German software giant SAP SE will establish a global network of 3-D printing labs, teaming with service provider Stratasys Ltd. to help customers experiment with ways to make the technology a part of their design and prototyping process, the companies said Thursday.
The partners will open digital manufacturing and "co-innovation" sites in Paris, France; Johannesburg, South Africa; Walldorf, Germany; Newtown Square, Penn.; and Palo Alto, Calif.
The 3-D printing machines at those locations will be entry-level quality, capable of producing experimental items and prototypes, not production-level products, said Gil Perez, senior vice president for digital assets and Internet of Things at SAP.
"We're not really trying to manufacture here; the intention of the lab is to create an environment where users can experiment and test their assumptions," Perez said in an interview. "This is an easy on-ramp to get the ball rolling and let companies kick the tires."
The 3-D printing network is a component of SAP's larger effort to build its capabilities to provide Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities for supply chain and industrial companies, including an investment of $2.2 billion over five years announced in October.
Companies that work with the labs could experiment with 3-D printing using inexpensive materials such as plastics and polymers to discover supply chain efficiencies such as accelerating the design process, saving by shipping digital files instead of physical objects, and reducing warehouse storage of seldom-used parts, he said. In order to apply those creative strategies to real-world challenges, they could graduate to another level and engage a service provider outside of the SAP lab—including Minneapolis-based Stratasys—that could provide additive manufacturing with more durable and precise materials, such as metal.
The approach is similar to the strategy of UPS Inc., which partnered with SAP in May when it launched a nationwide network of 3-D printers in 60 UPS Stores for customers that want to create rapid prototypes or replacement parts for on-demand delivery. That network deploys quick printers for low-resolution models needed for rush shipping, while sending orders for industrial-quality parts to be made from more durable materials to a 3-D printing factory in Louisville, Ky., run by UPS-funded startup Fast Radius LLC.
"Moving from prototyping to industrial production is a huge leap, in terms of predictability, consistency, tolerance, scalability, and certification with third parties," Perez said. "That is time consuming and expensive." The new labs can help companies cut those costs by integrating 3-D printing with their enterprise workflows for certification, planning, procurement, and production, and using "distributed manufacturing" to find new savings in the supply chain, SAP says.