FabPilot: A Tool For Every 3D Printing Workshop
Sculpteo’s FabPilot service could supercharge operations at multi-3D printer workshops.
If you haven’t heard of FabPilot, you should, as it is a very powerful tool that can be used to manage fleets of 3D printers in an optimized manner.
The problem it solves is encountered by any multi-3D printer workshop: managing multiple machines with many requestors is far, far more challenging than managing a single machine with a single user. Typically powerful machines are costly, and thus they should be not only operated 24/7, but also in the most optimum manner to achieve the most efficient possible operation.
Not so coincidentally, this is also the goal of FabPilot’s originator, Sculpteo, a popular 3D print and making service. In order to become as efficient as possible, Sculpteo developed internal tools to perform their 3D printing management functions.
Like other companies that spent considerable effort developing internal tools, they discovered that the tools themselves could have significant value if sold to the public. And that’s precisely how FabPilot came to exist.
Be it a single machine operator, a service bureau, an internal workshop, an outsourcing manufacturer or or other 3D printing operation, as soon as there is a decision to accept incoming print requests, many challenges appear.
How do you track incoming requests? What happens when a print fails? What rates are charged for services? How do you combine multiple requestors’ work into one print job? How can you balance work between multiple machines to keep from overloading some equipment? How do you retain and examine usage statistics to make proper decisions about future moves?
These are obvious questions that immediately come to mind when operating a request service, and if you’re sitting beside a pile of 3D printers, there is no obvious answer. You cannot simply “make a spreadsheet” and hope to keep things organized properly, although I’m certain that’s exactly what some less sophisticated operations do.
Sculpteo ran into all these issues and more, and internally developed FabPilot to solve them and delver the basic functions of file preparation, production and overall system management. The functions it provides include:
STL File Repair: Many files submitted to 3D print services, internal or public, are flawed and even unprintable. These require repairs and inspection before proceeding. FabPilot includes an automatic file repair capability.
Lattice Generation: One of the key advantages of 3D printing is the ability to produce lower weight parts by substituting a complex lattice structure instead of solid portions. Unfortunately many users don’t know how or cannot generate them. FabPilot does, and can be used to intervene and provide a better solution for requestors.
3D File Analysis: While a submitted .STL file may be syntactically correct, it might be an improper design requiring adjustment. For example, the materials chosen to produce the part could render the resulting part’s strength lower than required. FabPilot includes an analysis function to examine such issues and suggest corrections.
Quotation: Once a job is prepared, it must be quoted. Pricing of 3D print jobs is quite a complex matter involving a number of variables that can get quite confusing. It is easy for a workshop to incorrectly organize a pricing regime and end up losing money on many print jobs. FabPilot includes a robust pricing mechanism that can avoid this issue, as well as simplifying the quoting process significantly.
3D Nesting: Many industrial 3D printers have large, three dimensional build volumes that can accept many 3D models and run for long periods. The optimal use of such a machine is to fill the build volume to the brim with parts and let it run overnight. However, this often requires much tedious labor to “tetris” parts from multiple job requestors together in a build volume. That work is greatly simplified in FabPilot as they include a sophisticated 3D nesting feature to automatically organize print jobs.
Job Management: Once jobs are done they must be scheduled to be executed on an appropriate device that matches the material and characteristics requested. In a large shop, this can be challenging to perform, but FabPilot includes sophisticated systems to organize print activity into an optimized executable stream. In fact, FabPilot can actually directly dispatch work to several types of 3D printers on its own.
Traceability: Certain requestors require a “provenance” for their parts to ensure they were indeed made from a specific material type on a specific 3D printer. While one could track this type of information manually, FabPilot can do this automatically. This enables a print service to take on types of work it might not otherwise could, due to certification requirements.
Automatic Orientation: Certain 3D print processes produce different part strength results depending on how the part is oriented when printing. Similarly, the amount of support structures can also vary considerably depending on the part’s orientation, making orientation a rather difficult step. FabPilot simplifies this with an automated orientation feature.
Reporting: FabPilot instruments all activity and thus can provide a detailed dashboard of statistics and state of affairs for the operation. These can be analyzed to develop new strategies for optimization, expansion or machine upgrades.
There are tons of additional features, such as print shipping, quality control, feedback, visualizations, backlog handlings and more. You’ll have to check out their demonstration to see all of it - and even then Sculpteo is constantly updating the service with more features and capabilities.
I believe that FabPilot would best be used by internal 3D print workshops providing prints to other company departments, particularly where chargebacks are required.
FabPilot is a subscription service, with three levels of service:
Starter: US$99 per month.
Professional: US$299 per month.
Enterprise: US$1999 per month.
The Starter package seems best for smaller operations with only a single operator for a fleet of machines, while the other levels add capacity and features for larger organizations.