It’s been two decades since Proto Labs Inc. struck a revolutionary cord with on-demand digital manufacturing. Now its second-generation ecommerce platform supports more complicated collaboration with customers on custom manufacturing across the multiple processes of 3D printing, CNC machining, and injection molding—and at the same time speeds up price quotes on projects. Above: A Protolabs 3D printing project.

As the global product director for ecommerce at Proto Labs Inc., Mark Flannery has a lot of exciting things on his mind these days.

It’s the kind of excitement that comes with taking what was considered innovative and revolutionary 20 years ago and renewing it all over again, Flannery says.

We’re actually virtually manufacturing the product before physically manufacturing it. You can see digitally how it would work.
Mark Flannery, global product director for ecommerce
Protolabs
MarkFlannery-Protolabs

Mark Flannery, global product director for ecommerce, Protolabs

The company, which generally goes by the name Protolabs, has taken a digital manufacturing model it introduced in 1999—a model that has allowed its customers to upload CAD models of products online to place manufacturing orders—and relaunched it to put customers in more control of more quickly quoting, ordering, and producing products with better visibility into costs and production time.

Geoffrey Wain, a development engineer at Acquisition Systems Ltd, says the Protolabs platform is quite helpful during the product design and development process. “It’s an excellent system and a good design pointed to help you achieve something that is actually moldable,” he says. “Instead of just going back and saying this can’t be molded, this system takes you through step by step on what you need to do to make it moldable and it also gives advisories.” Acquisition Systems is a U.K.-based provider of data acquisition systems for applications ranging from gas turbine test beds to production-monitoring systems.

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Protolabs processes virtually all customer orders through its ecommerce site, Protolabs.com. The company’s new digital quoting engine on an updated ecommerce platform—launched in November 2020 in Europe but slated for early 2021 for the United States—comes at a time when many companies—large and small—are facing pressures to quickly develop new or revised products as a result of the pandemic and changes in competition.

Minutes to a product manufacturing quote

Now, within a few hours—or at times within minutes—of uploading a computerized design file on Protolabs.com, Flannery notes, a customer can receive the quote back to view in an interactive analysis on how Protolabs will use one or more of its manufacturing processes to produce the product, whether it’s a part for a ventilator used in treating COVID-19 patients or a prototype of a new industrial device. Protolabs demonstrates its online services in this online video.

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A screenshot from Protolabs.com shows a manufacturing analysis.

“So you’re not just getting a quote of the price and the manufacturing lead time, but we’re actually virtually manufacturing the product before physically manufacturing it,” Flannery says. “You can see digitally how it would work.”

The Protolabs system also lets engineers and other users collaborate on project designs with colleagues, and it recommends alternate manufacturing steps and materials when it senses that such modifications from a customer’s original design could reduce production time and cost. “It lets the customer understand the most cost-effective and fastest way to manufacture a product,” Flannery says.

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“We’re focused on the whole system,” he adds. “Upload a part design, do a few revisions after analysis, make a prototype, then make changes to a prototype, all the way to getting a product you want to market. Now we’re talking about shortening that cycle from idea to reality to going to market.”

Getting a product to market

Once a customer decides to go ahead with final manufacturing, Protolabs can expedite it to within a single day, he adds.

Protolabs-DMLS-3Dprinting-aerospace-2-part-only-lr

An aerospace part (top) and a medical device (below) produced through a Protolabs “direct metal laser sintering” (DMLS) 3D printing process.

Protolabs-DMLS-3Dprinting-med-device-part-v2-lr

“Speed in testing parts, getting products to market fast, and speed in manufacturing throughout product life cycles—these have always been vital elements in any project. But they are even more so now,” says Rich Baker, chief technology officer. “Unprecedented changes in many of our markets are underway due to customer demand and the ongoing pandemic, but technological advancement in manufacturing are throwing the doors of innovation wide open to allow suppliers and their customers to pivot quickly. And that agility is often the difference between success and failure.”

As customer demand is changing and growing, the technology behind digital manufacturing is also evolving and becoming more valuable—and adding the usefulness of an online product quoting and ordering platform, Flannery says.

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Protolabs is introducing the second generation of its ecommerce platform for on-demand digital manufacturing at a time that’s ripe for further development of the online ordering and managing of digital manufacturing processes including 3D printing, CNC machining, and injection molding. As companies are more likely now to use multiple manufacturing processes for the same project, Protolabs.com accommodates their ability to preview the feasibility and price of their plans.

Getting more value out of 3D printing

For example, 3D printing is now more suitable across a larger variety of manufacturing projects, such as those that rely on using titanium for its unique combination of strength and light weight. “3D printing used to be used only for basic forms, but now it has more capabilities so is more useful and has more demand,” Flannery says.

One of the crucial features of the new ecommerce platform, he adds, is the ability to provide a consistent quoting experience across the multiple manufacturing services Protolabs offers.

Even when there is not increased overall demand for manufacturing projects, there is more demand for the ability to plan and test product designs that incorporate two or more manufacturing processes. “You may want to compare the tradeoffs between them or you may want to shift between them,” Flannery says. That’s a large part of what companies can preview in the interactive design analysis Protolabs provides based on customers’ CAD file specifications, he adds.

Putting lots of data to work

Going forward, he says, Protolabs figures its new digital platform is designed to scale up as demand increases for its manufacturing services. The platform is also designed to gather information about customer demand and what works best in manufacturing projects.

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With a team of about 150 software developers, the company added millions of lines of code to its quoting engine, and it has integrated the commerce platform—which Protolabs built in-house on .Net technology—with its Salesforce.com customer relationship management system and its Dynamics AX enterprise resource planning system.

Protolabs DMLS 3D printing equipment.

Protolabs DMLS 3D printing equipment.

Eventually, Protolabs expects to build a base of data through those integrated systems to support the use of machine learning technology to make better recommendations to customers for their manufacturing projects.

“We built the whole system to have a lot more data points to understand the whole end-to-end process” of designing, producing, and going to market with products, Flannery says. “Which then gives us the ability to do machine learning and really understand what works best for your product, for your needs.”

The company also takes a more traditional tactic of constantly gathering feedback from hundreds of customers. “We’re constantly listening to what customers need,” Flannery says.

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(This article is part of a broader report, “Standing Out Amid Disruption,” recently published by Digital Commerce 360.)

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