In the 3D printing community, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t tried or encountered one of Ultimaker’s products. Founded in 2011, the Dutch 3D printing company has established itself not just through its desktop 3D printers, but also through its open-source Cura software and its open materials platform, all of which have reliably served both the hobbyist and professional market.
Over the past month, Ultimaker has made a decisive move towards the industrial 3D printing sector with exciting new products and partnerships. The company’s new Ultimaker S5 3D printer, for instance, is its most advanced desktop machine yet, with a bigger build volume, a closed front system, and changeable build plates. In addition to the new 3D printer model, Ultimaker also recently formed strategic partnerships with a range of global material companies—including DSM, BASF, DuPont, Henkel—in a bid to expand the range of engineering-grade materials compatible with Ultimaker machines.
We recently spoke to Paul Heiden, the Senior Vice President of Product Management at Ultimaker, about the company’s recent achievements, both on the hardware and materials front.
How was the new Ultimaker S5 3D printer received at Hannover Messe where it was unveiled for the first time?
“I did the announcement together with Siert Wijnia, CTO and Co-Founder at Ultimaker, at Hannover Messe and, for the first time in my life, there were about 30 photojournalists standing in front of me. That was pretty special. As if the machine was a movie star. It was really amazing.
One of the big things about Hannover Messe is that you’re talking to a highly knowledgeable crowd made up of production engineers, process engineers, and others. It was incredibly busy at our booth and people are asking the types of questions we were expecting and that we were asking ourselves while working on the S5. What gave me a lot of satisfaction is that we did all the right things to serve these people in the fashion that they expected.”
So the Ultimaker S5 is aimed solidly at the professional market, then?
“Yes, absolutely. The Ultimaker 3 was quickly adopted by the professional market, and at a much faster pace than we ever expected—I think are about 80,000 machines currently in professional markets. To further penetrate this market, we’ve been continuously looking at two things: reliability, by which I mean print process reliability, ensuring that everything comes out as planned, and less hassle, which entails keeping people’s hands clean, so to speak, throughout the print process.”
Can users easily network the new S5 to form multi-printer production cells?
“Yes, the S5 can be connected easily and can be networked with the Ultimaker 3. Though we aren’t seeing that many print farms (as in the concentrated placement of 3D printers), really. More often, we see 3D printers set up in various locations which are networked together using Cura Connect. Essentially, the software is capable of finding 3D printers and connecting them into a given network. With a network established, users can create a print queue which is so smart that if you’re sitting in one room and you throw a print job into the queue, it will recognize an idle 3D printer down the hall that can take the job because it has the right configuration.”
What industrial segment is currently the biggest adopter of Ultimaker technologies?
“I think six months ago I would have answered design and prototyping. Today, I’m not too sure, because we saw an enormous uptake in manufacturing. Not so much printing end parts—that’s still in its infancy—but the quick iteration of tooling for manufacturing jigs, fixtures, and so on. I think that’s either our second or our first market now. It is probably a close tie with product development.”
What led Ultimaker to collaborate with global chemicals companies for 3D printing materials?
“I think it was early 2017 that we began to find a change in people’s attitudes towards materials through our market research. Where users were previously happy using materials like PLA, Nylon or TPU, we were suddenly encountering people that were wanting to use their own materials for particular applications. We felt that we really had to adapt to this new demand for engineering materials. Then, when we did research with chemical companies, we found that there are about 70,000 different plastics for injection molding and quickly learned that, in the end, the majority of those materials could also be used for 3D printing.
What we’ve now done is create an alliance with the main materials suppliers. And the reason why all these chemical firms were willing to work with us is because we are providing a specific software that helps them quickly generate print profiles for new materials. For instance, if a person wants to use a material made by DSM or BASF or Dupont, they can buy a spool, download the relevant print profile from Cura, and they can be pretty much sure that their print will be a success. For many, the biggest news at Hannover Messe was that we could sum up ten big chemical companies (now 14) that are willing to participate in this new way of working.”
Along with the official Ultimaker S5 launch on May 15th, Ultimaker is also introducing the Ultimaker App. How will this tool improve the user experience?
“What the app really does is reflects the functionality of Connect. So, print status, queue status, that sort of thing. It’s actually the first app that is able to receive notifications outside the business network. However, there are some challenges. In 2015, I think about 60% of machines using Cura were running on Windows. Now, its close to 90% and most of these machines sit somewhere behind a firewall. What we are able to do with the machines and Cura is send out notifications to the user that sits outside of the business network but what usually isn’t allowed is having instructions sent from the outside to the local area network of a certain company.
Because even medium enterprises have very strict firewall settings, it limits the functionality that everybody imagines apps to have—of sitting on the train looking at how your print evolves. That’s very difficult in a business environment. However, we are planning to introduce a cloud version of Cura in the near future and then it will be possible to have far more management activities on your iPhone or tablet.”
What will Ultimaker be focusing on for the rest of the year?
“What we will be focusing on over the next months is getting the alliance with the chemical firms going. We want to make sure that if they bring a specific material to market, our 3D printer users can find them and benefit from a print profile.
If, for instance, people are looking for a flame retardant or transparent material then we now ensure that our users can actually choose from this potentially enormous portfolio of materials and have reliable print results. I think that’s what we need to aim for for the rest of this year. That’s what makes Ultimaker users happy.”