April 25, 2014

Offering a one-stop software solution and web API for 3D-print service providers and 3D design marketplaces, Fabnami, the software tool developed by Alessandro Usseglio Viretta allows anybody to start offering 3D printing service online.

The 3D printing service market is growing 25% per year. 80% of the 3D prints is being produced by smaller 3D printing companies. E-commerce for 3D print services has peculiar requirements: the 3D models uploaded by the clients need to be analyzed in real-time to assess their manufacturability and to create a shopping list based on the shop's pricing. Big companies has developed their own e-commerce solution suited to their needs. But many small companies still rely on email as their primary channel of communication with their clients.

Fabnami has developed several high-performance algorithms that automate the time-consuming processes. Fabnami's solution offers small 3D printing shops 3D interactive visualization, browser-based real-time manufacturability checks, visual model defect highlighting, support material optimization, as well as real-time quotes, shopping list generation, Shopping cart, checkout and credit-card payment.

And if you manage a model marketplace, a design repository or a online design app, you can access all functions of Fabnami's engine via a web API that automatically processes large numbers of files.

Fabnami has developed an E-shop user interface that displays the 3D models uploaded by users. If the optional mesh repair is enabled, the original and the automatically repaired models are visualized side-by-side. When a user uploads a .stl file to Fabnami, the prices for different materials and finishes, as well as value-added services and delivery time will be displayed in real-time. Fabnami's software leverages on third-party cloud infrastructures and runs on servers located in geographically dispersed data centers in the EU and Switzerland.

Fabnami's founder and designer, Dr. Alessandro Usseglio Viretta is a physicist with a doctoral (PhD) degree in Neuroinformatics, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology – ETH Zurich, and has several years' experience in software development and consulting for financial risk management.

Dr. Viretta told us that companies like Shapeways, Sculpteo, Ponoko and few other leaders in 3D-print services, has already developed competitive custom-made e-commerce portals, fortunately for Fabnami, they are developed for the respective companies. Materialise has also an impressive solution, but it is designed for high-end professional users. Fabnami's biggest competitor is probably the Netherland-based ProtoCow, which offers easy to use "STL harvester" to home 3D printer users. But it currently offers only a fraction of Fabnami's services, which makes it more suitable for hobby-level 3D print bureaus.

Fabnami's first and foremost target market are the small- and medium-sized 3D print bureaus, Dr. Viretta said. "Only a few, large and well-funded print bureaus can afford the development of a complex, custom-made software infrastructure and e-commerce solution like ours. Shapeways' and Sculpteo's solutions have been my inspiration and are still my benchmark in terms of functionality and usability. Most of the other, smaller print bureaus are much better off licensing a ready-to-use solution like Fabnami."

"Being a startup, we tend to like the interaction with small companies and innovators. Some are using Fabnami for a small, nominal fee or for free but provide us with very valuable feedback and suggestions. We also started approaching large companies, in particular fast-growing 3D printer manufacturers. Our goal is to help them provide to their clients turn-key online 3D-print-bureau packages that include hardware, software, website and back-office solutions. Eventually, these projects might evolve into a full-featured franchising."

Here is an interview with Dr. Viretta, who tells us more about his Fabnami project.

3ders.org: What got you interested in 3D printing?

Dr. Viretta: I'm an early adopter, I closely follow technology trends and sometimes I bet on their success to impact society and economy. I still remember the day at CERN, Geneva, when the group's system administrator showed me a tool that was becoming popular among the physicists' community. "We call it the World Wide Web", he said. Although I was sure that the web would have changed the world, at the time I was busy developing particle detectors and uninterested in business. But things change: about two years ago I started getting intrigued by 3D printing and - by the beginning of 2013 - I became convinced that this technology is here to stay and a startup in this field is worthwhile giving a it a shot.

3ders.org: Could you tell us about your inspiration for Fabnami?

Dr. Viretta: It took me a few months to figure out a product and a scalable business model that would fit the present growth phase of the 3D printing industry. Eventually I set to develop an e-commerce website solution. That was not the effect of a sudden inspiration or an epiphany, but the result of a careful analysis of the market, market players and trends.

