More and more U.S. manufacturers are embracing 3D printing, but serious technical limitations are still a drag on the industry: There are limits to what kinds of materials can be used. The product doesn't always look like the design. The printing process can be long, and the workflow for 3D design can be cumbersome.
Stratasys has already started to tackle some of these problems with more sophisticated 3D printing hardware like the J750. Now, it's addressing workflow and connectivity challenges with a new software strategy. The company on Monday is unveiling its new app, the GrabCAD Print, that will allow product designers, engineers and 3D printer operators to easily prepare, schedule and monitor 3D printing jobs.
Stratasys is making GrabCAD Print available in beta later this summer with additional releases planned throughout the year. The new app takes advantage of Stratasys' 2014 acquisition of GrabCAD, the cloud-based platform where more than 3 million designers and engineers share best practices for computer-aided drafting (CAD) and insights on modeling techniques.
Producing a more fluid, efficient design process could help Stratasys bolster its business in a challenging market environment. Last week, the company announced first quarter 2016 results that, its leaders said, reflect overall 3D printing market weakness -- revenue declined 3 percent year over year to $167.9 million.
Still, CEO David Reis said the company is committed to transforming its business with new technologies. "These products will support our long-term strategy to develop a comprehensive solutions-based business," he said in a statement.
Paul Giaconia, vice president of software products and strategy at Stratasys, told ZDNet that the company's comprehensive strategy has to include software.
"We've articulated a solution strategy in the last couple years really around not just a piece of hardware but creating an experience that's easy, solves a problem, and gets the job done," he said.
Creating that experience starts with a more efficient workflow for designers. GrabCAD Print works with all Stratasys printers and can natively read several popular CAD formats including PTC Creo, Dassault Systèmes' SOLIDWORKS, CATIA and Autodesk Inventor. Previously, designers had to export their designs to an STL file, which gives an intermediate translation of the design. Typically, a file could require even further modifications, depending on the printer. GrabCAD Print eliminates those steps.
"If I need a prototype, it really should as simple as file-print from my CAD system," Giaconia said, regardless of what printer's being used.
Because the app can natively read CAD files, it also helps produce a better finished product that more closely resembles the design. Using STL files, by comparison, can only approximate details like color and texture. Combining the software with a printer like the J750 creates a better "link between digital and physical," Giaconia explained.
The app also creates more connectivity. That starts by allowing designers to schedule a print job and allowing the printer operator to manage the schedule of jobs lined up on his network of printers. It also gives those involved the ability to check on the status of a print job.
Without this sort of software, "if you want to understand the status of a job on a printer that's been runnig for several hours, you have to physically go there," Giaconia said.
Increased connectivity also allows a firm to collect business intelligence from its printers. That could, for instance, allow a firm to monitor how much use it's getting out of the printers and more efficiently budget for materials.
Stratasys plans to work with CAD solution providers, starting with PTC and Solidworks, to build more content authoring tools and simplify the CAD-to-3D print workflow even further.