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Protolabs and 3Diligent Know That 3D Printing Is Not Always the Answer

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At RAPID + TCT 2018 in Texas last week, in between catching up on the latest 3D printing innovationsproducts, and themes, we spoke with many 3D printing companies on the floor, along with several businesses that, while offering 3D printing, are not focused solely on this particular technology, but rather in multiple rapid prototyping and digital manufacturing technologies.

Protolabs and 3Diligent offer multi-facted approaches to business, with unique insights into the place of additive in manufacturing.


Protolabs, based in Minnesota with 14 global manufacturing facilities, is technology-agnostic, offering both traditional and additive manufacturing to provide its customers with a full portfolio of high-quality and best-suited technology offerings, including CNC machining, injection molding, sheet metal fabrication, and 3D printing.

Rich Baker, Protolabs’ CTO, said about the company’s broad portfolio of manufacturing solutions, “What are the use cases, what works best?”

During my talk at RAPID with Baker and Nina Swienton, the Vice President of Marketing, Americas for Protolabs, I learned that the company is “always adding technologies” to its repertoire, and that it’s currently looking to add more in the way of 3D printing; it already offers PolyJet and Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technologies, in addition to SLS, SLA, and DMLS.

As we know, while 3D printing is an advanced manufacturing technology, it’s not always the best choice out there for every job, and Protolabs recognizes that, which is why it seeks to provide viable solutions for a real-world manufacturing environment. At the moment, the company’s CNC machine business, which is “viable for low volume” manufacturing jobs as it only takes 10 days to cut, digitize, and deliver sample parts to customers, has “exceeded expectations.”

Baker and Swienton explained it can be difficult to come to terms with hidden project costs and the project timeline itself, which is why the company offers customers a look at designs without these hidden costs, along with trying out “all these different materials” and engaging in plenty of “tweaking,” in order to determine the best, “most stable process” of providing customers with high-quality parts.

At the booth, I did get a chance to see the company’s latest 3D printing project – an educational 3D printed kit for a professional, online course co-developed by MIT and Boeing. The first nine-week Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production class, targeted toward design engineers and professionals looking to gain experience in DfAM, began yesterday and is exclusive to the university, though a later class will be open to the public.

The kit 3D printed by Protolabs for the course uses three different technologies, including metal 3D printing – SLA, MJF, and DMLS. It has interlocking parts that form a model of MIT’s Building 10 dome, and will be used as a design aid in the course. Both MIT and Boeing are “expecting a good turnout,” which is why Protolabs will be 3D printing nearly 1,500 of the kits.

Then Swienton showed me a 3D printed, limited edition mask/drink coozy, made with MJF technology, the company made for PepsiCo to augment special Black Panther cans.

At the end of my time with Protolabs, I was given the opportunity to wear the Oculus virtual reality headset the company had at the booth and take a virtual tour of its Minnesota facility, which houses CNC mills and machines. Baker and Swienton said, and I agree wholeheartedly, that using these headsets to provide virtual facility tours is a great way to “integrate virtual reality into B2B.”

The company is currently working to set up a virtual tour of its dedicated 3D printing facility located in North Carolina.


Ever since its 2015 launch, industrial 3D printing service 3Diligent has defined itself as “the 3D printing partner for every company.” According to CEO Cullen Hilkene, whom I sat down with at RAPID in the Media Room since 3Diligent did not have a booth this year, the company thought that “the Uber and Amazon model was good for the space.”

Hilkene told me, “We’re excited about 3D printing advancement.”

The California company expanded its services with 3Diligent Select two years ago, and soon after split off into two entities – Marketplace and 3Diligent Direct, which offers turnkey support from the request for quote (RFQ) to delivery of the 3D printed item. Hilkene said that Direct had a “purer marketplace model at the outset,” but that the “experience of 3D printing required enough dialogue” that the additional service was born.

But according to Hilkene, there are now “too many solutions and the obsolescence risks too high” to focus solely on 3D printing anymore. 3Diligent will no longer have a self-service model, and is retiring its Marketplace offering, and completed a build out last month of a new range of casting and machining manufacturing services.

While it will still offer 3D printing services, and the same concept of workflow will be in place through its website for its new services, the company has now morphed from a 3D printing partner into a digital manufacturing partner for every business, and “augmenting what 3D printing provided a foundation for.”

3Diligent’s Cullen Hilkene at Inside 3D Printing San Diego [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

“We remain a one-stop shop for 3D printing needs,” Hilkene told me.

But, “at the end of the day they are layer approaches,” and machining and casting can, at times, help customers “achieve bulk applications faster.” Hilkene also mentioned that metal 3D printing “makes sense” when a company is dealing with unique geometries, but other times, machining is the better choice, which is why 3Diligent has worked hard to build up its relationships with “over 100” of the best fabricators in North America – to become a partner to other companies “beyond the scope of 3D printing.”

Hilkene explained, “Regardless of their need, we can, on-demand, utilize the right solution for their needs.”

3Diligent’s new business venture launch is merely augmenting what the company already offers, and Hilkene explained that customers can “still count on us for 3D printing,” but that the company is now “offering more options,” such as MJF and EDM, CNC milling and water jetting, and casting with urethane and silicone, which Hilkene says shows a “good dovetailing” with 3Diligent’s 3D printing capabilities.

3Diligent at RAPID 2017 [Photo: Sarah Goehrke]

Moving on to a brief discussion about trends in the industry, Hilkene said that as 3D printing is “truly advancing past prototyping,” there’s been an “uptick in 3D printing for production applications.” He said that over the last few years, a “critical mass” has assembled, as it’s possible to use 3D printing to “create crazy geometries that we couldn’t before.” Because the technology is “economical enough” to be valid, 3D printing is a “real candidate” for production; as we have heard time and again, 3D printing is definitely past the hype.

3DPrint.com will definitely be keeping an eye on 3Diligent, as the company will be announcing more exciting news in the coming months.

Stay tuned for more on 3DPrint.com’s visit to RAPID + TCT last week.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the comments below. 

[All photos: Sarah Saunders unless otherwise noted]


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