, so we cannot know yet exactly what it will do, but reading between the lines I can gather the following:
- There will be a way to monitor print operations in a centralized, remote manner
- Job dispatching will be intelligent and perhaps automatically route jobs to available machines with the correct material loaded
- There is some way that the machines will be maintained, perhaps like automobiles when they notify you that it’s time for service
All this is very good, and apparently it will be automatically set up once you install a set of Ultimaker 3’s with Cura Connect and launch Cura (version 3.0, presumably).
This could provide a huge boost to Ultimaker’s sales, as they could now approach large institutions with an effective solution that might have otherwise been difficult for buyers to accept. Imagine if an institution buying a bank of 200 3D printers had to ALSO hire a squad of highly trained 3D printer operators and maintainers? What if you could tell them you need, say, only a single person to run the fleet? That’s what Ultimaker is working towards here, I believe.