When a business invests in its second, third, or fourth 3D printer, it soon discovers that the additive manufacturing (AM) workflow is more complicated than it first seemed.
Having lots of 3D printers can theoretically boost your productivity, but it also creates a whole new set of challenges: Which 3D printer is most suitable for your next print job? If you have to print 10 copies of a part, should you print them all on one machine or spread them across several? If several people need to print parts, who gets what machine?
When operating multiple 3D printers becomes too daunting a task, it’s time to invest in cloud 3D printer management software (also called fleet management software or 3D printer farm software), which simplifies the management of multiple users and machines to increase productivity and efficiency.
Note: Fleet 3D printer management differs from MES software for additive manufacturing. The latter manages not only machines but also quotations, topology optimization (in line with DfAM), quality control, part traceability, and many other aspects.
What is a 3D printing farm or fleet?
A 3D printing farm, fleet, or cell is a production space consisting of two or more 3D printers running simultaneously to increase production rates.
Here’s an example with Josef Prusa’s 3D printer farm:
A business may install a 3D printer fleet or farm for different reasons. It may require multiple units of the same 3D printer to increase production, or it may want a fleet comprising different types of 3D printers — e.g. desktop 3D printers for prototyping, large-format 3D printers for production — to print a wider variety of parts. It may want increased volume and variation.
Print farms can be operated by businesses producing their own parts, service bureaus, or Manufacturing as a Service (MaaS) providers producing parts for remote customers, educational institutions, or maker spaces in which several different businesses or individuals share printers in a physical production facility.
Best cloud 3D printer farm management software
|Software||Country||Free basic version||Pricing|
|3DprinterOS||United States||Yes||Upon request|
|Astroprint||United States||Yes||$9.90/month and up|
|BuildBee||Australia||Yes||$5.00/month and up|
|MakerFleet||United States||No (30-day free trial)||$20.00/month/printer and up|
|Polar3D Cloud||United States||Yes||$50.00/month and up|
What does 3D printer fleet management software do?
3D printer fleet management software enables a user to control multiple 3D printers to minimize downtime and increase production rates.
To achieve these goals, fleet management software must facilitate the transfer of print jobs from computers to individual 3D printers in an efficient manner. This transfer sometimes takes place through the cloud.
Good 3D printer farm management software can automatically route jobs to individual printers in a methodical way, taking into account printing time, print bed size, material availability, job priority, and other factors.
The software can also alert users in real-time about in-progress, completed, or failed print jobs.
Overview of some of the best cloud 3D printer software options
A groundbreaking 3D printing operating system compatible with a very wide range of 3D printers, including the latest generation of closed-system models from MakerBot and Ultimaker, 3DPrinterOS allows for the management of users, printers, queues, files, and materials.
3DPrinterOS is available in different formats suitable for different end users: enterprises, schools and universities, designers and marketplaces, and additive manufacturers.
Features include live camera monitoring of printers, real-time material inventory levels, file repair and preparation tools, and the option for cloud-based or local software installation.
AstroPrint is cloud-based 3D printer farm software offering multi-user management, print queue management, and advanced analytics.
The third-party fleet management solution is available in three tiers: Basic, Premium, and Business & Education, with the tier determining the maximum number of users, printers, and features, and also the amount of file storage.
AstroPrint is compatible with a wide range of 3D printers including certain models from Airwolf3D, Flashforge, and Prusa. It is not (yet) compatible with the latest generation of MakerBot and Ultimaker machines.
BuildBee is a 3D printer farm software solution suitable for a variety of end users. It is available in Starter, Pro, Enterprise, and Education tiers.
The cloud-based software can be accessed from computers or mobile devices and includes features like multi-user management, queue management, user access controls, usage analytics and cost management. It also integrates with Autodesk’s online 3D modeling software Tinkercad and Microsoft Makecode (BuildBee).
BuildBee has verified eleven compatible 3D printers, including the FlashForge Creator Pro, MakerBot Replicator 2 and multiple Creality printers, but there is unofficial support for dozens more machines.
Print farm software MakerFleet is designed for home, school, and makerspace fleet management. It is available in three tiers: Basic, Advanced, and Enterprise.
MakerFleet features include print analysis, auto queue management, and user management tools, in addition to an online print payment interface suitable for multi-user environments like makerspaces.
RaiseCloud is a 3D printer farm management platform for the remote control of printing operations. It is browser-based but also has a dedicated mobile app.
Features of RaiseCloud include automated printing, time lapse video recording, and analysis tools. There is also a focus on customization, allowing users to display the information they need on a personalized interface.
The software is compatible with Raise3D printers and any third-party machines running the OctoPrint interface.
Polar3D’s Polar Cloud is a 3D printer farm management solution for school and university users. It is designed for the management of unlimited 3D printers, students, files, and curricula.
Features include design tools, remote monitoring, and out-of-the-box cloud integration, and the software is suitable for running on low-cost, classroom-friendly devices like Chromebooks and tablets.
Polar Cloud is available on a Basic or Premium plan and is compatible with a very wide range of 3D printers including those with closed systems like later-generation Ultimaker and MakerBot models.
BotQueue is a hobbyist-friendly open-source fleet management solution for Mac or Linux operating systems.
It is compatible with 3D printers running software like GRBL, Sprinter, Marlin, or Teacup, which includes most RepRap printers.
