Distributed 3D Printing Has Arrived: Markforged CEO Shai Terem Explains New Digital Source Platform

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I think Shai Terem is onto something: “What did Apple do? They came with great hardware, great software, and they connected the content creators to it — they went to the big five record labels and said look, we’re going to buy the content from you and help you monetize it, in a secured way. This is what iTunes did. We are trying to do iTunes for manufacturing.”

In an interview with 3DPrint.com, that’s how Terem, the CEO of Markforged, described Digital Source, Markforged’s new platform that allows manufacturers to license the IP for digital designs of their products, which are then uploaded into Markforged’s cloud-based system software. This enables users to print the OEM-licensed parts on-site, instead of having to order the parts from the OEM. The licensors then receive shares of the profit from every part that gets printed. It’s as easy as that. In such an endlessly complex sphere of technological and economic activity, it’s rare for a product launch as potentially big as this to be able to be distilled with such simplicity.

That’s one reason why Digital Source could be so transformational. Just look online and you can easily find quotes from people who are considered some of the smartest minds in history pointing out that simplicity is a sign of genius. And Digital Source reflects that spirit not just in terms of how it can be explained, but in terms of how it could help additive manufacturing (AM) finally deliver on its promise to be used as the foundation for genuinely distributed manufacturing.

Years of work at Markforged have gone into setting the stage for Digital Source, if not directly, then certainly implicitly, insofar as the company has made its cloud capabilities the central focus of its end-to-end platform, the Digital Forge. According to Markforged’s website, the Digital Forge is the “only [AM] platform powered by AI fleet learning,” which draws on data from over 10,000 machines to make its printers “continuously smarter through OTA (over-the-air) software updates.”

The company has a reputation for providing a uniquely smooth software experience, combined with know-how assets like its extensive experience supplying the US military, thus having thoroughly tested its platform for printing parts at the point of need. This makes Markforged precisely the organization to pull off such an ambitious launch. (Markforged also has the distinction of being one of only two AM companies that I know of, the other being the AM services network MakerVerse, with ISO 27001 certification for cybersecurity):

“I think that Markforged’s biggest differentiator is that we are more of a software company than a hardware company,” said Terem. “Yes, we bring great hardware and great materials to the table, but what makes us different is that we’re coming from the software side, we’re coming from the cloud side. In my view, the Digital Source will be much bigger than what Markforged is today. Right now, the Digital Source is a small capability within the Digital Forge. But as we continue to progress, the Digital Source is going to be much bigger than Markforged. Markforged will just be one tool within the Digital Source.”

If it sounds like Terem and Markforged are open to the idea of other 3D printing OEMs ultimately making their platforms part of the Digital Source, that is exactly the long-term game plan:

“Eventually, the Digital Source should be technology agnostic, meaning you can bring other technologies into it. Now, they would have to meet the standards of the API [application program interface] that I’m going to give them. But eventually we’ll get there. It won’t be tomorrow morning. It’s going to take us years to get there, but eventually I think it will happen.”

The future implications of that for the entire AM sector are massive. Obviously, though, it takes getting the timing exactly right to pull something like this off. Luckily for Markforged, now feels like the right time. While the exact set of products that’s in short supply at any given moment changes regularly, the uncertainties created by supply chains in general are just as much a problem as they have been at any point in the past five or so years. This will only change with a lot of work entailing the implementation of a lot of new ideas. As Terem pointed out to me, supply chains remain such a pressing topic for governments and businesses across the planet for the simple reason that supply chains can only be changed in decidedly long-term timeframes:

“It’s a ten to fifteen year process or more for manufacturing to come back to the US,” the CEO explained. “I think the first step, which we’re seeing, is a lot of construction for manufacturing. But it’s a long process. So, I think the last few years just showed how supply chains are broken, and that businesses must do something differently. I think this is why we have the opportunity now to really help our customers, really help these manufacturers build resiliency, and build flexibility in their own supply chains. And it’s not for money that’s going to come tomorrow — it’s a long journey, over the next ten or even twenty years.”

Now that the process of building up a US ecosystem of hardware and materials seems to have started in earnest, stakeholders in the sector have started to shift their focus towards building up a cloud-based ecosystem that can optimize the connectivity and mobility of this physical foundation. That could be the thing to unlock the burst of growth in demand for AM that the sector needs in order to keep reaching higher levels of scale. This is the hole in the market that Digital Source fills, something that is, truly, not currently being done at the moment by anyone else:

“We’re enabling these manufacturers of the world, the OEMs of the world, to monetize licensing their IP. There’s no option for them to license the IP today. This gives them that option, to get money each time the licensed part is printed, and have a level of automated quality assurance to ensure it’s exactly the same part. This didn’t exist until now.”

Reinforcing the idea that Digital Source has to be a team effort on a grand scale to succeed, Markforged already has multiple key partners helping it roll out Digital Source at its investor event this week, including global wind turbine giant Vestas Wind Systems A/S. Aside from the fact that renewable energy is one of the highest priority areas of the economy for reshoring efforts, Vestas is the perfect company to vouch for the Digital Source because it has already been incorporating the Digital Forge to achieve distributed manufacturing in its own supply chains for quite some time. Vestas is also one of the first companies to reap the benefits of Digital Source before the official launch:

“Digital Source gives us the agility to print spare parts where they are needed, so we can get machinery back up and running much faster and minimize our downtime,” said Jeremy Haight, the Principal Engineer at Vestas. “Time equals a very high dollar value for us — a line down in one of our factories is a big deal, but a turbine that has gone down can cost even more. If we can access and print the part we need, we can get that line or turbine back up and operational much quicker.”

I spend substantial amounts of energy everyday trying to read the tea leaves to see how close the scale-up of the US AM sector is to hitting critical mass. But it wasn’t difficult at all to see how big a deal Digital Source could be, if it’s executed successfully. All the pieces seem to be in place to make that happen: “We have 14,000 connected printers,” concluded Terem, “and we have a real cloud-based software. We have real cybersecurity that the OEMs trust. If we do it correctly, it can be iTunes for manufacturing. That’s as big as it can get!”

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