Markforged announced an unusual new service called “Digital Source”.
Digital Source is a combination of hardware, software, network and 3D content to provide parts on demand for customers.
The problem being solved is that of spare parts. Many companies spend big cash maintaining large physical inventories of spares, and often these parts are not ever used during the lifetime of the system. Physical inventories are expensive, but necessary when the factory making the parts only exists for a short time. Spares are made in a batch for future use, and then production lines are taken down for making other products.
A new concept called “Digital Inventory” has evolved, which heavily leverages 3D print technology. 3D printing does not require tooling, an expensive step done by mass manufacturers to set up a production line. There are no production lines with a 3D printer, you just print the part. Any part.
Digital inventory means that your inventory is a catalog of part designs, which you can then print on demand as required for the foreseeable future.
That sounds all good, except when you realize that the part designs might not belong to the customer. That breaks the digital inventory concept because many companies use equipment from other providers that may require spares from time to time.
Markforged’s new Digital Source has a process that circumvents that issue: they control the entire end-to-end process, thereby enabling the protection of the part design throughout.
Markforged explains how this will work:
“Digital Source allows vendors to upload digital part designs which can be securely licensed to customers, distributors, and contract manufacturers. Once uploaded, Digital Source end-users can license the right to print parts onsite or through a growing network of approved print service providers.”
A manufacturer or equipment operator could then install a Markforged 3D printer onsite specifically for producing spare parts on demand. They need only visit the Digital Source site and request a part from the inventory available to them. The 3D printer would then receive the code to successfully print the parts, without the operator needing to know anything about the design.
As Markforged says, “just press print”.
This is a very interesting and different take on the digital inventory concept that I don’t believe has been attempted previously. While there have been ways to stream encoded GCODE at remote 3D printers, it hasn’t been organized in a way that’s suitable for digital inventory applications.
This could be quite attractive for some equipment users, as they can minimize downtime by using Digital Source to quickly print spare parts onsite. That’s important in many industries where downtime literally costs money by the minute.
In many cases I suspect the expected savings would justify the acquisition of dedicated Markforged 3D printers. These would be at the ready for producing spares as required.
For Markforged, this is a brilliant strategy as it will not only help customers, but very likely grow their sales significantly as this appears to be a unique service. Each user of Digital Source will no doubt acquire at least one Markforged device, as well as associated materials.