During the recent TCT Show, Ultimaker announced the latest updates to its software strategy as it refocuses attention on user experience for the widely-used open source Cura platform — so widely used, in fact, that during the show in Birmingham, UK, the Dutch company held a ceremonial cake-cutting to celebrate one million unique Cura users. This is a milestone indeed as 3D printing continues to pick up steam around the world, and as the software continues to pick up users of not only Ultimaker 3D printers, but many open source platforms. Open source was a big focus at this year’s edition of the TCT Show, and remains so as well for Ultimaker, which maintains deep roots in the community. Despite some tumultuous whisperings earlier this year regarding Ultimaker’s commitment to the open source ethos, following the company’s first filed intellectual property patent, the Ultimaker team says that they are as committed as ever to the philosophy and to making everything about the user experience as smooth and accessible as possible. To hear more about these thoughts, as well as the software announcements, I sat down at TCT Show with Ultimaker Co-Founder and CTO Siert Wijnia and SVP of Product Management Paul Heiden.

“We have hit the amazing milestone of one million users for Cura,” Wijnia told me enthusiastically, adding that the million mark was tallied from one million unique IP addresses. “This shows the breadth of users, and highlights our software strategy.”

Heiden picked up smoothly from there, noting that the user milestone is a nice response to the dedication the Ultimaker team has shown to enhancing the process of 3D printing.

“What we’ve learned over the last years is that working with both software and hardware is key — and it all boils down to reliable printing profiles,” he explained. “Two years ago, we had maybe 200,000 to 300,000 users and we realized, we need to do more with Cura. In October, we are introducing UM Cura 3.0 — this comes with a plugin structure, for plugins you can download, for example, for SOLIDWORKS. This is shortening all sorts of little workflows.”

Celebrating with cake: 1,000,000 Cura users

Behind all these new introductions is a solid foundation built on open source, an aspect both Wijnia and Heiden were keen to underscore. Creations from the community are made more possible through the company’s releasing files via GitHub, and Ultimaker is able to integrate some of the best ideas into their official releases, such as we have seen with the inclusion of the user-created Olsson Block.

“We have an open platform so others can contribute; this is an open invitation,” Wijnia told me. “We also see this as a tool for ourselves. We see issues, see how things are used, and our job is to make it all simpler. We want to be able to communicate, to build a structure where this all can happen.”

This boils down to one major aspect: “Workflow should be simpler.”

[Image: Ultimaker]

As Ultimaker has established itself as one to beat — or one to emulate — as desktop 3D printing has moved into more real-life applications bringing products and creations to life across a variety of verticals and in education, the company has continued to roll out software releases attuned to the latest hardware capabilities. Heiden noted that they had noticed the number of contributions going down some time ago, and the team rallied to focus; “we needed to go down a different path, and let people go as they want,” he explained. Keeping a finger to the pulse of users’ actual needs, as well as the rates at which the gathered community cared to contribute to ongoing development, the team has been refocusing efforts on a simpler, cleaner strategy. Ultimaker has, Heiden said, spent “a lot of time trying to understand needs and uses.”

“My experience as a founder has been that everything embedded in a machine is making it too complex for me to understand. More and more specialists are required to understand each aspect. We are trying to say the real deep level is getting more complex — but it needs to be simpler at the top. You should choose what you need to use,” Wijnia said.

“We are keeping this open invitation, and finding more applications to use it for; each is different. Medical users have different needs than an engineer.”

Another thing Heiden pointed out in terms of feedback has been the request that they “please prevent this being an IT thing,” and keep updates and functionality accessible to all users. Ultimaker Cura will be released next week, offering “new functionality on any Ultimaker 3 out there.” Following soon, with a 7 November release, Cura Connect will offer multi-printer functionality, easing operation of printer farms. An extensive beta program has, he noted, shown customer needs, leading to the realization that a cloud-based system wouldn’t work due to firewalls and other considerations; “Cura Connect just works, it detects printers.”

We rounded out our chat about software in 3D printing by coming full circle, touching again on the open source philosophy still underlying Ultimaker’s operations. While the company itself remains dedicated to the open source ethos, they understand that not all users or adapters will be inclined to share all of their own creations with the community; “We are not forcing anyone to be open if they don’t want it,” Wijnia said.

“We want to be inclusive, not block an incredible idea because they want to do it closed source,” Heiden added.

Paul Heiden (L), SVP, Product Management, and Siert Wijnia, Co-Founder and CTO, at TCT Show 2017

Wijnia did note, though, that for Ultimaker open source “is a mainstay.”

“If I’m honest, there are a lot of problems to solve soon, and we need to work together to do that. We need to democratize. We have also made that deliberate choice to have our IP out there, with our first patent. From that, I learned yes, I also have ideas, and have to take people along, take the business along; you don’t do that by shouting, ‘this is the right way, this is the wrong way.’ Yes, sometimes it feels weird that other companies use all the work we’ve done. But it all moves us forward,” Wijnia told me.

Talking with these two Ultimaker executives gave me a better understanding of how the company is approaching the software side of 3D printing. While further patents will likely be coming from the company, these do seem a strategic move, rather than a step toward so-called “pulling a MakerBot” that much of the open source community fears. Ultimaker continues to operate with transparency and integrity, putting out high-performing 3D printers and working alongside the community at large to move technology, rather than solely its own revenues, forward.

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[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]

 

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