Minnesota-based Protolabs traces its history back to 1999, when the company was founded with a vision to provide a solution to slash the time needed for injection molded plastic prototypes, thus streamlining the production process. Automating traditional processes and focusing on speed and quality have led the company, recently rebranded from its previous Proto Labs styling, to embrace additional technologies as part of its suite of offerings to best serve its customers. Offering industrial 3D printing services as part of its portfolio since 2014, Protolabs says it is now “the world’s fastest manufacturer of custom prototypes and on-demand production parts.” During the recent SOLIDWORKS World in LA, I appreciated the opportunity to sit down with Protolabs’ Director of Technical Operations, Peter Douglass, to catch up with the versatile company.
Building on the message the company had delivered during our conversation at last year’s SWW, Douglass noted that ultimately for Protolabs, operations and offerings of technologies depend on what their customers will gain. While 3D printing, as a pointed example, is gaining a good deal of visibility as a resource for use in manufacturing environments, Protolabs isn’t concerned with offering a shiny new technology, but seeks to bring to bear viable solutions for a real-world environment. The company now offers 3D printing, CNC machining, and injection molding, curating a broad portfolio of offerings to best meet their customers’ needs, from early prototyping to low-volume production.
“From our perspective, our 3D printing business is continuing to excel,” Douglass told me. “We are always working to find the best products for our customers; speed and quality are our business. We’re not just a bunch of FDM. We have HP with nylon, we have Stratasys, we have flexible offerings. When you feel a part from Protolabs, it feels like a real part.”
Protolabs added Multi Jet Fusion technology to its 3D printing portfolio last summer, just a few months after bringing in PolyJet technology. As the company continues to broaden its portfolio, new 3D printing technologies aren’t all it’s bringing in; in November, Protolabs announced the acquisition of RAPID Manufacturing, adding quick-turn sheet metal fabrication to its suite of offerings. The acquisition closed on December 1.
“3D printing is part of our suite of services; there are still other products and processes we need to help our customer,” Douglass continued, discussing the recent acquisition.
“3D printing is only part of the solution; you don’t need it for everything. We make sure we have the ability to offer a full suite of services, and offer whatever our customers need. As we’ve evolved as a company, we recognize what is needed — some will be 3D printing, some machining, some traditional methods.”
Indeed, we enjoyed a lively conversation about how 3D printing is not in and of itself a full solution, but rather fits nicely into a broader selection of manufacturing technologies to offer best-fit solutions to workflow needs. At SWW, the spotlight shines brighter each year on additive manufacturing, but the technology remains quite young and represents a relatively small proportion of what SOLIDWORKS users target.
“In terms of SOLIDWORKS World, it’s always great to see the wide variety of people stopping to look at your parts: large corporations, power SOLIDWORKS users. It’s cool to see that interaction, that difference — and to see people grab parts and be surprised they’re 3D printed,” Douglass noted, pointing to a red light covering created on a 3D Systems stereolithography system that had particularly been drawing attention.
“This shows how 3D printing has evolved and keeps getting better and better.”
He noted that at this particular show, metal 3D printing was also catching many eyes; “3D printed titanium that’s 99% dense is a show-stopper.” The complex geometries, internal channels, and new capabilities afforded by metal 3D printing “stops people in their tracks and makes them want to learn more.” That kind of attention and drive to learn more is exactly what events like SWW are for, as experts across a variety of applications and technologies gather to share their knowledge.
For Protolabs too, learning and listening is critical to strategy and growth.
“Our model is that we listen. As technologies prove themselves worthy of exploring, we go after them and adopt them,” Douglass told me.
As more users turn to 3D printing, and more customers turn to Protolabs, workflows including prototyping and low-volume manufacturing will continue to benefit from increased speed and agility.
Discuss Protolabs, rapid prototyping, SOLIDWORKS World, and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]