Protolabs Survey Sheds Light on Product Development Challenges

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A recent survey by Protolabs (NYSE: PRLB) provides a snapshot of the current challenges and expectations facing product developers across industries such as aerospace and automotive. Gathering feedback from over 700 engineers and designers, the “Product Development Trends in 2024” highlights a significant push towards faster innovation despite economic and inflationary challenges. Key findings reveal that while developers are eager to accelerate innovation, they also anticipate ongoing hurdles related to the economy and consumer demands over the next five years.

The results from Protolabs show a major increase in the speed of product development. More than half of those surveyed say they are creating products faster than before, and 82% want to speed up innovation even more. This focus on faster development is mainly due to growing consumer demands, which 78% of participants see as the biggest influence on their development schedules.

However, while developers are eager to push boundaries, they expect ongoing economic changes and steady inflation that will heavily affect their ability to streamline product development. Rising material and component costs could challenge budgets and financial plans. Inflation may also increase operational costs, pushing companies to find a balance between prioritizing costs and without compromising on innovation. Nonetheless, the document concludes that economic uncertainty could slow down new technology investments and delay product launches. These challenges may lead developers to explore more flexible and cost-effective manufacturing options—like 3D printing—to stay competitive in a tough economic climate.

The survey shows that although problems like supply chain disruptions and material shortages from the pandemic are still present, there is a strong hope among respondents that these issues will decrease over time. Less than 45% of survey takers expect these pandemic-related challenges to persist in the next five years. However, they believe that economic issues and the need for skilled workers will become bigger challenges, with 65% of respondents predicting these areas will impact product development significantly. Survey participants are optimistic about overcoming the “pandemic-related challenges,” but they are preparing for these new hurdles that could impact product development.

Synergy Driving Innovation

Protolabs is at the forefront as a digital manufacturer, using advanced technologies like 3D printing to transform product development. The company supports developers from the initial prototyping to the final market launch and beyond, focusing on quick updates and scaling up production to meet market needs. 3D printing, in particular, plays a crucial role in this fast, flexible, and cost-effective creation of custom parts. In fact, this capability aligns perfectly with what respondents said in the Protolabs survey, whereby speed remains the top priority during early prototyping phases, but as projects progress, reliability and ease of use also become important considerations. More than half of the respondents said they are developing products faster than ever—82% are actively seeking ways to accelerate development, and 65% recognize the need to speed up to stay competitive. The survey also highlights the growing trend of onshoring, with developers noting that sourcing suppliers closer to the end-use of products offers speed and agility and aligns with evolving market expectations.

The survey suggests that “the amount of time (or, more accurately, the lack of time) and the related urgent need for speed are the biggest product development barriers to success as products move to production, a critical obstacle for companies to overcome.”

Looking to the future, the survey sheds light on the anticipated impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and sustainability on product development. Interestingly, while AI is a hot topic across many sectors, 66% of respondents believe it will have little to no impact on product development in the next five years, mainly because it is not “mature enough.” Similarly, despite the growing talk around environmental sustainability, 63% of those surveyed do not foresee it significantly affecting their development processes soon.

Industry Perspectives

With the increasing need for speed and adaptability in product development, Protolabs’ survey highlights the importance of selecting the right manufacturing partners at each stage of the process. During early prototyping, speed is essential to keep up with rapid innovation. However, as products move closer to market launch, the focus shifts to quality and trustworthiness. This insight is supported by the survey data, which shows that quality becomes the top priority once development progresses to later prototyping, narrowly surpassing trustworthiness. Quality takes the lead during ongoing and short-term production, with 86% and 85% of respondents considering it the most crucial factor in these stages.

“We are in the medical device industry, so by the time we reach late-stage prototyping, we need to be careful (about) quality certifications of our suppliers. Finding suppliers who can move quickly while also conforming to key quality standards can be challenging,” says an unnamed medical device designer who answered the survey.

Protolabs’ survey gives insight into current product development and future trends. It also suggests that meeting strict deadlines and complex market needs will require partnerships with companies like Protolabs and exploring the potential of advanced technologies such as 3D printing. With 25 years of experience and recent expansion into end-to-end digital manufacturing through the Protolabs Network (formerly 3D Hubs), the company’s approach aligns with providing a complete solution for customers across all stages of product development.

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