Protolabs Inc. is a digital manufacturing pioneer. Over the course of almost 20 years the Maple Plain, MN headquartered enterprise has developed innovative software solutions that power its worldwide manufacturing offerings.
More recently in 2014, Protolabs entered the industrial 3D printing industry and began offering additive manufacturing services in addition to existing CNC machining and injection molding.
I caught up with Rich Baker, Protolabs CTO, to learn more about developments in the industrial 3D printing sector, and how Protolabs views the future of manufacturing.
Having worked in high-tech industries with robotics, automation and advanced manufacturing Protolabs was already on his radar prior to joining the company in 2016. However, even with close former colleagues telling Baker about Protolabs it was not until a visit that he realized the true scale of operations.
“I had the same feeling you’d probably have the first time you walked into a cloud computing center and you realized, ok this is a different game than having one or two machines in a little garage some place making parts,” Baker tells me.
“These guys are doing for manufacturing in low-volume what cloud computing has done for people trying to do software as a service.”
Automation and connecting the digital thread
Computing, and software in particular, is key to understanding the Protolabs business model. “We’re recognized for the quality of the parts we can produce and the methodical approach we use,” says the CTO. The speed at which customers can expect to receive an order is another area Baker is proud of. Since the company was founded in 1999 software has been a driving force.
“The thing that drives our business is e-commerce at the front end of our business. And we’ve integrated that from the design process all the way into manufacturing and into scheduling and producing and shipping of the parts. This automation and connectivity (the digital thread) produces efficiencies in cost and time.”
Software tools also allow Protolabs to address bottlenecks that would slow down a less agile enterprise. “Specialists become bottlenecks,” Baker tells me, “using [in-house developed] software … to automate or to reduce the amount of specialized labor” enables Protolabs to accomplish “otherwise complex things” faster than competitors. These activities could be, “analyzing a 3D printed part or figuring out how to machine a CNC part.”
“We’ve spent a lot on the software development side to make that system work both fast and to allow us to use a different skill level of labor.”
On demand, additively manufactured parts
Two years is a long time in a tech driven industry. During Baker’s tenure as CTO he has observed several developments. First, “we’ve gotten involved with a lot of new technologies and new things that are coming out in 3D printing.” While not every new 3D printing technology is destined for the factory floor at Protolabs, the scale of operations does make the company a highly attractive beta-testing partner. I remark that working in the company’s R&D labs must be an enjoyable experience, “we can’t test all of them, but we can go after quite a few” he replies.
“We view carrying excess capacity and having some of these new technologies as important strategic initiatives. I would say we actually spend much more freely than much larger companies who are older and more mature on their life-cycle and not growing so much.”
The second development is the changing nature of how customers are benefiting from Protolabs’ expertise. While a company testing the water with a new technology is likely to still turn to Protolabs for assistance, the number of people seeking, “on demand, additively manufactured parts and qualifying us to manufacture for them” has also blossomed. This demonstrates a gradual maturing of the digital manufacturing landscape, and growing confidence from the end user.
The value proposition for a customer looking to harness agile, digital, manufacturing and design engineering services is clear. “Even if you were a top 25 company in the US doing R&D, you can’t really afford to have all the different capabilities available at Protolabs. We have those capabilities because we’re sharing them across 1000’s of companies,” explains Baker.
This type of work, on demand manufacturing, brings Protolabs much closer to customers and sees the company a, “lot more involved with doing the engineering and qualification of a process.”
Baker explains that to motivate and retain staff, Protolabs has “a lot of self-organized teams” this creates “a healthy environment for professional, highly educated people that are quite skilled.” It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see how working closely with a range of industries, providing solutions to customers would likely be more rewarding than less varied work.
“It’s not like we don’t have big projects, we do, where we direct exactly what needs to happen. But there is a lot of room for individual creatively and growth.”
The value proposition for a customer looking to harness agile manufacturing and design engineering services is clear. “Even if you were a top 25 company in the US doing R&D, you can’t really afford to have all the different capabilities available at Protolabs, because we’re sharing it across 1000’s of companies,” explains Baker.
A typical Protolabs customer
Making use of the digital manufacturing services available at Protolabs are generally two types of clients. The, “strongest for us is a design engineer. They really care about speed and how fast they can learn.” This type of customer is typically an R&D and design type of person.
Baker says this group has to contend with well-defined timelines and is “trying to learn about their design and get tactile feedback and see if it is manufacturable.” The customer may be a mechanical engineer and will be looking to present their product to a team with, “a lot of different competing interests”. Using Protolabs’ range of services can confer a, “huge advantage” by delivering physical parts as “then everyone can see and feel and look at the things that they like or don’t like and the features they think they need to have for actual materials.”
