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Market Disruptor Protolabs Innovates in Low Volume Manufacturing

For Protolabs, low volume is between hundreds and tens of thousands, with the minimum part quantity being one for all services.
Jul 16, 2021

There are many new business models emerging in the manufacturing technology ecosystem. Company founders and executives come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they share the ability to see a need in the market that is not being met by existing solutions and turning this into a business opportunity.

“Protolabs built its manufacturing model from the ground up, deciding to focus on speed and low volume simultaneously. We saw that prototype and low-volume custom parts manufacturing was an underserved market due to the inefficiencies inherent in the quotation, equipment setup, and non-recurring engineering processes required to produce custom parts, and that’s the problem we set out to solve,” said Dan Barsness, global vice president of product at Protolabs.

Protolabs is a digital manufacturer of low-volume, custom, on-demand production parts and prototypes in the manufacturing industry. Its services include 3D printing, CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, and injection molding services. It has manufacturing facilities around the world.

“Protolabs was founded on a digital manufacturing model that would dramatically reduce the time it took to get parts – and it was a success,” said Protolabs’ vice president and general manager of the Americas, and incoming CEO, Rob Bodor.

Acquisition of 3D Hubs And in January 2021, the company completed its acquisition of leading online manufacturing platform 3D Hubs Inc., which expanded its footprint with a global network of approximately 240 premium manufacturing partners, creating the world’s most comprehensive digital manufacturing offering of custom parts.

Why short-run custom parts? There are a number of reasons that companies need short-run custom parts:

  • When they need a prototype to confirm the form, fit, and function of a component or product under development

  • When they need an initial supply of parts to support pilot production for market testing of a product

  • If a product will only be released in a limited quantity

  • If a company needs to support end-of-life production cost-effectively.

For Protolabs, low volume is between hundreds and tens of thousands, with the minimum part quantity being one for all services.

Keys to success

  • Protolabs developed proprietary software and advanced manufacturing processes to automate much of the expensive skilled labor conventionally required in quoting, production engineering, and manufacturing of custom parts.

  • Its platform automates many aspects of the process from design submission through manufacturability analysis and feedback, quotation, order submission, mold design, tool path generation, mold or part manufacture, and digital inspection.

How it works Customers upload a 3D CAD file of their required part through an interactive web-based interface, and within minutes of design submission, the software analyzes the design, assesses the manufacturability of the design, and returns a firm price quotation with any recommendations for design modifications. The quoting system is highly interactive, enabling customers to change the material, finish, quantity, or shipping schedule of orders and to instantly receive an updated quotation.

Protolabs’ business model and services also create new opportunities for other manufacturers. A manufacturer can accept work that does not fit into its business model and outsource that work to Protolabs, freeing up time to take advantage of business opportunities that are a better fit.

Gail McGrew
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