It has been a busy start to 2021 for Proto Labs Inc., a provider of digital manufacturing services available for order through its ecommerce site. In January, the company, commonly known as Protolabs, acquired online manufacturer 3D Hubs Inc. for $280 million in cash and stock. The following month, Protolabs introduced a new digital project quoting system designed to improve how customers receive price and lead-time quotes on projects.
With those two initiatives, Protolabs has positioned itself to better service its customers by providing options for longer production lead times, increased production capacity, and the ability to see more production options and multiple part configurations in a single quote.
At the top of Protolabs’ to-do list is merging 3D Hubs into its operations. The manufacturer is planning a phased-in integration of 3D Hubs’s manufacturing capabilities over the next 36 months, says Brian Peters, Protolabs chief marketing officer. “We expect some customer opportunities [to benefit from the synergies provided by Protolabs and 3D Hubs] in 2021, but those will be on a case-by-case basis,” Peters says. “More fully integrated offerings will be available in 2022.”
Broader access to digital manufacturing
The acquisition of 3D Hubs will allow Protolabs to offer its customers access to increased design complexity, tighter tolerances, additional finishing options, more materials, and a broader range of pricing and manufacturing lead-time options. The latter will be a big plus for Protolabs customers, as the company is known for a quick turnaround in designing and producing parts, usually one to three days. 3D Hubs, on the other hand, offers longer production lead times, usually eight to 20 days, in addition to instant pricing and design feedback.
“For a production customer, longer lead times mean lower production costs, which is meaningful to customers that don’t need a part produced right away,” Peters says. “Combining fast turnaround on prototypes and longer production cycles will lower production costs and let us stay with the customer longer in the production cycle. We know we can capture more production business when the customer doesn’t need a quick turnaround.”
In addition, the acquisition of 3D Hubs broadens Protolabs’s services to include fused deposition modeling in 3D printing side, for example. Both companies offer injection molding, 3D printing, sheet metal, and CNC machining, a manufacturing process in which pre-programmed applications dictate the movement of factory tools and machinery. The process enables three-dimensional cutting tasks to be accomplished in a single set of prompts. In addition, 3D Hubs will leverage Protolabs’s digital approach to injection molding to upgrade its injection molding capabilities.
“We do have customers that cross over between both companies, and having one vendor to do business with, as opposed to two, will provide them with a better, more integrated experience,” says Peters.
Increased production capacity will be another plus to emerge from the 3D Hubs acquisition. With COVID-19 pandemic-induced supply chain shortages continuing to hinder manufacturing, the addition of 3D Hubs’s 240 manufacturing partners in more than 20 countries will substantially increase Protolabs’s manufacturing capacity and access to materials. As a result, Protolabs will be able to offer larger order quantities and a broader selection of materials and finishes.
Addressing the backlog in manufacturing
In addition, 3D Hubs’s manufacturing partners will benefit by receiving orders from the combined company’s larger customer base, which is expected to create more demand for production runs that are typically less time-sensitive and a complementary fit with Protolabs’s short lead times, Peters says.
“With some plants offline due to the pandemic and materials shortages continuing, it is creating a backlog in manufacturing,” he says. “Supply chain disruption is real and by getting increased manufacturing capabilities, it allows us to be more agile and fill orders in a timely manner, as we will have manufacturing redundancy globally.”
The new Protolabs quoting system provides customers with more intuitive navigation. To get a price quote, buyers click the “Get A Quote” button on the upper right-hand corner of any page on Protolabs.com. Next, the buyer can now more quickly create an account or sign into an existing account, Peters says.
Once signed into their account, buyers can access the projects page and start a new project, such as an insulin pump, metal bracket V2, or aero heatsink_01. Next, buyers can upload one or multiple 3D CAD files from their saved files or via Protolabs’s drag-and-drop interface. Buyers can then configure their part and receive a price quote with free manufacturing analysis usually within 20 minutes, Peters says. Once the quote is received, buyers can review and adjust their order.
“What we introduced is a more modern price-quoting platform that is faster and more intuitive,” he says. “We had been on our previous quoting platform for 10 years.”
Protolabs launched the quoting system in Europe last November and rolled it out in the United States in February.
Looking ahead, Protolabs will continue to listen to its customers about how to better meet their needs, the company says. That strategy is part of new president and CEO Robert Bodor’s vision for the manufacturer. Bodor, whose prior position was vice president and general manager of the company’s Americas region, was named CEO and president in December 2020, succeeding Victoria Holt
“Listening to our customers’ needs is what led to the acquisition of 3D Hubs and the implementation of the new invoicing systems,” says Peters. “Ecommerce is what we’ve been about since our start in 1999; it’s how we do business. Our ecommerce strategy is about saving customers time, effort and money, and when you can do that, you will see a lot of growth.”
Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.
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