Proto Labs, which does virtually all of its sales online, is ramping up its production capacity to put its on-demand manufacturing on a faster growth track. Pictured above is the company's production facility in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

For a manufacturer that uses digital technology and B2B ecommerce to speed up the pace and efficiency of making prototype parts, Proto Labs Inc. wants business development put on an even faster track.

That’s why Protolabs, a provider of digital manufacturing services that sells primarily through its ecommerce site,, has opened another production facility in suburban Minneapolis.

The new facility, which totals 215,000 square feet and houses 300 mills and lathes, is the company’s eighth U.S. facility and brings to 12 the number of manufacturing plants located domestically and around the world.

Eyeing more market share


Vicki Holt, CEO, says Proto Labs is expanding to meet growing demand for on-demand manufacturing.

Protolabs, which reported a 5.3% increase in revenue to $113.5 million for the first quarter ended March 31, also launched new production capabilities for its metal three-dimensional (3D) printing to improve what it says are the “strength, dimensional accuracy and cosmetic appearance of metal parts.” The company is also out to capture more market share for on-demand or “smart” manufacturing, which is currently generating total annual North American sales of about $46 billion, according to Grandview Research.


For the fiscal year ended Dec. 31, 2018, the company reported a 29% increase in revenue to $445.6 million.

To pay for its continued expansion, Protolabs, a public company based in Maple Plain, Minn., increased its spending on research and development 21.9% to $28.73 million from $23.56 million in 2018; for the first quarter ended March 31, it spent $8.01 million on R&D, an increase of 20.2% from $6.66 million in the prior year.

Expanding plants to meet rising demand

Protolabs, with manufacturing facilities in the United States, Europe and Japan, sells to customers worldwide several types of custom manufacturing that customers can order online: 3D printing, which uses digital blueprints to construct items by adding or removing materials layer by layer; additive manufacturing, a form of 3D printing used to add materials to build products; injection molding, a process by which material is forced into a mold to form a product; and CNC, or computer numerical control, a process by which machining or milling tools operate via computer programming.

Protolabs is expanding its facilities and production capabilities to keep up with growing demand, says CEO Vicki Holt. The company did business with nearly 45,000 product developers in 2018 and in the first quarter developed prototype parts and related manufacturing services for 20,573 unique product developers and engineers, an increase of 9.3% over the same period in 2018.

Overall, Protolabs now occupies more than 1 million square feet of manufacturing space and has more than 1,000 machines producing nearly 4 million parts per month.


Targeting growth in just-in-time parts

The added capacity comes at a time when Protolabs is trying to leverage its expertise in ecommerce and digital manufacturing to expand more rapidly into the market for just-in-time parts. “Our investments are focused on continuing to be the world’s largest and fastest digital manufacturing source for rapid prototyping and on-demand production,” Holt told analysts on the company’s recent first quarter earnings call.

Injection molding is still the company’s biggest segment, followed by CNC machining—a manufacturing process in which pre-programmed computer software dictates the movement of factory tools and machinery; 3D printing; sheet metal and related “other” business. In 2018 and in the first quarter of this year, injection molding accounted for 47.2% of sales ($210.52 million) and 48.8% of sales ($55.31 million), respectively.

In comparison, for all of last year’s and for this year’s Q1 revenue, CNC machining accounted for 34.5% ($153.5 million) and 33.4% ($37.72 million); 3D printing accounted for 12.0% ($52.34 million) and 12.8% ($14.48 million); sheet metal accounted for 5.6% ($24.98 million) and 4.4% ($5.02); miscellaneous revenue was 0.7% ($3.21 million) and 0.6% ($764,000).

More business in aerospace, automotive, healthcare

Protolab sees its experience in ecommerce and digital manufacturing as crucial to taking on more on-demand manufacturing, especially for companies in such industries as aerospace, automotive, computers/electronics, healthcare and industrial/machinery equipment. “We are moving beyond prototyping,” Holt says.

Protolabs acquired Rapid Manufacturing Group, a New Hampshire-based custom parts supplier specializing in quick-turn sheet metal fabrication and CNC machining in 2017 for about $120 million. Since then the company has been integrating Rapid into its core business and aligning Rapid with Protolabs’ ecommerce infrastructure to expedite on-demand manufacturing.


That combination has so far enabled Protolabs to produce online price quotes with digital design feedback on prototyping order requests, and manufacture parts in as soon as a day. The system also helps it develop and deliver interactive quotes for sheet metal fabrication in a few hours and, in some cases, produce parts in about five days.

Ecommerce technology icombined with sophisticated 3D printing and related tools means Protolabs has eliminated many manual procedures and automated “many aspects of the entire process from design submission through manufacturability analysis and feedback, quotation, order submission, mold design, tool path generation, mold or part manufacture and digital inspection,” the company says.

While not releasing many details, Protolabs indicated on the first-quarter earnings calls that the company would use the extensive customer data it gathers through its ecommerce business model to improve sales operations. Specifically, Protolabs will be using artificial intelligence and more analytics to look more closely at the customer information gathered from over 45,000 parts developers to acquire new customers, increase sales from existing customers, expand geographically and better target what Holt calls “high potential” customers.

“We will continue to use data and analytics to align our sales team with the most promising opportunities and will be investing in sales operations resources to utilize this data to increase revenue growth and sales efficiency,” she says.

Ramping up with ecommerce

Despite having built its first ecommerce capability nearly 20 years ago, Protolabs is just now ramping up a bigger push into on-demand manufacturing at a time when ecommerce is still a nascent way of doing business in many manufacturing sectors. “Our experience gives us a competitive edge,” Holt says. “B2B ecommerce is just at the beginning.”


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