Protolabs, established in 1999 with a vision to speed up the manufacturing process with a focus on rapid prototyping, has made a name for itself with its follow-through on its vision, becoming well known for expertise in industry. Bringing additive manufacturing into its portfolio was a natural step for the company, and it has continued to adopt more 3D printing technologies to work alongside its traditional CNC machining and injection molding processes. Conversations with the company are refreshing in their being always grounded in realism; Protolabs turned its attention to additive not due to hype, but because they can use 3D printing to meet real-world customer needs and provide tailored solutions. This pragmatic approach has seen 3D printing grow as part of the Protolabs portfolio, becoming the basis for a dedicated 77,000-square-foot facility in Cary, North Carolina — where I found myself last week to see first-hand how the company approaches additive manufacturing.
Applications Engineer Joe Cretella and Senior Media Specialist Abby Christensen took me on a tour of the site, which boasts more than 100 additive manufacturing machines and 200+ employees. Following the walkabout, we sat down to discuss what sets Protolabs apart. The very space we were in is a major component of that; Christensen noted that to her knowledge, we were sitting in one of the largest 3D printing facilities in the world. The site houses five 3D printing technologies — DMLS, SLS, MJF, SLA, PolyJet — each with its own footprint and focused team.
“In terms of what we provide, we pride ourselves on consistency, quality, and speed. We expedite times for our customers,” Cretella told me.
“There’s expertise behind it — applications specialists behind each technology who dial in to how we build parts. A methodical approach to quality drives it all.”
Because the entire site is dedicated to additive manufacturing, a sense of focus permeates activity. Cretella’s team are knowledgeable about all available technologies, and specialists can dig deeper into their particular areas, allowing a large resource set available to customers needing any level of know-how for their projects.
Each of the technologies that Protolabs works with, including machines from 3D Systems, Concept Laser, HP, and Stratasys, was brought in mindfully. The company explored its options for each technology they saw that could benefit its customers, and once a specific machine was selected, the team worked, and continually works, to best understand the ins and outs of its capabilities.
“We don’t have odds and ends; once we find a machine we like, we really dial in and get to know it inside and out so we can consistently build parts,” Cretella said.
“We’re definitely still expanding, and bringing in new tech. MJF is a highlight for us, with the speeds it allows. We’ve grown into that; we started with two machines and added a third. We’re leveraging our SLS experience to grow.”
Protolabs brought HP’s Multi Jet Fusion to its offerings last August, just a few months after adopting Stratasys’ PolyJet. Expertise has risen with both, as the additional Jet Fusion 3D printer and upcoming expansion of PolyJet offerings, set to move into another wing in the building soon, showcase.
The biggest throughline throughout our tour and conversation was in a very customer-based mentality, from start to finish. Users can quickly and easily submit their project files for an automatic instant quote — an offering that Cretella underscored as “a huge factor for us.”
“Even if someone is just looking at it to price a job out, and not to build, engineers appreciate that it’s there. Our customers have enjoyed that,” he noted.
While the team is ready and willing to speak to potential customers about any job inquiry, they also understand that sometimes not speaking to another human is the fastest way to get a job done. The automated system allows users to have the level of direct representative interaction that they want. The Protolabs team offers an understanding from start to finish of the entire product lifecycle for projects, and Cretella noted that they work with a broad spectrum of users.
“We’re very flexible in our offerings, from 3D printing to injection molding. It makes us unique in doing that, and the speed in doing that. We have a huge variety of customers, from aerospace engineers to the backyard tinkerer,” he explained.
I asked about trends in customers they see most frequently, and Cretella pointed to aerospace and medical being two big sectors in their base.
“I also really enjoy working with backyard tinkerers. Helping someone work through the whole process is really rewarding, we might be helping with their life’s work — or just a neat project,” he said.
For projects of all sizes, Protolabs ensures quality and fast results. The agility offered by exploring different technologies and working with customers to apply the best-fit approach to a given product — whether 3D printing or traditional manufacturing — is empowered by the team’s familiarity with the full portfolio of offerings and deep understanding of manufacturing.
Protolabs, Cretella made sure to note, offers the same services to customers around the world, with manufacturing facilities and sales offices located on three continents.
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