I noticed that the leading 3D print bureaus, for example Shapeways and Sculpteo, developed e-commerce solutions for company-internal use only. They don't license their software, but make it partially available to some business partners, for example to designers. By visiting smaller print bureaus, both online and in person, I realized that virtually all bureaus received orders by email or web form and had to check the meshes and quote the prints manually. The typical toolset used includes Netfabb or Meshlab for the mesh analysis and a spreadsheet to calculate the print price. The offers would then be sent to the prospective clients by email.

A successful print bureau with 1-2 SLS machines needs to hire a junior employee just to process the orders. Apart from being a fairly boring job, processing orders by hand is error-prone and expensive. Just imagine if Amazon's employee had to run through the shelves to check if a book is available and in good conditions.

If the small- and medium-enterprise and consumer markets of 3D printing will experience a very fast grow in the next few years, manually processing orders will become very quickly prohibitively expensive. Already now, many 3D print shops find it difficult to keep up efficiently with their clients' orders. This problem is exacerbated by the increasingly large number of curios enthusiasts with a small budget who submit quote inquiries just to be able to compare prices.

A cloud-based software that combines fast and accurate manufacturability checks, support-material optimization and real-time quoting with a full-featured e-commerce solution and an efficient back-office order-management app is one of the missing elements of the growing 3D ecosystem.

That was for me a good enough reason to start coding.

3ders.org: When did you start the company and what are the key milestones you have hit?

Dr. Viretta: Fabnami's first line of code was written in May 2013. Our technology stack includes Python for the back-end and highly-optimized C for the several proprietary mesh-processing and analysis algorithms that we developed. The front-end is a single-page app based on Backbone, WebGL and Bootstrap that establishes a full-duplex communication with the servers via a custom-made WebSocket-based protocol. After several months of beta-testing and thanks to the great feedback our early adopters gave us, Fabnami is now production-ready. Its architecture was designed to easily scale up and out and developed with high-availability in mind. We have servers in 3 European countries and will soon deploy Fabnami on the first North-American server.

Fabnami's HTML5 snappy and modern-looking flat-UI front-end provides a pleasant user experience also to non-technical customers. A back-office application allows the print bureau manager to configure the manufacturability checks, which can satisfy the requirements of virtually any 3D printer, and the print pricing. Advanced users can use Javascript expressions to compute the print price for models with particular geometric or topological features. Optionally, our algorithms can compute the model orientation that minimizes the support-material. That not only allows print bureaus to provide a more accurate quote but it also saves time during the pre-print model processing.

Just a few days before Shapeways announced their color-coded thin-wall detection web service, we deployed our own version, which color-codes not only thin walls, but also non-manifold edges, self-intersecting surfaces and holes. Someone might be surprised that we're ahead of a leading and large company like Shapeways. I hate bragging, but the fact that both founders hold a PhD in hard sciences, Computer Science and Physics/Neuroinformatics, from top-ranked institutions provides us with some competitive advantage.

3ders.org: What's the most difficult part in preparing 3D models for 3D printing process?

Dr. Viretta: We developed algorithms and heuristics to automatically fix mesh defects that can interfere with the toolpath generation or the printing process. In this regard, Fabnami's performance is comparable to Netfabb's, which we use as gold standard for mesh repair. Unfortunately both software can help only in a fairly limited number of simple cases.

Mesh repair is the subject of extensive academic research and has strong relations with machine learning. To correctly repair a mesh, one needs to gain some level of understanding of the meaning and purpose of the object that the mesh represents, pretty much like we need to get some understanding of the meaning and purpose of a sentence to be able to figure out missing words. The better we know an object (or an object class), the easier will be for us to reconstruct missing mesh parts.

A real advancement in automatic mesh repair will be the equivalent of Google's search-term autocomplete. Just like Google can interactively and in real-time suggest us search terms, it might be possible to use statistical methods to auto-complete 3D meshes and provide a fully- or semi-automatic way to repair meshes by collecting, organizing and analyzing large number of 3D models. Until that time comes, we'll need to rely on expert designers and good software.

3ders.org: What's your next step to enhance Fabnami?

Dr. Viretta: Fabnami's core engine can be accessed via a WebSocket and a HTTP REST API. This feature opens up several possibilities and allow us to serve so far untapped markets. For example, a high-end design marketplace has started using Fabnami's API to perform real-time checks of the models uploaded by its designers and provide them with immediate feedback about the manufacturability issues that their models have. In the next months we'll carefully consider how we can best leverage on our product and develop new features to target different kind of customers.

Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Viretta.

Posted in 3D Printing Services

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