Repetier-Server is a browser-based, all-in-one 3D printer management tool designed for manufacturers, professionals, makers, and educators but most widely used by makers.
Features include webcam monitoring, price calculation tools, and a “rescue” system for resuming stalled prints.
OctoPrint is a popular open-source web interface for 3D printers that allows for in-browser print scheduling and monitoring.
Features of OctoPrint include webcam monitoring, progress updates, and printer temperature management.
PrintAlerts is a cloud-based fleet management solution compatible with 3D printers and other machinery like paper printers and plotters.
The solution includes comprehensive management and analysis tools.
Proprietary 3D printer brand software
Third-party fleet management software is designed to work with a variety of 3D printer brands. However, it is becoming more common for manufacturers of 3D printers to offer their own proprietary farm management solutions.
Proprietary fleet management software suites from 3D printer manufacturers include:
- Formlabs Dashboard
- MakerBot CloudPrint
- Markforged Eiger
- Raise3D RaiseCloud
- Ultimaker Digital Factory
- Zortrax inCloud
There are advantages and disadvantages to using machine-specific proprietary software over third-party software.
On the one hand, proprietary solutions ensure cohesion between the fleet management software and printing hardware: the developer has designed the software to communicate smoothly with the machines in question, minimizing the probability of errors and complications.
But, on the other hand, using proprietary software limits your options when it comes to adding hardware from other brands into your fleet. Developers of proprietary software for brand x 3D printers have little incentive to ensure compatibility with brand y or z printers because they want you to continue investing in brand x.
How many 3D printers can fleet management software handle?
Different 3D printer monitoring software can handle different numbers of 3D printers. Many solutions are tiered, offering basic plans suitable for 1–5 machines and premium plans suitable for a higher or unlimited number.
Some 3D printer farm software applications — BuildBee and MakerFleet, for example — have tiers priced per machine, so it costs more to connect a larger number of printers.
Bear in mind that the maximum number of printers is not the only important metric when deciding on a fleet management solution.
Benefits of 3D printer farm management software
Simplified manufacturing workflow
Operating several printers without 3D printer control software can be difficult and time-consuming.
For many businesses, this involves transferring files via USB sticks and memory cards; it may also require a manual system for selecting and queuing up print jobs — or no system at all.
Using farm management software makes 3D printing simpler and faster. Jobs can be automatically queued and assigned to machines based on user-specified factors, and much of the AM workflow can be automated.
Features that simplify the additive manufacturing process include smart queue management, multi-user login, and material inventory management.
3D printing fleet management software allows users to harness the full power of their additive manufacturing hardware and maximize productivity.
By automatically and methodically routing jobs to available machines, the 3D printer control software can minimize machine downtime and process a greater number of parts in a given timeframe.
For businesses processing many print jobs per day, this can be a huge boost to profitability: more orders can be processed, while machines and materials can be used in a cost-efficient way to minimize wastage.
Additionally, print management features like webcam monitoring can help users quickly rectify errors, while analytics tools can be used to identify bottlenecks.
A robust fleet management system is a foundation for scalability: many software packages capable of managing three printers are also capable of managing thirty.
Once the system is in place, introducing new 3D printers is painless and does not require a radical shakeup of the additive manufacturing workflow. The software can immediately begin routing jobs to the new printers, further increasing productivity.
3D printer farm solutions like 3DPrinterOS are compatible with a very wide range of printers, including high-end professional models, which makes it easy for businesses to integrate bigger and more advanced machines once they can afford them.
Cloud-based print management can also take the strain off local computer processors: 3DPrinterOS, for example, can perform memory-intensive tasks in the cloud, meaning businesses don’t need to buy more computers to accommodate more printers.
Control from anywhere
A major feature of cloud 3D printer management is the ability to control and monitor machines from anywhere.
This reduces the need for close human supervision of printers, allowing businesses to use their staff for more important tasks.
The remote control can also prevent potentially costly printing errors (or at least mitigate the damage they cause): 3D printer control software can alert users to print failures, letting them abort the print job or resolve the problem.
Cloud-based fleet management even allows businesses to carry out distributed manufacturing, controlling fleets in separate rooms or separate facilities — potentially on the other side of the world.
Cloud 3D printer management software price
The price of 3D printer fleet management software varies depending on several factors: number of users, number of printers, the complexity of features, etc.
Most providers adopt a Software as a Service (SaaS) business model and sell monthly or yearly access to their solutions.
Basic packages can be completely free, while mid-tier packages can be found in the range of $10–$50 per month. Professional-grade solutions can cost more, and some solutions are priced per machine or per user.
All fleet management solutions specify which 3D printers are compatible with the software. Look for “Supported 3D printers” or “Compatibility” pages on the company’s website.
Some 3D printers need to be fitted with additional hardware or software to work with fleet management software: RepRap printers, for example, can be connected via Raspberry Pi or Arduino.
Most third-party fleet management solutions are designed for the direct control of FFF 3D printers, which function in a broadly consistent way.
Manufacturers of other kinds of printers – Formlabs and Carbon, for example – offer proprietary fleet management tools for their hardware.
That being said, there is some potential for multi-technology print management. For example, 3DPrinterOS offers a level of non-FFF compatibility via its “Virtual Factory”: jobs can be scheduled for SLS, SLA, PolyJet, etc., but the software cannot directly drive these printers or slice 3D models for them.