Shane Fox believes in additive manufacturing. He believes in artificial intelligence, too. And he believes in cloud. And he believes in data. He really believes in data.
Fox is deep into industry — working for close to five years for Within Technologies, which dived into additive layer manufacturing and was purchased in 2014 by Autodesk — and, like more and more people, considers industrial 3-D printing to be “the future of manufacturing.” That passion prompted him to found LINK3D, a numeronym, of sorts, that appears to spell linked and is pronounced link 3-D.
LINK3D aims to link (pun not intended) engineers with manufacturers around the globe for exact design specifications, reducing those initial searches from weeks or days to minutes, and helping everybody run at maximum capacity. As more and more engineers and manufacturers outsource at least some of their additive manufacturing, more and more companies like LINK3D are popping up on the landscape.
Fox wants LINK3D to differentiate itself by focusing exclusively on industry. The company can link engineers and manufacturers from about a dozen different industries to 850 or so industrial-grade additive manufacturing machines and more than 230 unique material options at more than 160 service bureaus in 31 countries. It isn’t the biggest name in the space (not yet, at least), but, Fox said, “we’ve built what we believe to be the largest virtual factory in the world.”
The company wants to provide more options for its engineering customers, but it also only wants to provide the best, so Fox and the rest of leadership reject more bureaus than they actually bring in.
So, how does Fox see the future of on-demand additive manufacturing unfolding?
Security will be paramount, of course: “We take intellectual property very seriously,” Fox said. “Everybody requires some kind of intellectual property agreement or some kind of nondisclosure agreement.” If manufacturers outsource their additive processes to on-demand services, intellectual property needs to be protected from all third parties. Even if those processes remain in house, IP should be guarded like the treasure it is, preferably with some sort of encryption.
Automatic pricing might become a relic of our past: “We do not believe in automatic pricing,” Fox said. “I don’t believe in it, and it’s been proved time and time again it does not work. I’m just one guy in the world, and I’m sure a lot of people do believe in it. But … service bureaus on the industrial side don’t want to use automatic pricing. It’s too risky. Commodities fluctuate, systems are updating, you don’t know what’s going on on the factory floor. It’s great if you want to get rapid prototyping of custom parts or on-demand parts, but when you’re talking serious production, I think the market points away from it.”
Whatever gap there might be for the industrial space will close eventually: That is, at least, the hole that Fox and the rest of the LINK3D team noticed. “We focus on some rapid prototyping,” he said, “but we’re very interested in the industrial production of additive parts.” The more big names that involve themselves in the processes — the General Electrics and Ford Motors and Autodesks of the industrial world — the more new companies will pop up to create competition in industrial additive manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing will continue to change the industry, and so will data: “We believe data is going to be the backbone,” Fox said. “We’re an additive manufacturing company, we’re a software company, but I like to think of us as a data hub, too. Our CTO and some of our engineers have a data science background, so our backend captures every single thing that’s going on — from materials, to machines, to communication. Data drives efficiency. I love data.”
And, sooner or later (and probably sooner), additive will be opened to the masses: “Our mission is to make additive manufacturing accessible to anyone, anywhere, at any time,” Fox said. Additive manufacturing itself is different day by day, and so are the processes utilized by manufacturers. Outsourcing to any one of hundreds of companies around the world is another process, another tool. It’s not the only one, of course, but it might just be one of the bigger and more important ones.