3D printing support in CUPS demystified

3D printing support in CUPS demystified

Last week Apple released a new version of CUPS, the default printing system on UNIX and Linux, with what was called “basic support for 3D printers” by pretty much all media, with no details whatsoever. This has already caused some confusion, so we spoke to Michael Sweet and a few other stakeholders about CUPS, the IEEE-PSTO Printer Working Group, and the 3D initiative.

What’s the scope?

Most confusion was caused by the lack of understanding or, rather, the lack of explanation of what CUPS has to do with 3D printing, and how far the PWG’s 3D initiative is supposed to go. This question can easily be answered by the slides from the first birds-of-feather face-to-face meeting almost a year ago.

Essentially, it boils down to these few points:

  • networked 3D printers provide little or no feedback over the network;
  • there is no single standardized network protocol for them;
  • there is no open file format to handle most/all state-of-the-art 3D printing capabilities.

So the idea is that users should be able to:

  • easily access a networked printer that has the required materials, and submit a print job;
  • print multi-material objects in a single-material 3D printer, which means the printer gets instructions to stop at a certain layer, let the user change materials, and then proceed further;
  • remotely track printing progress;
  • receive notifications about clogged extruder, filament feed jam, running out of PLA, etc.

As you can see, these requirements are pretty much what people are already used to when dealing with common networked 2D printers in offices.

To aid that, since their first get-together in August 2014, members of the birds-of-feather meetings have been working on a white paper that defines an extension to the Internet Printing Protocol to add support for additive manufacturing devices. The whitepaper is focused, but not limited to fused deposition modeling and takes into consideration cloud-based printing.

Suggested extensions to IPP include various new attributes like material name, type, and color, print layer thickness, current extruder temperature, various printer description attributes, and more.

While the whitepaper is getting increasingly detailed with each revision, in a conversation with LGW, Ira McDonald (High North, a PWG member, PWG secretary and IPP WG co-chair) stressed:

This is NOT a standards development project in PWG yet (and may never be). We do have several 3D printer manufacturers and major software vendors who have contributed ideas and privately expressed support. But we’re not at the consumer promotion stage yet. We’re engaging 3D Printing vendors and other standards consortia to gauge interest at present.

Currently CUPS is only used as a testbed for the whitepaper. Michael Sweet (Apple, CUPS, PWG Chair and IPP WG secretary) explains:

CUPS 2.1 added a “3D printer” capability bit to allow 2D and 3D print queues to co-exist on a computer. There is no explicit, out-of-the-box support for 3D printers there, but we’ll be able to experiment and prototype things like the white paper to see what works without seeing 3D printers in the LibreOffice print dialog, for example.

So when you read about support for 3D printers in CUPS elsewhere in the news, you should make a mental note of using a lot of quote marks around the word “support”.

Exploring file formats standardization

The whitepaper only vaguely touches the topic of an Object Definition Language to be used and cautiously suggests AMF file format (ISO/ASTM 52915) developed by ASTM Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies, comprised of pioneers of additive manufacturing such as David K. Leigh and representing businesses and institutions such as Met-L-Flo Inc., Harvest Technologies (Stratasys), NIST etc.

AMF has certain benefits over some older file formats common in manufacturing: multiple materials support, curved surfaces, etc. Unfortunately, the specification is not freely available which has hampered its adoption.

Additionally the participants of the BOF meetings evaluated other options such as STL, DAE (COLLADA), and, more interestingly, 3MF — a file format designed by Microsoft and promoted by 3MF Consortium that brings together companies like HP, Autodesk, netfabb, Shapeways, Siemens, SLM Solutions, Materialise, and Stratasys.

Earlier this year, Michael Sweet reviewed the v1.0 specification of the 3MF file format. He disagreed with some design decisions:

  • the ZIP container makes streaming production almost impossible and adds space and CPU overhead;
  • the job ticket is embedded into document data (and shouldn’t be);
  • limited material support, the only attribute is sRGB color;
  • all colors are sRGB with 8 bit per component precision, CIE- and ICC-based DeviceN color is missing;
  • no way to specify interior fill material or support material.

