Dr. Uwe Wächter
With the increasing spread of low-cost 3D printers in businesses and in the field of engineering, certain challenges arise in regard to how these devices are managed and operated. Over the past 30 years, these questions were resolved successfully by output-management systems in the 2D sector. So, it is not too far of a stretch to wonder if the same – or at least similar – technology can be used to resolve the challenges to 3D printing as well.
The first large-format printers, or plotters, were introduced to businesses around 30 years ago. At first, these devices were cost-intensive and the technology purely proprietary, similar to the 3D printing devices of today. As prices for the devices fell, increasingly larger fleets of devices were operated. But, the complexity of the proprietary technology from the larger fleets had a noticeable negative effect: different interfaces, data formats, necessary pre-processing steps, monitoring capabilities, maintenance measures and intervals – all drove expenses for the operation of the fleets to uneconomical levels. In addition, there were cross-sectional aspects such as utilization optimization, access control, auditing or costs settlements. All of these aspects are also present now in a similar form in the area of 3D printing.
Before the technical convergence, the method of choice was the establishment of organizational units (“reprographic departments”) where specialized employees prepared incoming print orders for the devices available, and assigned each print order to the correct machine. Over the decades, 2D devices became smaller (and smaller) and cheaper (and cheaper). Standards for file formats and interfaces also materialized, which in turn allowed the increasing number of devices used to be managed financially and controlled centrally. This management is what we know today as output management systems (OMS). With the use of these OMS and increasing standardization, reprographic departments became increasingly superfluous. And, print jobs could be developed centrally over the output management system. Nowadays only a small number of highly specialized companies still have their own reprographic department. Output management systems have assumed the distribution, conversion, commissioning and checking of the print orders; they monitor the printers for error statuses and are not infrequently coupled with fleet and asset management systems to ensure that the printing process runs seamlessly.
At SEAL Systems, we recognize a lot of parallels in the current situation with 3D printers with the development of the 2D output devices. But, we are still at an early stage at present. The development of the devices is still strongly characterized by research into new technical opportunities, and the advantages for the new generation lie predominantly in improved results, or (more favorably) in the operation of the entire device fleets.
In the coming years, however, we expect a similar development process to the 2D devices. This development process means an asymptomatic convergence of certain functional standards, then increasing technical standardization before being linked to a consolidation of the supplier market. Until this development really sets in, arrangements such as “3D reprographic departments” would be feasible.
Why do we think this? Because it would allow technical hurdles to be overcome and take care of the manual maintenance of the device fleet. For 3D devices in the medium term, we also expect the development of suitable output-management systems that would then replace the 3D reprographic departments.
We think so. As manufacturers of 2D output management systems, we already recognize and master a number of the pending tasks very well: the administration, distribution and monitoring of output jobs. Those we do not yet regard as part of our core competency are, namely, the conversion and pre-processing of 3D data. This is not only for data formats, but also for the material and physical parameters of the device control: the 3D device class is fundamentally different from the corresponding parameters of the 2D devices.
However, we can imagine that proven mechanisms will be adopted from 2D printing for the 3D area, and the same software will be extensively applied here too. The procedures are so similar that no new development is necessary in this area.
A task that – with certain adaptations to the new device class – can be adopted extensively is device management. Device management is the monitoring of the devices, recognition of error statuses, failover functions, access control by means of roles and rights, or logging. All of these functions are already present in modern-day OMS and can also be used for the management of 3D printers.
A further task, which can be completed with currently available systems, might be job management. Here at least high-level management is perfectly possible with conventional OMS functions: only the formats of the print data are different. This means that minor adjustments to the system are expected to be necessary for 3D print jobs to be managed with conventional systems. The functions from the 2D area can be used here; for example, to assign each job to a suitable device class, or to bring about an automatic distribution of load between the devices in a class.
For the printing of 2D orders, our Output Management System has central clients who are available for each authorized user in the company. Through these clients, the users can prepare print jobs, sort the necessary data, set output parameters, release the order and track their processing. These clients offer the opportunity to function as “virtual reprographic departments”. In this way, the orders are pre-classified by a trained employee. If necessary, parts of the order are redirected to certain machines and detailed technical parameters are readjusted. For the customer, this step is perfectly transparent. We can imagine that this option presents a good opportunity for the order management in heterogenous distributed device fleets.
If 2D and 3D output orders are managed in the same system, certain synergies can be used as well. This is because a prototype allows itself to be guided and monitored together with an associated data sheet, documentation and labels as a single output order. When consistently applied, single orders for production can be completely controlled from ERP systems.
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Dr. Uwe Wächter
Document conversion and the name Uwe Wächter are inextricably linked: He is our expert on PDF & Co. When he is not busy implementing exciting projects, writing specialist articles or managing trade fairs, he likes to work on his own home automation system. Being a keen traveller, this way Uwe Wächter can control his heating and garden from afar.
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