“That’s the R&D use case – how do we help you go faster and how do we actually help you to have something to share with the other members of the team that are involved in product development.”
The second type of large customer tends to come from procurement-type groups – for example a larger company working on a lower volume product line. “They really don’t know how many they are going to make,” says Baker. This group need to produce “a reasonable quantity of parts. They need to know that capacity is going to be available when they need it and that process is going to be well-controlled,” Baker says. Protolabs makes that easy.
“And that uncertainty is a really good fit for 3D printing, it’s a good fit for our injection molding business where if they need a few thousand of something we can do that cost-effectively, in either case.”
Over the past couple years the number of customers recognizing the utility of doing production with Protolabs is growing, “I’d say over 50% is still prototyping, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that crosses over in the next couple of years.”
Surprising applications of 3D printing
In terms of 3D printing services, Protolabs has laser sintering (both metal and plastic), HP’s Multi Jet Fusion, stereolithography and PolyJet available. R&D is underway on other technologies.
Customers are putting these to use in a range of interesting, and demanding, ways. For example, in aerospace high-performance and sophisticated gear geometry was made possible for Protolabs’ customer Isar Gears.
For Baker the most interesting applications for industrial 3D printing are those that bring multiple functionalities into the same part. Examples include, “integrated heat-exchangers, temperature controls or chemical reactors built into a part that is otherwise doing a bunch of mechanical functionality.” Applications include high-end automotive, for example race cars, while aerospace is also at the forefront of innovation. “Without disclosing any names, there are some unique problems for aerospace that are focused on getting different capabilities, heat-transfer is one, and fluid flow as well as the mechanicals by combining it all into one part.”
As an engineer the potential of 3D printing to go much further than traditional manufacturing is clearly apparent to Baker. He draws a connection to biology, where “there is no one cell that doesn’t do at least a couple of different things.” With industrial 3D printing, multiple functionally is “finally starting to get there from an engineering stand-point” he says, “instead of one element, one function.”
Current issues in the 3D printing industry
Access to such a range of industrial 3D printing technology also places Baker in a good position to observe the wider additive manufacturing landscape. He notes that in other industries that produce unique parts, for example offset printing, capital investment costs can be staggering – reaching $25-$30 million for a single production line. “We aren’t at that scale yet,” he says, “no one is.”
“In order for 3D printing to make the next leap, there needs to be a breakthrough technology that has that large of an impact on the cost and the labor content,” Baker says. At present the industry is, at the level of, “let’s make a machine, or the equivalent of 4 machines in one”.
“No one has really been willing to put out a more integrated and higher throughput.”
To reach this point may require a new level of magnitude in terms of investment.
For Baker, production cost-demand is the central issue for 3D printing, “I think there is still a big step to be made there, I don’t know the answer.”
The future of digital manufacturing and Protolabs
In a fast moving tech industry, it is important to keep an eye on the future. Baker has vision of how he wants Protolabs to grow, and judging by the company’s share price performance it is one endorsed by the market.
However not everything involves change. “I think we’ll always be focused on the digital thread and that process of engaging customers and companies on a highly convenient online process.”
There is significant scope to go further on the design side. Currently Protolabs software gives feedback on design for manufacturability, “I would like to get us to a point where we are actually helping customers design the part correctly the first time – or in a way that is most effective the first time.”
“Instead of feedback I’d rather have design for manufacturing assistance. We could integrate the actual capabilities and limitations of our known qualified process, 3D could be a really good example of that, so I think we’ve got a lot of opportunity in that space.”
Another analogous model comes from the semiconductor industry. In that sector, enterprises like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world’s largest dedicated independent semiconductor foundry, have found great success in developing intellectual property and know-how for manufacturing, so that companies specialising in design can then build upon.
These foundries enable smaller companies, “to focus on designing product, serving their customers needs.” While the foundary, does “all the development and R&D and makes sure they have a stable manufacturing process and it yields good parts. Protolabs could be like a foundry for a lot of product companies.”
“I see a point where companies maintain their bills of material within Protolabs and they can order as they need them, on demand. The parts show up and company put things together or maybe they have someone else who does that, or we do it.”
This frees up enterprises to focus on “testing and validation, on the design, making sure they are meeting their customers’ requirements and serving their customers well.” For such enterprises, “it frees them from running a whole manufacturing operation.”
You can read more about Protolabs online.
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