MAPLE PLAIN, Minn.—Proto Labs Inc., a quick-turn maker of prototype and short-run goods, now allows customers to order liquid silicone rubber and metal injection molded parts as a standard option.
This gives Proto Labs customers the opportunity to make short-run LSR and MIM stainless steel parts faster than ever, said Proto Labs Product Manager Jeff Schipper.
“The idea is that parts should not take as long as they do now to make, and that was the concept when we were first established (in 1999),” he said. “Back (15 years ago), getting a mold in four weeks was like pulling teeth. We have come a long way. One of our goals is to have complete design iteration completed within two weeks.”
Proto Labs surpassed $150 million in revenue in 2013 and counts an estimated 36,000 product developers as customers since its inception. According to the firm, the key to streamlining—not to mention speeding—the process is proprietary software technology, which is designed to eliminate busy work and downtime as part of its standard operating procedure.
The practice has helped Proto Labs earn recognition as a top 100 small company by Forbes Magazine and a Fastest Growing Company by Inc. 500 multiple times.
The proprietary technology used by Proto Labs includes a computer-aided design system and other programs made internally, Schipper said. The company has used the strategy of spending more research and development money on software and technology, including personnel.
As such, Proto Labs has a strong patent portfolio, with more than 14 patents, and it has established a number of technologies with protected trade secrets.
Proto Labs believes in communication with customers that essentially serves as a two-way street, said Communications Manager Stacy Sullivan. When an order is placed, the company provides a detailed description of when the parts will be delivered, and many of the company's new products or product modifications have come directly from customer feedback through surveys or online evaluations, Sullivan said.
“Over the past year, our research and development program has quickly advanced,” Vicki Holt, president and CEO of Proto Labs, said in a statement. “Incorporating LSR and MIM into our existing list of materials allows current and future customers more diversity in prototyping and small-volume manufacturing—something every product developer focused on taking products from idea to market faster can appreciate.”
Serving several industries
Customers in the LSR market come from a variety of industries, including health care, automotive, consumer products and industrial applications, along with more specific markets in cookware and skin care.
“We use big data to evaluate what our current customers are looking for and also what the target markets we are (addressing) are looking for,” Sullivan said. “That's important because our market reach is broad—we work not only with those industries but hobbyists or inventors—people creating new (mobile) phone covers or the latest ear buds or kids' toys.”
With approximately 850 global employees, Proto Labs frequently works with product designers and design engineers, Schipper said. In addition, with the role of procurement professionals increasing in importance for many organizations, Proto Labs has seen an increase in orders coming from procurement departments that have more direct buying authority.
The company believes it is important to provide designers and engineers the opportunity for the manufacturing process to turn around quickly—even if the order is for a few thousand parts rather than tens of thousands of parts.
“We're helping customers that have assemblies with process and materials, and this ability to turn over lower run orders brings in new customers who weren't candidates for LSR before,” Schipper said. “We give them an opportunity for a quick-turn part at a fair price, while helping them get their product to market as soon as possible while reducing the bottlenecks.”
The average time for a customer to receive an interactive quote through the Proto Labs' website is about four hours (during the business week), Sullivan said. This includes detailed information, and customer questions are addressed as part of the quote.
On average, it takes two weeks or less for most plastic and machining orders and three weeks or less for LSR orders to be completed.
Proto Labs is headquartered in Maple Plain, where one of the three onsite buildings houses the company's LSR and metal injection molding machines. All plastic injection molded parts are made in nearby Rosemont, Minn. Additional manufacturing locations are in Plymouth, Minn., and Raleigh. N.C., and global sales offices are located in Japan and England.