With stock value still holding high, even after coming down a little from peaking in September, and booming revenues, Protolabs is one of the most exciting companies in additive manufacturing. In many ways, the company is marking the transition from 3D as software to 3D as a service, which anticipates the rise of 3D printing as a production technology. At formnext 2019, Protolabs chose not to exhibit but we were still able to catch up with its General Manager in Germany, Daniel Cohn.
We had actually been chasing after Mr. Cohn for an interview some time, and he seemed very hard to reach. Instead, Mr. Cohn was very kind and accessible. He came to our booth during the show and was very forthcoming in sharing some key insights on Protolabs present and future AM business.
One of these is the reason why Protolabs did not participate as an exhibitor at formnext this year. In fact, a few other AM service companies – such as Skorpion and Zare – chose not to, although they were, of course, present as visitors. “I have to admit that for an AM service, the leads we collected last year were not so high in number. In addition, there is another exhibition running in the same days, which is Compamed in Dusseldorf. The medical segment is very important for us right now and we decided to concentrate our efforts on that. But I have to admit that this is probably the most relevant specific event about professional 3D printing: at the beginning, I remember a lot of home printers, this year there is a lot of metal 3D and many other interesting technologies. I am looking forward to seeing, even more, finishing and post-processing, which is a segment of AM where we see a lot of margin for improvement in terms of process automation.”
Cohn joined Protolabs in September 2016 to manage the Feldkirchen facility. Protolabs also has another facility at Eschenlohe in Germany, both of which specialize in 3D printing technologies. Today the US remains Pro Labs key market, with revenues roughly 4 times large than in Europe, however, the split between plastic and metal, roughly 2 to 1, is similar in both areas. Germany, in particular, is an important market for Protolabs and is where the company has experienced significant growth. In 2016, in response to high customer demand, the production facility in Feldkirchen was expanded with new machines introduced to extend the range of industrial 3D printing processes available to include stereolithography and direct metal laser sintering.
“There are historical reasons for having two sites in Germany – Cohn explains. Our presence here is a combination of an already existing production site and an acquisition of an independent company focused on 3D printing.” Europe is now served from Germany and UK as production sites and commercial subsidiaries in many other counties. “One of my main tasks is to continue to expand the success of our facility in Feldkirchen,” continued Cohn.
“With the digital transformation currently underway, customer requirements are evolving; in response to this, our design for manufacturability, custom prototyping, bridge-tooling, and low-volume production services are increasingly important in the production cycle. My goal is to make our German operations as efficient as possible so that we can continue to provide optimum support to existing customers while expanding our customer portfolio across Europe for all our services: 3D printing; CNC machining and injection molding. Our flexibility, speed and scale of production underpin our success and positions Proto Labs as a key enabler in the 4th industrial revolution.”
Naturally, 3D printing is not the main business for Protolabs at this time, with CNC machining and injection molding, still driving the core of Protolabs digital production approach. “Very often 3D printing is linked to industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing, Protolabs was already in ‘smart’ in 1999 introducing the Industry 4.0 principles to get parts very fast thanks to the “unique” online purchasing process and quoting system (Protoquote). At the same time – Cohn added – 3D printing is growing a lot, year by year. I believe 3D printing will have an important future in many different businesses. “My focus is to create an even better customer experience with optimized production processes.”
One element that could finally drive AM into a real production alternative is new high-throughput technologies such as HP’s MJF, Carbon’s DSM but also the new LaserProFusion announced by EOS at formnext. “For sure it is interesting, and we are always interested in new technologies, especially the ones able to cut cost and saving time,” Cohn commented. “Hopefully, it will be ready by 2020, even if I know they told journalists it will be available first half of next year but it may take a bit longer for it to be fully available.”