Fast via Machining and Molding
Thanks to a cluster of processors running a home-grown algorithm and lean manufacturing shops in the U.S., Japan and Europe, Proto Labs can deliver machined or molded parts in as little as a day.
During a conversation with Brad Cleveland, president and CEO, Proto Labs (www.protolabs.com),
the word speed comes up at least five times and the word fast 11. Clearly, the man is rather focused
on reducing time to market. In fact, the business of Proto Labs—which consists of First Cut, which is focused on CNC machining of parts from materials including ABS, nylon, and even 6061-T651 aluminum, and Protomold, which produces injection-molded parts—is predicated on doing things in an accelerated manner.
Although the term rapid prototyping probably brings to mind a process that has something to do with building a part up layer by layer, it is completely applicable to what they’re up to at Proto Labs—although Cleveland might quibble with the term prototype inasmuch as what they’re producing is what he calls a “real part,” in contrast with those that are ordinarily produced with additive rapid prototyping technology. He says, “People are skipping the rapid prototyping step because they can get a CNC machined part from us just as fast and at a comparable price.”
How fast? How does one business day sound? That’s achievable.
“The number-one reason we’re so fast is because we’ve audited the engineering out of the processes,” Cleveland says, then explains that in a typical shop there are people who are really skilled in designing molds for injection molding and then there are other people who are similarly talented when it comes to programming CNC machines to cut those molds. “We can go from a 3D CAD model to a mold design in under an hour and then be cutting those mold components in an hour after that,” he claims. “We don’t employ toolmakers or CAD operators.”
The reason: They’ve automated the processes. Someone uploads a CAD model with a request for a machined or an injection molded part, and it is handled by a cluster of processors that are running software that runs a parallel processing algorithm that has been developed in house. This is the fundamental of the competitive advantage that Proto Labs has. “If you need an injection molded part there are thousands of places you can go,” Cleveland says. “If you need a CNC part, there are even more choices. But if it is a geometry we can make and you’re in a hurry, then we offer the world’s fastest turnaround.”
The comment about geometry has at least a couple of meanings. One relates to the part sizes that can be handled by Proto Labs. With regard to machining, it is about the dimensions of the proverbial bread box: 10.5 x 7.5 x 3.5 in. For injection molding, if the parts are thin, then they can make pieces that measure 29 x 16 in., and because the maximum depth they can machine is 4 in., a part could be as thick as 8 in. (taking into account the two halves of the mold).
But there is the other meaning, which relates to the additive prototyping technology. Cleveland acknowledges that as a technology is it “very cool,” and that “any geometry you can imagine you can manufacture with additive.” But then he says, nearly
as an aside, “If you’re an engineer, you should ask yourself why you would design a part that couldn’t be manufactured with conventional processes.”
“The biggest reason we don’t get an order,” he maintains, “is because it is a geometry we can’t make.” Otherwise, he says that from the standpoints of materials, surface finish, and dimensional control, they are “always better than additive.”
“It’s about speed,” Cleveland says. “And we have scale.” He explains that Xerox came to Proto Labs looking for 40 different parts and 100 of each. “We made the molds and parts in 10 days. No one else can do that.”