How to choose a SaaS solution for additive manufacturing?

The more digitalization increases, the more SaaS (Software as a Service) solutions evolve and become valuable assets for businesses. One advantage we all agree with, is their ability to integrate alongside and ideally inside the applications a company uses on a daily basis. In the additive manufacturing industry, we still wonder why they are so valuable and how companies can select the SaaS solution that best meets their needs.

We have discussed this dossier with LEO Lane, Identify3D and DigiFabster.

Simply put, LEO Lane controls, protects, and tracks additively manufactured products files.

Identify3D provides its customers with software solutions that addresses their security, IP, quality, authenticity, and traceability needs.

DigiFabster's software on the other hand, emulates the actions and work-flow of a sales engineer. The software does not generate any g-code to figure out the cost of a part to the last digit before offering -and neither would the sales engineer- but the cost is worked out by the rule of thumb. Once the offer is accepted, the real investment in engineering labour can be calculated to optimize production costs and product quality.

Data integration diagram and process automation business internet technology concept on virtual screen

Let’s start from the very beginning. A SaaS solution is an application/a software distribution model in which a third-party provider hosts some applications and makes them available to customers over the Internet.

A survey from BetterCloud, a SaaS Operation Management platform, showed that, two years ago, companies used an average of 16 SaaS apps, 33 percent up from 2016, and 73 percent of organizations say nearly all their apps will be SaaS by 2020. However, the additive manufacturing landscape tells another story.

Even though the role of SaaS solutions is undeniable, it remains confusing for companies to select a SaaS solution, either because of lack of knowledge or because of lack of matches.

First, beginners in this industry should know the difference between a simple software used in AM and a SaaS solution. Software often include Design and CAD Software, Simulation Software, Workflow Software as well as Security/IP software. That’s the first step to know in which category falls the SaaS solution they are looking for.

Secondly, to achieve an appropriate match between a company’s need and a SaaS solution, there are usually four measurable aspects users take into account: availability, reliability, scalability, and security.

How do experts see these measurable aspects?

In order to find the “flavour” that is appropriate for a particular company, Lee-Bath Nelson, Co-founder and VP Business at LEO Lane gives an interesting view on the benefits of SaaS solutions in general and the features to consider in the AM industry:

In general, the main advantages of SaaS solutions that everybody knows include: the fact that there is no need to install anything, the flexibility of the solution, the fact that the software is always up-to-date and can be updated without disrupting the company’s work.

In Additive Manufacturing (AM), SaaS has special advantages where the knowledge and the ecosystem is so fragmented.  Throughout the workflow, there can be many contributors and one important advantage is that none of them has to install anything to use the software and they can all be sure they’re using the same, compatible version of the (SaaS) solution.

Lee-Bath Nelson, Co-Founder and VP Business at LEO Lane

With regards to the different features a company should consider before choosing a SaaS solution, there are two key issues all companies have to check. The first is to check that the chosen software solution is compatible with their corporate policies and procedures, and make sure that these policies are not disrupted by the chosen software. Secondly, check that the selected software solution can integrate easily and quickly with all the existing software in the company. Those are two key issues and, for service providers (3D printing service bureaus), I would add that it’s important to consider their customers’ corporate policies as well. One of the best examples of a corporate policy to consider when it comes to SaaS is how the solution handles files. Companies have many corporate policies around files (back-up, redundancy, security, etc.) so they often don’t mind SaaS software but they don’t want their 3D printable files to be saved in the vendor’s cloud.”

Mistakes can happen, said LEO Lane so do disasters. That’s the reason why Peter van der Zouwen, CPO DigiFabster, Inc laid emphasis on availability; in other words, the responsiveness of the support and the development teams. For DigiFabster, users should look at how the provider is equipped to handle disasters. Taking example on their team, he explained that DigiFabster has a median first response time of 4 minutes, as monitored by Intercom and implements on average 3 user-suggested enhancements per week.

 Joe Inkenbrandt, CEO of Identify3D shares an insight into what their customers expect from a SaaS solution provider and this can be summarized into three words: security, repeatability and traceability. Obviously, expectations vary from one customer to another, and are influenced by a specific AM technology. Taking the example of 3D printing service bureaus, the co-founder of Identify3D explains that:

customers worry about their IP. That’s why, they want to make sure that their digital supply chain is secured throughout the entire process. As far as repeatability is concerned, they want to make sure on the way we manufacture their product using a 3D printer. Two years from now for instance, if somebody else attempts to print it, he should be able to make it exactly the same way that it was made before, with the same quality. As for traceability, we should be able to record and account everything that was manufactured on-demand.”

