Expert Interview: 3D Hubs’ Agata Lovrecich on the Growth of its Online Manufacturing Platform
13 February 2020
The advent of digital manufacturing and cloud-based software has brought about a new Manufacturing as a Service (MaaS) business model.
Companies operating this business model provide their customers with instant quotes enabled by advanced software
3D Hubs was originally founded as a community-based marketplace, where anyone owning a 3D printer could offer their 3D printing services online. However, the company has recently shifted its focus to serve the industrial manufacturing market, and has established a large network of manufacturing partners.
In this week’s Expert Interview, we’re joined by Agata Lovrecich, 3D Hubs’ Product Marketing Manager, to discuss the rise of the MaaS business model, 3D printing use cases and common misconceptions about 3D printing.
Could you tell me a bit about 3D Hubs?
3D Hubs is an online manufacturing platform with a vision to empower engineers to create world-changing products.
While developing a particular product, engineers want to focus on the actual design and testing of parts side of the process. However, a lot of engineering time is actually spent doing admin work. This is especially true for SMEs. For example, if a small company wants to make a prototype of a design, they will need to search for a supplier with the right capabilities. Then they’ll request a quote and usually have to wait for about two weeks to get a call or email from the supplier confirming the order.
All this time could be used by engineers to actually design, test and improve the part. So we identified the need for a platform that can automate all these processes as much as possible and empower engineers to get their products faster to market.
With 3D Hubs’ platform, engineers can upload a CAD file and immediately see a price without needing to wait two weeks to receive a quote. The price calculations are based on a machine-learning algorithm that we’ve developed in-house. Engineers can order a prototype or a part immediately and have it delivered within days, depending on the technology and materials used.
We make it as easy as possible for people to order parts so that they can focus on designing and engineering.
We’re seeing the rise of the manufacturing as a service business model. Why is this model beneficial for companies?
Traditionally, access to manufacturing capacity has been difficult, particularly for small companies. Larger companies tend to have their own suppliers and more purchasing power.
In my opinion, manufacturing as a service has lowered that entry barrier. More companies now have access to global capacity and local capacity through platforms like ours.
A few years ago, 3D Hubs moved towards the professional, B2B space. Could you talk about the reasons behind this shift and how it has helped your company grow?
3D Hubs started in 2013 as a peer-to-peer marketplace, where we connected 3D printing enthusiasts who had their own 3D printers with people who wanted to get parts 3D printed.
At the time we believed that this was the best way to bring about a future of distributed manufacturing. We quickly realised that to truly change this industry we needed to serve businesses as well. Engineers were already using our platform to get prototypes with faster lead times, and using a wide range of technologies and materials that we could offer through our network. So that’s the segment we decided to focus on.
At this point, we realised that we needed to professionalise our platform a little bit more. So we introduced CNC machining, which is actually a complementary technology to additive manufacturing, and then added injection moulding. This allowed us to not only provide rapid prototyping services but also low-volume production services — and it also meant we were no longer a marketplace.
Now we have a global network of manufacturing partners. 3D Hubs is responsible for supplying the parts and guarantees consistency across the quality of the parts that our network delivers.
This shift led us to grow rapidly because we started offering technologies that engineers were more interested in.
On that point of growth, to what do you attribute the success of your platform?
Our success has largely due to our amazing team and our pivot towards the engineering segment and broadening our focus to other manufacturing technologies.
We were one of the first to build an online manufacturing platform and infrastructure to start providing these services. In general, I think it was a collision of seeing this gap in the market and pivoting at the right time.
What differentiates 3D Hubs from other manufacturing as a service platforms?
First, we’re very price competitive because we have such a large network with a wide range of technologies including CNC machining, 3D printing, injection moulding and sheet metal fabrication. Another factor is our instant capacity matching, which is better than our competitors’. Automation and great customer service are key differentiators as well.
From the demand you see through your platform, what proportion of that is for 3D-printed parts versus traditional methods like CNC and injection moulding?
Currently, the biggest demand is for CNC-machined parts.