Even though the Consortium isn’t particularly open, Michael says he’s been in conversation with both the HP and Microsoft reps to the 3MF Consortium:

Based on the responses I’ve received thus far, I think we’ll end up in a happy place for all parties. Also, some of the issues are basically unknowns at this point: can an embedded controller efficiently access the data in the 3MF ZIP container, will the open source 3D toolchains support it, etc. Those are questions that can only be answered by prototyping and getting the corresponding developers on board.

So there’s still work to do on this front.

For developers, the 3MF Consortium provides an open source C++ library called lib3mf, available under what appears to be the BSD 2-clause license.

Who are the stakeholders in the initiative?

First of all, to give you a better idea, the Printer Working Group is a program of the IEEE-ISTO that manages industry standards groups under the IEEE umbrella.

According to Michael Sweet, several PWG members had expressed interest in a 3D track during face-to-face meetings and offline, so the steering committee agreed to schedule BOFs at subsequent face-to-face meetings, starting with the August 2014 one.

Mixed Tray in Stratasys Connex1 3D printer

Mixed Tray in Stratasys Connex1 3D printer

This is where it gets interesting. None of the current Printing Work Group members are, strictly speaking, core 3D companies. Here’s what it looks like:

  • HP is in partnership with Stratasys and Autodesk (using their Spark platform) and planning to start selling their own Multi Jet Fusion units in 2016.
  • Canon and Fuji Xerox already resell CubePro and ProJet printers made by 3D Systems, and Kyocera got into a partnership with 3D Systems in March 2015 for the very same reason.
  • Brother was last heard (in early 2014) reconsidering to enter the 3D printing market some time in the future.
  • Epson expressed (also in early 2014) the lack of interest in producing consumer-level units and wanted to make industrial 3D printers within next several years.
  • Xerox has been in business with 3D Systems at least since 2013, when they sold part of their solid ink engineering/development team to 3D Systems “to leverage both companies’ 3D printing capabilities to accelerate growth and cement leadership positions”. Moreover, in January 2015, Xerox filed a patent for Printing Three-Dimensional Objects on a Rotating Surface.
  • Ricoh made a loud announcement in September 2014 about jumping into 3D printing business and leading the market, but so far they are simply reselling Leapfrog 3D Printers in Europe and providing printing services in two fablabs in Japan.
  • Samsung, as some sources assert, isn’t planning to enter the market until ca. 2024, however in September 2014, they filed a patent that covers a new proprietary multicolor 3D printing process, and in 2015 they partnered with 3D Systems for a few trade shows.
  • Intel has no related products, but they do support Project Daniel which uses 3D printing to make prosthetic arms for children of war in South Sudan.
  • Most other companies are in the consulting and software/network solutions development business.

Neither of the market founding companies like Stratasys and 3D systems (both launched in late 1980s) are in the PWG. However, since this project is still at a very early stage of evolution, we probably should not expect this to change soon.

Even so, reportedly there’s some off list activity. When asked about the interest of 3D printer vendors in standardization, Michael Sweet replied:

My impression is that while they are interested they are also just starting to look at supporting networking in future products — still a bit early yet for most. Both Ultimaker and Microsoft have provided technical feedback/content that has been incorporated into the white paper, and I’ve been promised more feedback from half a dozen more companies, many of whom actually make printers and software tools for 3D Printers.

The 3D BOF participants have been reaching out to vendors since late 2014, but there are still more companies to talk to. LGW contacted Aleph Objects, Inc., the makers of FSF-approved LulzBot 3D printers. In a conversation, Harris Kenny stated that the team at Aleph Objects hadn’t heard of the PWG 3D initiative before, but is interested in following its progress.

LulzBot TAZ 3D printer

LulzBot TAZ 3D printer

What gives?

While 3D printers are slowly getting common in companies that need rapid prototyping services and even creeping into households of tinkerers, we are not likely to see them as common as 2D printers any time soon.

A recent study by BCC Research suggests that the global market for 3D printing will grow from $3.8 in 2014 to nearly $15.2 billion in 2019. At the same time, another recent research by Smithers Pira estimates the global printing market to top $980 billion by 2018. There’s a deep black abyss between these two numbers.

The good news is that by the time anyone, for good or bad reason, can own a 3D printer, we might already have all the software bits and protocols in place to make it just work.

Feature image is Sculpture #10 by Pyromaniac.

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