Minnesota-based Protolabs is a leader in digital manufacturing, for both rapid prototyping and on-demand production. The company’s mix of technologies, both additive and subtractive, has proven a strength as financial results continue to prove.
I caught up recently with Greg Thompson, Global Product Manager, 3D Printing, for a discussion on operations at Protolabs.
The company currently operates more than 150 industrial-grade additive machines, he explains, manufacturing more than 80,000 parts per month with its five different 3D printing technologies. With this depth of hands-on experience, the company has gathered significant insight into the current state of the technology and its impact on manufacturing, with real-world use cases from customers continuing to grow.
Following is our full Q&A with Thompson, as he shares a look inside Protolabs’ 3D printing operations.
Sarah Goehrke: What is your expectation in the near future for AM at Protolabs (more systems, faster systems, more optimized processes and designs)?
Greg Thompson: Protolabs will continue to aggressively expand our offerings, both from a technology standpoint as well as our manufacturing capabilities. We will continue to invest in our e-commerce enabled customer experience in order to serve all of our customers better, both for prototyping and production applications. We will continue to be on the forefront of new 3D printing technologies and grow our market presence through our technology-agnostic framework.
SG: What challenges are still limiting general AM industry growth (plastic vs metal)? What challenges have been overcome?
GT: 3D printing is already used today in nearly every industry and across a range of ever-expanding applications. We find 3D printed parts in human bodies, on airplanes, in space, in hospitals and in many other astonishing ways which speak to the true potential of 3D printing technology. Wider use of 3D printing at scale will become even more pervasive when multiple forces will converge: technical advancements in materials, economic efficiencies in costs and build speeds, development of a more robust infrastructure and supply chain and design adoption and knowledge of how to take advantage of 3D printing within the complete value chain.
SG: Which AM technologies do you see as most fit for production?
GT: 3D printing metal technologies are starting to make sense for end-use production for two main reasons: material properties and design freedom. The materials that are used in DMLS are powder alloys with the same chemical composition as their wrought equivalent. The build process produces parts with near 100% density so the material properties after heat treatment are comparable to wrought. Without having to sacrifice material performance, engineers can now look to optimize geometries to save cost. This can be done in many ways such as reducing the number of components, reducing weight, and reducing assembly times.
Having been in the additive manufacturing industry for nearly 20 years now, it’s been really exciting to experience the additive evolution first-hand. And the most exciting thing is that we’re just getting started. As more advanced materials are developed and production economics get even more favorable, 3D printing will only continue to gain traction as a viable production method for numerous applications. We’ve seen many of our customers, particularly in the aerospace industry, adopt metal 3D printing for not only prototyping but also end-use production parts. Also, we’ve seen an increase in adoption of nylon-based technologies, such as Multi Jet Fusion and selective laser sintering for end-use applications in short-runs.
SG: How hard is it to integrate 3D printers into end-to-end production workflow? Which steps—if any—have been taken in this direction at Protolabs?
GT: Protolabs’ entire business model is based upon a digital thread, which starts right from the beginning when a CAD model is uploaded to our system for quote. 100% of our business is digital. Once that information is uploaded, our proprietary software takes over. Our software analyzes the 3D part information to determine its manufacturability—if necessary we will propose revisions to the design so that it can actually be produced as designed—and send back an interactive quote to the customer. The part data and order information then flow right into our scheduling system and on through to the finished product. It’s essential that we maintain the digital thread throughout the entire process, as our customers want their parts with very quick lead times, and we could not offer the rapid turnaround if we were unable to tie together the different aspects of the manufacturing process throughout our factory.
SG: What does Protolabs attribute the company’s recent financial successes to primarily?
GT: At Protolabs, we’ve taken the approach of letting our customers and their projects’ requirements dictate what technology is best suited for their specific needs. We are a technology-agnostic service provider, meaning in addition to five different additive technologies, we also offer digitally-enabled injection molding, CNC machining and sheet metal fabrication services through our online quoting and design analysis portals. The result is unprecedented speed-to-market value for designers and engineers and an on-demand resource throughout a product’s lifecycle.
SG: What does Protolabs do better than competitors?
GT: At Protolabs, we pride ourselves on a model of operational excellence that enables us to deliver industry leading reliability and part quality. We have multiple resolution options within our stereolithography service, including the proprietary Microfine Green that can print in .001″ layers and resolve features as small as .002″ while maintaining very tight tolerances. We offer a wide range of materials across five different 3D printing technologies and in each of our technologies we strive to offer the very best part quality that will allow engineers to have accurate parts, that are best suited for their project, on time when they need them.
SG: Who are your main clients? (If not the name of the companies, what segments are they from?)
GT: Each year, Protolabs as a whole serves tens of thousands of engineers across thousands of companies and a wide range of industries. Although we don’t publicize our customer’s names without their written consent, I can tell you the top industries we serve in 3D printing are medical, computer & electronics, manufacturing, aerospace, and industrial equipment.
Our thanks to Protolabs for sharing a look at expectations, realities, and use cases for 3D printing across operations today.