#3D printing#Industry 4.0#Protolabs#CNC#Additive Manufacturing#Injection Molding

Protolabs: the changing face of digital manufacturing

Harry Menear
|Aug 5|magazine18 min read

The global manufacturing industry is undergoing a transformation every bit as sweeping and profound as the one that took place over 200 years ago, when cottage industry gave way to coal-powered factories and the Industrial Revolution swept around the world. Thanks to meteoric advances in information technology and business practice, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is set to remake the way things are manufactured on a scale unseen for centuries. For the last 20 years, one company has been squarely at the forefront of this tidal wave of change. “We're the leader in digital manufacturing, in part because we were invented that way,” says Vicki Holt, President and CEO of Protolabs. Based in Minnesota, Protolabs is one of the world’s fastest turnaround digital manufacturers of small, mixed batch prototyping solutions. 

Founded in 1999 by entrepreneur Larry Lukis, Protolabs (then called Protomolds) was born from his frustration with the slow process of acquiring custom injection molded parts. Gathering a group of software engineers and machinists, Lukis would go on to reinvent not only the process by which injection molding is executed, but also the customer experience associated with it. “He automated all of the front-end engineering associated with making a custom part using software,” says Holt. “When you look at how much time it takes to actually make a part, a big portion of the work is that upfront engineering where you have to put thought into how you're going to make that part. We've automated that process with software, which is what makes us so unique.”

One of Protolabs’ key differentiators is the way in which it engages and interacts with its customers. “We're 100% e-commerce, which in a B2B world is a little bit unusual, and very unusual in the world of injection molding and CNC machining,” Holt explains. “Making sure we've got the best e-commerce experience and can service tens of thousands of industrial customers efficiently with an awesome experience is really important to us.” 

The model has proved a success. Today, from its eight facilities located in five countries, Protolabs provides CNC machining, injection molding, sheet metal fabrication and 3D printing services to industry-leading enterprises worldwide. “We're operating at the cusp of this industrial revolution that's taking place,” says Holt. “We're in a great position to help other manufacturers take a look at how they can take advantage of information technology and software in their manufacturing processes.” Holt sat down to discuss the strategies Protolabs is using to create and maintain its competitive advantage, and how it is meeting the challenges of an industry being reshaped by consumer demand and technological advancement. 

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Holt has worked in manufacturing for over 40 years. Working first for the solution spinoff arm of Monsanto before stints at industrial giants like PPG Industries and Spartech, she later arrived at Protolabs in 2014. “When this opportunity first came across my desk, I wasn’t sure. It was a smaller company compared to the other ones I'd run, but when I took a deeper look at Protolabs, the more I realized that this is the most intriguing business I have ever been involved in,” she enthuses. Protolabs specializes in creating hyper-customizable prototype parts for companies in need of hyper-specialized manufacturing builds. 

In 2014, the company was one of the first digital manufacturers to launch an industrial 3D printing service. The versatility of the medium suits the company down to a tee and, true to form, Protolabs is approaching the process in its own way. “We're very differentiated in the way we approach 3D printing,” she explains. “We focus on the industrial engineer and are completely technology agnostic in the sense that we select the 3D printing technologies that are best for the industrial engineer and we will work with the engineer to determine which type of technology is best for them to make their part depending on what they're trying to do with the part. Then we make very high-quality 3D printed parts with a broad range of materials.” 

The added versatility of 3D printing is perfectly suited to the hyper-specialized builds Protolabs is known for, and constant technological advances mean the company is always expanding its offerings to keep pace with new frontiers of possibility. In June 2019, Protolabs announced the launch production capabilities for 3D printing using metal. The added tensile strength, dimensional accuracy and cosmetic appearance of metal parts has lead to clients using Protolabs prints for production parts rather than just prototypes. “We're starting to see a lot of interest in the aerospace and medical device areas, where people are taking advantage of the full design freedom that you get from 3D printing in order to create something very unique,” says Holt. 

Even with the advantages of a 20-year track record in digital manufacturing, the landscape today is not without its challenges. “I think people have this idea of manufacturing as a dirty, dark assembly line – like it was in the old days,” says Holt. “Today, it’s a high tech, exciting place to work with lots of change.” She emphasizes that attracting talent, helping young people entering the workforce to understand how vibrant and exciting the space is, has become a mission-critical priority for Protolabs. The need for top talent is only emphasized by the second big challenge in the industry – something that Holt notes is sweeping through every business ecosystem: the accelerating pace of change. 

However, generational transformation appears to be on her side. “One of the main trends right now in the manufacturing sector is very short product life cycles,” she explains. “People expect improvements at a pretty fast clip these days. So, being able to very quickly design, prototype, and launch products is a critical success factor for manufacturers.” In addition to short production cycles, consumer demand for quick delivery and customizability is fast becoming in vogue. Thankfully, Protolabs’ unique business model in the manufacturing space looks to put it in good stead as generational change permeates the industry. 

“The younger people, in particular, are very accustomed to 100% e-commerce. They expect to be able to buy a custom part over the internet,” Holt says. “That change helps our business because part of the challenge we’ve always faced is being a little different. We're not like a traditional manufacturer, so people and companies have to adapt to our process. Buying over the internet, which was different for so long, has grown so much. We've got demographics on our side with younger people moving into the workforce who are very accustomed to doing business digitally and over the internet.” 

Looking to the future, Holt believes that Protolabs’ future is bright. “We continue to grow. Every year we're adding more and more product developers to our user base,” she concludes. “It's just a matter of driving that awareness and then seeing how easy it is to use us and how much value we can deliver to our clients.”