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Will This Additive Manufacturing Farm Solve Your Scale and Speed Problems?

MFG.com founder Mitch Free discusses returning to his roots of making things with his new approach to 3D printing: direct digital manufacturing.

MFG.com founder Mitch Free discusses returning to his roots of making things with his new approach to 3D printing: direct digital manufacturing.

Mitch Free has run the gamut of manufacturing jobs. He started out as a machinist, then devoted a decade to making airplane parts before a stint reselling CAD/CAM software. In 1999 he founded MFG.com, which allows manufacturers to compete to make requested items. Now he’s planted a digital manufacturing farm, called CloudDDM, at UPS’ Louisville hub, a fast and efficient solution he claims will take 3D printing to the next level by offering next-day delivery of prototypes and low-volume parts.

The CEO and additive manufacturing guru explains the finer points, and why he thinks this is the real future of the industry.

What made you leave a successful website to return to actual manufacturing again?

I thought the next wave of wealth creation in America is going back to making things, leveraging new cloud based technologies, additive manufacturing and CNC machining. So I decided to jump from being in a pure Internet world back to making things. You can build a great app and people can copy it so easy. The business models are not very defensible. People can do it from home, they can do it from India.

I had to spend millions on servers and back up devices. Today it’s all gone to the cloud. Nobody buys their own server today. I see that same thing happening in the additive manufacturing world. Companies felt kind of rushed and bought machines and put them in-house to do prototypes. Going forward companies will not be so inclined to build an internal cadre of machines. They will use a service that’s probably cloud based. Upload a part to the service and it gets delivered. You can pick from a lot of different sizes and materials. It’s a better solution than buying a technology that will be outdated in a year.

And that’s essentially what CloudDDM does?

With CloudDDM, the customer uploads their file to the website, it automatically traces it. As soon as the customer hits the “buy” button, one of our 100 printers starts making the part, ejects it and resets to make the next one. We can make parts up until midnight and because we’re at the end of the runway, we can have them anywhere in the country by 10 a.m. The plane doors close at 1 a.m., so we have anywhere from 5-7 extra hours of production because of the location.

We started in early May and have had 300 unique customers. 68% have bought at least a second time, a lot have bought more than 10 times.

What are the printers’ capabilities?

We did studies out in the market, about 80% of parts fall into less than 5-in. cube size, so anything smaller than that. There are manual printers that can go up to 36 in. They are fully automated and running a majority of the time unattended. We don’t know what the parts are for. We don’t even see it. We just see customers placing orders and buying parts. We did that intentionally to protect Intellectual property. You don’t want other people knowing what your next product is going to look like.

There are two employees working 8-hour shifts. They do preventative maintenance, monitor operations and run the larger manual printers. The automation drives cost down to make it affordable. It’s normally not cost effective.

How did you come up with this solution?

By studying the market and seeing what manufacturers wanted. Two things were missing when I asked what the frustration with additive was: speed and scale. Speed being when they order a part from a service bureau. Expedited is 4-5 days; normal is 7-10 days. When you’re in a design cycle, that’s an eternity. You design something and have to wait a week to see if the fit form and function are correct.

Another group was interested in bringing low volume products to market. There’s this void between prototype and where low volume injection molding makes sense. It’s been very hard to fill that because no one had the capacity to do it. Most service bureaus will have one, two, maybe eight printers. What if you need a couple hundred or 1,000 parts?  

In 2013, you wrote a Forbes article about 3D printing not living up to the hype? Did you change your mind?

There’s still a lot of hype. The thought was that everyone’s going to have their own printer, everyone’s going to make their own stuff. 3D-printed dresses, shoes and food. Just download product specs from Amazon, and print your own product. That does the entire industry a disservice.

It’s an awesome way to make plastic and metal parts. They have a real application in bringing products to market. The printers are just not of high enough quality to make parts for your car or dishwasher. I have a lot of friends who bought one, played with it for a little while and put it in the basement or garage. It was overblown.

I think it’s going to be commercialized, more like how Amazon did the elastic computing cloud. People get to leverage it, but they don’t have to own it. That’s the opportunity I saw. People will learn to use it, but they can tap into a cloud and get the same results. More applicable, more options, more economical and better results.

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