While the price of home- and shop-based 3D printers has come down in recent years, not every home designer or shop wants one. Affordable printers may not have the features that designers demand. Plus, it may not make sense to own a printer when it’s needed only occasionally for prototypes or small batches. This situation has created a market for print-on-demand additive manufacturing.
New Jersey-based buildPl8 calls itself an "Additive Factory." The company has created a model that offers on-demand additive manufacturing, eliminating the need to go offshore for parts. Located in Boonton, NJ with facilities in Princeton Junction, the company has the capability to produce small-run printing. It also can mass-produce thermoplastic parts and products in a variety of material types and formats.
Once InventoryBot has a customer’s model stored and sliced, they can simply print what they require. (Image source: buildPl8)
The company’s flagship platform, InventoryBot, provides customers with access to the buildPl8 factory of 3D printers and tools. Customers can do everything from direct-print to managing complex multi-part product production. buildPl8 partners with 3dMonstr, another New Jersey company, which provides a line of large-format 3D printers called T-Rex. Those printers live at the core of the InventoryBot solution.
Ordering 3D Printed Parts in the Cloud
With access to the “factory mesh” of 3dMonstr printers, buildPl8 customers can use the InventoryBot cloud service to have small- to medium-sized parts or products directly printed. The platform also allows customers to manage multi-part product production remotely. buildPl8 offers integrated drop shipping to complement the customer’s existing supply chain.
“If you have a part or product, you can iteratively use InventoryBot to output your model, and drop ship it back to you,” Gerry Libertelli, buildPl8’s founder and CEO, told Design News. “Sure, you could do this with a 3D printer in your office, but at buildPl8, you get the added value of our engineers and shipping. We can get the best out of a customer’s model and ensure it does what it needs to do. 3D printing is still 70 percent art and only 30 percent science. You need competent engineers for this.”
Engineering the Design Before Printing
Libertelli said buildPl8 fits into a customer’s supply chain like a vendor node. Customers escrow their parts or products on InventoryBot and then order them when they need them. Users can also schedule a date for drop shipment that synchronizes with their supply chain delivery objectives.
By mixing engineering into 3D printing services, buildPl8 intends to help customers understand the feasibility of their designs before they invest. Libertelli noted that they will stop the run if they don’t think they can deliver quality. The failure of quality control on the way out the door has been a drawback of other 3D print farms. InventoryBot’s goal is to overcome the drawbacks of those previous enterprises.
“We sensed a change coming in the cloud 3D printing space,” said Libertelli. “The perceived failure of 3D hubs’ ability to work for the home maker, and the bankruptcy of several direct-print service desk sites, made us realize that 3D printing is best harnessed for mass production of small parts and products. We view InventoryBot as an evolution of the online cloud service bureau: one that gives a user access to factory-level output of parts and products. A lot of customers use us for internal parts for their products when they want to lower weight or increase strength.”
A Mesh of People and Machines
Libertelli believes that the 3D printing hubs that failed were not using their resources wisely, so neither were their customers. “When we built InventoryBot, we had the challenge of trying to coordinate the activities of both machines—3D printers and other additive equipment—and people,” said Libertelli. “To really create factory-level output of additively created parts and products, you have to be able to marshal the efforts of a mesh of people and machines. This choreography is very important to maximizing available printer time. Our factory mesh is an intelligent coordination of people and machines to create manufacturing-level output.”
buildPl8 targets startup companies that need short runs to bring a product to market on Kickstarter or Indiegogo or for selling products on Etsy. Large manufacturers often don’t find short runs worth their time, so they enforce minimum order sizes, forcing startups to over-invest in inventory. buildPl8 doesn’t enforce minimums.
“Printer time is printer time to us,” said Libertelli. “It doesn’t cost more or less based on the part or product. So, we can help the business that requires just-in-time inventory or short runs to ensure their survival as a business.”
Tracey Schelmetic graduated from Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. and began her long career as a technology and science writer and editor at Appleton & Lange. Later, as the editorial director of telecom trade journal Customer Interaction Solutions (today Customer magazine), she became a well-recognized voice in the contact center industry. Today, she is a freelance writer specializing in manufacturing and technology, telecommunications, and enterprise software.