Compared to CNC machining, 3D printing is growing a little bit slower, but the growth rate is steady.
One reason for this is that 3D printing is becoming more accessible. A lot of our customers have 3D printers in-house and they would only order from us when they don’t have enough capacity. With a CNC machine it’s more tricky, because you won’t have it in your office.
Can you share any examples of projects that used 3D printing through your platform?
I’m going to focus on examples that are beyond prototypes because I think that’s quite important.
There are three different use cases for 3D printing. The first is design flexibility. For example, while injection moulding is a simple technology, it requires a machined mould, which is very expensive, and its design is pretty much fixed. So you can produce parts rapidly but changing the actual design of a part, once you’ve committed to it, is very hard. In contrast, 3D printing allows you to iterate the design with greater flexibility.
One example of this is a VR sets company. The company needed to test and iterate parts after their first production run, based on customer feedback. Changing the design would have been prohibitive with injection moulding, but it’s possible with 3D printing. So if you need flexibility after a certain level of production — for example, you want your next 500 parts to be a little bit different — then 3D printing is a good use case for that.
The second use case is if you’re limited by the design constraints of traditional manufacturing. Here, you would want to consider 3D printing. For example, let’s say you have a huge assembly, with a lot of different components manufactured using different technologies. With 3D printing, you can design an assembly as a single part and reduce costs.
We had a company, called Optisys, that needed to manufacture a tracking antenna made of 100 different parts. The team redesigned it and 3D printed it as one component. This approach allowed Optisys to save nine months of production, approximately 75 percent of startup costs and 25 percent of production costs while maintaining the properties of the materials that they required.
The third area where 3D printing excels is when you need something manufactured quickly. We worked with a company, SureFire Electronics, that initially wanted to go for injection moulding. But instead of using the traditional technology, they decided to try 3D printing.
As a result, they saved seven weeks of production, whilst also maintaining the properties of the materials that they required.
There’s a common misconception that 3D printing does not have the capacity to print with certain engineering materials. That’s not true anymore. The technology is developing rapidly, and is able to print in high-performance materials. This means you’re able to replace traditional technologies in some cases with 3D printing while maintaining the required material properties.
On that point about the misconceptions, what would be some of the most common misconceptions you come across when it comes to 3D printing?
One misconception is around the accuracy of 3D printing. The accuracy of traditional technologies is in most cases higher than it is with 3D printing, but if you use industrial 3D printers, the accuracy gets quite close.
Another one is that material properties are worse with 3D printing than with other technologies. In reality, more and more materials are being developed for 3D printing. Sometimes these materials have enhanced properties that you won’t find in traditional materials.
The most common misconception, however, is that 3D printing is going to replace traditional manufacturing techniques, which is just not true at all. 3D printing is a great complementary technology. And as we learn more and more about when to actually use 3D printing, we’re going to get much more efficiency from it.
I think it’s important to understand that being innovative with manufacturing is not limited to 3D printing. The whole manufacturing as a service movement that brings online access to traditional manufacturing technologies arguably enables lean manufacturing at a much wider scope than 3D printing.
To summarise, when would be the best time to use 3D printing versus CNC or injection moulding?
Ask yourself these three questions to see if you should consider 3D printing:
1) Do I need this part quickly?
2) Am I limited by the constraints of my current production method?
3) Do I need design flexibility after production?
If the answer to any of these questions is no then typically you are better off using CNC machining or injection moulding depending on the use case.
How do you see 3D printing evolving in the years ahead?
3D printing will continue to advance, and on the quality front it will be more comparable to the quality of other manufacturing technologies.
Moving past the hype, people will continue to learn how to extract more value out of 3D printing. The more educated the industry becomes, the more 3D printing will be adopted.
What does 2020 hold for 3D Hubs?
When it comes to 3D printing, we plan to professionalise our 3D printing offering even further. We’ll also start to offer more industrial 3D printing technologies as well as expand the range of materials that we offer towards more engineering-focused solutions.