Proto Labs Inc. prides itself on meeting the needs of customers through an e-commerce site that lets them configure products and obtain quotes without human intervention, says Stacy Sullivan, the company’s e-commerce project manager.
Sales—all of them online—have grown steadily over the last several years, reaching $209.58 million last year, up 28.5% from $163.11 million in 2013. But with its growth has come challenges, leading the company to recently merge three separate e-commerce sites into one built in-house to better serve customers across its three types of manufacturing services, Sullivan says.
The company, founded in 1999, issues thousands of price quotes every day on Protolabs.com for customized industrial products made of plastic or metal, Sullivan says. Customers, who range from individual engineers to 3M Co., a diversified manufacturer that offers high-tech industrial and scientific products, can type in such product specifics as size and composition material to find out if their desired product is even possible to make.
For the Proto Labs customers located in hundreds of foreign markets, an online automated product configuration and price-quoting process also means working in their own local time, and not catering to the business hours of the Minnesota-based company. The company’s in-house developers wrote and built the manufacturing software on the .Net software development framework using the C++ software programming language.
A main benefit of the Proto Labs e-commerce site often cited by users, Sullivan says, is the ability to go through the product configuration and ordering process without requiring assistance. “We’ve had customers praise us,” she says. “They say, ‘We love using Proto Labs because we don’t have to talk to anybody.’”
In April 2014, Proto Labs acquired FineLine Prototyping Inc., which added 3D printing and additive manufacturing to the company’s manufacturing services, giving it three services along with injection molding and CNC machinery. Each service had its own e-commerce site for configuring products, getting price quotes and placing orders. (3-D printing uses digital blueprints to construct items by adding or removing materials layer by layer; Proto Labs also offers additive manufacturing, a form of 3D printing used to add materials to build products. Injection molding is a process by which material is forced into a mold to form a product; CNC, or computer numerical control, is a process by which machining or milling tools operate automatically via computer programming.)
These services proved popular during the first quarter of 2015, Sullivan says, helping Proto Labs generate $58.5 million in revenue, a 27% increase from $46 million in the same quarter of 2014. “In 2015, the company expects to increase sales and grow its customer base by 25% year over year,” she says.
Despite growth in sales and customer base, however, Proto Labs found it had a problem operating three e-commerce sites. Because many customers ordered products across the three types of manufacturing services, their histories were scattered across the three services, and they had to remember logins and passwords for each e-commerce site, Sullivan says. And if a customer called one of the company’s customer service engineers, the Proto Labs engineering rep had to visit multiple sites to access the client’s order history.
In July 2014, the manufacturer decided to merge its three sites into one. The company’s dozens of in-house developers worked for about six months to combine the separate sites into one destination. “It just really gives our customers one source of information for design tips, processes, guidelines and a quote for the services that we offer,” Sullivan says. Now customers as well as reps, she adds, can access customer account information and order history in a ‘My Account’ section of the web site.
In the next six months, the manufacturer also plans to integrate its shopping cart functions. While 3D printing, CNC machinery and injection molding services are now all available through one site, customers still cannot place orders for the different services at the same time in a single shopping cart. The company plans to unify the shopping cart by the end of this year, Sullivan says.
Proto Labs also installed Pardot by Salesforce, an online marketing tool, about a month ago in order to more easily understand and market to customers’ interests. The software uses information on customer order history and related data maintained in Proto Labs’ Salesforce customer relationship management, or CRM, system.
Although Proto Labs engages its customers largely through online self-service and automation, the Salesforce tools help to provide personal service from reps when necessary, Sullivan says.
“Our sales reps shouldn’t have to ask the customer what quote they received, or what part they ordered, or what email they sent,” Sullivan says. “We’re an online company, but there’s still human interactions we have to follow up on. A more novice engineer may want to talk to a customer service engineer, and that engineer needs access to the types of parts that customer has previously ordered.”
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