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Cultivating Automation Software for 3D-Printing Farms

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

3D-printing farm owners who want to grow their business will find themselves shopping for fleet management software to automate operations and rid themselves of piles of thumb drives and SDS cards to store G-code.

Their first step may be to figure out the difference among various programs that manage printers in a farm and other software for handling additive manufacturing (AM) workflow or entire manufacturing systems.

At its most basic, fleet management software automates printer operations in a farm. AM workflow software goes further and is for managing end-to-end workflows, from design to approval. Even more sophisticated, manufacturing execution system (MES) is used by businesses ranging from 3D-printing service bureaus to traditional manufacturers, suppliers, and part shops.

One recently released fleet management software is AutoFarm3D from 3DQue (Vancouver, B.C.), a growing company founded in 2018 by a tech-savvy high school student and a classmate’s financially experienced mother. AutoFarm3D supports all Marlin-based fused deposition modeling/fused filament fabrication (FDM/FFF) printers.

“Our software is the only technology that turns existing FDM print farms into fully autonomous farms by automating part ejection; digitizing manual tasks, data collection, and reporting; and automating logistics, scheduling, order management, record keeping, failure detection, printer operations, and farm management,” said 3DQue CEO Steph Sharp.

The company also runs a printer farm—with more than 50 printers—and uses its own software, which is built from scratch, Sharp said. It beta tests new features in-house and with a network of testers, with farms that have anywhere from a few printers to thousands in one location or across multiple countries.

AutoFarm3D can automate an unlimited number of printers, depending on which of four subscriptions a user buys. A free option exists for up to three printers for those who want to test the system before making a purchase.

Operators can observe any printer at a moment’s notice with an unlimited number of webcam feeds. The software can be coupled with auto ejection systems such as the VAAPR print bed from 3DQue or with belt printers.

A new benefit: built-in software analytics.

“All of the data is collected in the back end and available in .csv format,” Sharp said. “We have just introduced an analytics and reporting screen and will be developing it with our community.”

The analytics and reporting dashboard feature productivity, capacity utilization within different time periods (hourly, daily, weekly), time series, Gantt charts, pie charts, and volume reporting. Data includes everything needed for order tracking, job tracking, and part traceability, according to Sharp. In addition to gathering data per time period, users can sort the data per job, per printer, or across the entire farm.

The program also enables the use of “smart tags” corresponding to different printing parameters. For example, if you have a “production lines” tag set up, jobs going to that production line will be tracked for filament type, nozzle size, print time, and outcomes/quality, Sharp said.

Sharp co-founded 3DQue with her daughter’s high school classmate Mateo Pekic, who is the company’s CIO. Pekic joked with local reporters in 2020 that he had to wait until he turned 18 to be a 3DQue director. The 22-year-old now has been running print farms for eight years.

Sharp, who is 3DQue’s business lead, has an MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and is a former managing director of corporate finance at Deloitte Canada.

Together, they’ve cultivated 3DQ into a growing enterprise for print farmers of all sizes. It’s truly an additive experience.

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