When Ultimaker started shipping its first fused filament fabrication (FFF) printers in 2011, it was merely testing the waters in a flooded market of hundreds of 3D printing companies. As the boxy Ultimaker concept matured, the target user of the inexpensive printers was innovating in fab labs or learning the basics in a college or high school.
That all changed with the Ultimaker 2+ in 2016, which proved ready for prime-time industrial use, adding swappable nozzles to increase speed or finetune detail, upgraded feeder to prevent print skipping and better airflow directed by fancaps to create smoother prints. All this led to a more reliable print, and if there's one thing you need in manufacturing, it's that. By the end of the year, the dual extrusion Ultimaker 3 arrived, pushing the amount of geometric options to limits passed even the most creative design engineer's imagination. Automated protocols made operation easy for anyone, and Wi-Fi connectivity made it possible to communicate with virtually anything.
We've described how companies such as Jabil use several of these printers, which start at a few thousand dollars, to quickly create prototypes piecemeal in less time than a large, expensive 3D printer takes. In the last couple of years, some manufacturers, including the long-sought after automotive industry, recently began having having success with a few end use parts, giving hope that additive manufacturing will have more than a tangential spot on the factory floor.
With the bigger S5, released in April, that position may be front and center. The $6,000 3D printer scales up and adds on to features that made the Ultimaker 3 already popular in the carmaking sector. First off, it expands the build volume from 215 x 215 x 200 mm to 330 x 240 x 300 mm. the dual extrusion printer also offers swappable print cores for the various robust materials, from Nylon to PVA to Tough PLA. The printer also scans the build plate and immediately compensates for surface deviations, and a filament flow sensor knows if the material is about to run out, pausing the print so you can load more in.
Adding these new features, and improving on the user-friendly operation should increase the efficiencies in time and money delivered by the Ultimaker 3.
"In 2017, we estimated that we avoid around €325,000 ($377,000) of costs by 3D printing multiple tool and fixtures with Ultimaker 3D printers," says Luis Reis, pilot plant engineer at Volkswagen's Portugal plant, where Ultimaker 3's were primarily used. "The enhanced feeder on the Ultimaker S5, designed to print with advanced technical plastics such as composite materials, allows us to print reliably with an even wider range of industrial-grade materials, which is a great benefit for us."
The printed fixtures were used to line up bolts to the wheel assemblies, and could break or get lost.
"It used to be if they wanted one of these parts, it would cost $200 to get the part, and it would take a couple of weeks," says John Kawola, Ultimaker's North American president. "Now they can print it in a couple hours and cost $20."
Renault and Ford have also used the previous printers with success, and plan to bring the S5 in, which allows for bigger components, such as exhaust manifold assemblies and disk brakes.
Ultimaker used Bureau of Labor stats and automotive revenue data to calculate that $420,706 is spent a minute in car manufacturing. The savings shown by Volkswagen in that one plant, which produces 100,000 cars a year, are not just about money, but saving those minutes.
"If a company is a month late to launching their new car, that’s a month's worth of revenue," Kawola says. "People say, 'Oh you'll get it back.' You don't get it back."
Kawola clarifies that moving 3d printers alone from the "carpet to the concrete," or office environment to the factory floor, won't singlehandedly prevent a severe product delay, but "you take all these productivity tools and collectively they can make a huge impact," he says.
And that's why the S5 may represent a real-deal inflection point for the industry. It's easy to use because of a helpful touchscreen and a design process facilitated by the Cura software, so you don’t need to be an experienced engineer to use it. The people who see the problem first hand can do it on the spot.
"The fact that the Ultimaker S5 is even more intuitive and delivers a perfect first layer for every print means we spend hardly any time setting up and checking on the 3D printers," says Rodrigues Dimitri, 3D Print Driver at Renault. "This frees up our team more time to fully focus on the creation of new innovations that help to improve and speed up our engine manufacturing process."