Joe Inkenbrandt, CEO of Identify3D

Speaking of security for instance, a few examples of areas to discuss with a SaaS provider include the use of managed servers, compliance with acknowledged information security standards, encryption methods used for all communications, separated data storage for each customer’s information or even the use of international data centres to meet local regulations and ensure there is no need to transfer customer data out of the country of origin.

Issues and critical applications

Although one might think that SaaS providers share the same issues and concerns in their journey, they do not. This can be understandable since there are various types of SaaS solutions. Participants in this dossier share different issues they might face when providing their clients with their services.

Let’s start by DigiFabster. To better explain their challenges, Peter van der Zouwen first describes their services:

Our goal is to increase our customers’ turnover and lower their sales overhead. We're not involved in, for example, optimizing scanning strategies for laser applications (metal AM, SLS) or g-code generation (FDM, CNC).  

At the beginning of the sales cycle for a printed part, a lot of time can be spent by both parties figuring out what the other party’s abilities and wishes are. Transparency policies on the purchaser’s side lower the odds that this investment in time will pay back: as a rule, there are at least 3 suppliers invited for every RFQ, so it’s a 3:1 gamble against the supplier when he invests in labor for quoting. 

Peter van der Zouwen

Since these costs have to be recovered somehow, they will end up in the price of the next offer, thereby lowering the probability that, that offer will lead to a sale. This vicious circle can be broken with a quoting software like DigiFabster’s, which reduces the cost per quote to a fraction of a man-made quote. 

DigiFabster's software emulates the actions and work-flow of a sales engineer, but much faster and thus cheaper. The software does not generate g-code to figure out the cost of a part to the last digit before offering -and neither would the sales engineer- but the cost is worked out by the rule-of-thumb. Once the offer is accepted, the real investment in engineering labor can be made to optimize production costs and product quality.”

This being said, the co-founder of DigiFabster believes the biggest challenge of a SaaS provider is “gaining trust”. Trust in his solution, which will remain a black box to even an experienced developer, trust in web-based technologies.”

Moreover, vis-à-vis their customers, data collection is often misinterpreted in DigiFabster’s work. The company explains: “given our data structure it is mainly a point of perception, we do not, for example, gather credit card information, but the idea that this could be an issue keeps potential customers and end users away.”

Lee-Bath Nelson on her side, did not mention any issue LEO Lane might encounter in its journey. Speaking of SaaS solutions in general and what’s crucial for users, the co-founder laid emphasis on the fact that “not holding the file” is a major issue.

“It’s an issue of integrity and keeping the file correct and consistent without anybody changing it by mistake.

To carry on the file example, some SaaS software require the user to hold the file with them or in a dedicated appliance (on premise or in the cloud) and that’s not desirable for most corporations. If you are holding files in the cloud, then corporations usually require some form of extra security, not just a standard encryption… and that’s also something to consider.

On the other hand, some SaaS software, like ours, can manage this without holding files thanks to a sophisticated yet simple architecture. In these cases, adoption is much easier in terms of corporate policies.

When you move to AM production in a corporation, you must have corporate-grade solution in place. We make sure that the AM process is secure, consistent (repeatable), and tracked. Consistency enforcement means parts can only be manufactured in a way that they were specified by the expert yielding consistent parts regardless of when or where they are produced. This is crucial for a brand’s reputation.”

Looking ahead

The more SaaS companies proliferate, the more hyper-specialization is observed within the industry, and arguably that’s a good thing because companies that are only looking for satisfying customer needs along while lowering and containing costs, needs a certain level of expertise to address their use cases.

That’s why, rapid prototyping services should increasingly take advantage of software solutions offered by the market, in order to provide their customers with reproducible and quality 3D printed components.

If you are a software buyer, and if you need to know more about the hundreds of solutions that build this market segment, we also recommend to read reviews on comparison sites which are also of a great help.

Furthermore, in this challenging environment (challenging with regards to competition and companies), one expects a SaaS solution to run relatively quickly. In the additive manufacturing industry, considerable improvements have been observed in data security for SaaS services. At this point of digitalization, it would be impossible not to mention GDPR. Every SaaS user must ensure its existing and potential customers know about its corporate policies and procedures.

Lastly, cloud adoption - especially SaaS - is showing no signs of slowing, since almost every organization utilizes some form of cloud service. However, whilst organizations are stepping up their SaaS usage, they are also grappling with an array of complexities regarding the cloud’s modus operandi. But, that’s another story.