Really Fast

Really Fast

Minnesota manufacturing company offers same-day delivery of precision-machined parts

As its name implies, Proto Labs Inc., Maple Plain, Minn., makes prototypes. The company prides itself on quick turnaround, and promises that it will deliver – in days or even hours – a prototype of pretty much anything you dream up, whether it’s a bold new model for a smartphone case, a concept part for a life-changing medical device, or the handle for the next greatest screwdriver design. The Proto Labs slogan is “Real Parts. Really Fast.”

This isn’t your typical job shop with a couple of CNCs, a bandsaw, and a surface grinder sitting in the corner, however. Proto Labs is a publicly held company, with 10 facilities worldwide, and 2014 revenue of $209.6M. It’s also one of Haas Automation’s largest customers.

The company’s Firstcut CNC Machining facility in Plymouth, Minn., operates many of the more than 300 Haas VF-series machining centers Proto Labs owns worldwide. The Protomold Injection Molding arm of the company in nearby Maple Plain uses Haas equipment to produce mold tooling, and the Rosemount plant runs low-volume molded parts. And its Fineline Additive Manufacturing division in Raleigh, N.C., produces a range of metal and plastic parts using stereo lithography (SLA) and laser sintering equipment. All facilities run 24/7. There are similar sales and manufacturing sites in Japan and the U.K., and sales offices scattered across Europe.

It all started with a single Haas VF-3 machining center. 

“We use Haas machines worldwide and exclusively for CNC machining. They’re U.S. made, high quality, and priced right,” says Chief Operating Officer Don Krantz, who goes on to share some of the history of this 15-year-old company, which today has more than 500,000-square-feet of manufacturing space, and employs more than 1000 people. 

In the mid-80s, entrepreneur Larry Lukis cofounded a successful laser printer firm in Minneapolis. When the company began development of a new printer design, Lukis grew impatient with the turnaround time on injection-molded parts. An electrical engineer by profession, he knew it was easy to get printed circuit boards quickly – just upload the design file and the boards would be delivered within days, and sometimes overnight. Why, then, must he spend thousands of dollars for an injection mold, and wait months for the finished tool? “At that time, molds in less than about 12 weeks were unheard of,” explains Krantz.

The prototype situation was even worse. No one wanted to invest in a costly mold when the design was still in the testing phase, but there really wasn’t any alternative. At that time, the newfangled 3D printing process was becoming a viable alternative for many prototype parts, but the material choices were limited to a handful of plastic-like materials that mimicked ABS and nylon. And direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), which today can produce parts in aluminum, stainless steel, and several other metals, was still confined to government laboratories and the research departments of large manufacturing firms. 

Lukis saw a business opportunity, one where he could meet the needs of designers and engineers looking for quick delivery of low-volume injection molded parts, without having to pay an arm and a leg for them. He left the printer manufacturer and, in 1999, started the Protomold Company, a manufacturer dedicated to reducing lead-times of injection-molded parts, and making small quantities economically possible.

Like many start-up shops, Lukis bought a VF-3 vertical machining center from Haas. “We looked at the machines available on the market, and the Haas machines had the capabilities we needed at a price we could afford to pay,” said Lukis. The equipment’s ease of use, solid reputation, and dependability are important factors to those who rely on a single machine to keep the doors open. Unlike most of those shops, however, Lukis used his new machine to develop a manufacturing process quite different from that used by traditional prototyping and mold-making shops. 

A self-professed computer geek, Lukis designed a proprietary software program that would greatly cut the time necessary to quote and program jobs. Using a parallel computing platform, itself something of a novelty in those heady Y2K days, Protomold soon offered a semi-automated process whereby 3D CAD models could be uploaded via the Internet, analyzed by a computer, and then sent to a human for review prior to manufacturing. 

Lukis hit a home run. Protomold quickly became known as the place to go for fast turnaround on molds, and low-volume injection-molded part production. Instead of waiting months for parts, Protomold customers received their parts in a week or two. The company was on a rapid growth path, and because of Protomold’s positive experience with its first VF-3, Haas became a big part of that journey. 

Not satisfied with injection molding, Lukis eventually turned to rapid prototyping of machined parts. Building on the same automated technology, the company developed its own proprietary automated workholding systems and married them to a standardized quick-change tooling platform. The entire technology package was then installed across an ever-growing number of Haas machining centers, and linked directly to the company’s automated quoting and toolpath generation cluster. This cookie-cutter approach is what today enables them to quote and program parts entirely without human intervention. 

“Nobody has to think about how the part is going to be fixtured, or what tools will be used,” says Krantz. “The customer uploads the CAD file to our system, which immediately starts working on it. By the time the customer receives the quote an hour or two later, the job has been programmed and is ready to go on whatever machine has the requisite tool set for that material type.”

From there, Krantz explains, an operator loads the material and presses cycle start. The mold-making process is very similar, except that a human checks the final design for ejector pin and gate location. “With basically any part smaller than a golf ball, you can send us your part design today, and we’ll deliver molded parts tomorrow. We have recently begun offering the option for shipping CNC parts the same day they are uploaded, for a premium, of course.” 

The Firstcut CNC Machining service rivals additive manufacturing in terms of hands-free operation, yet takes the process one step further, by offering parts made from more than 30 different common engineering materials, including 316 stainless steel, 17-4 PH, copper, aluminum, and a host of plastics.

In 2009, Protomold and Firstcut became Proto Labs Inc., a name that Don Krantz says better represented the company’s growing capabilities. He admits they can’t manufacture everything. Machined parts must be larger than a 1/4" (6 mm) cube and fit within a block of material measuring 10" x 7" x 3.75" (254 x 178 x 95 mm). There are no promises on walls thinner than 0.020" (0.5 mm), and features such as pockets and shoulders can be no taller than 2" (50 mm), as measured from any of the part’s six sides. Despite these limitations, the Firstcut CNC Machining service can make 80 to 90 percent of what’s uploaded, and delivers 99.6 percent of its orders on time. “We’re still working on the last 0.4%,” says Krantz.

A similar playbook exists for molded parts, and Protomold was rightfully proud when they delivered their 50,000th mold in 2013. For parts that don’t fit neatly into either manufacturing process, the company recently moved into additive manufacturing, by acquiring FineLine Prototyping Inc., an established rapid prototyping firm. And most recently, Proto Labs expanded its machining capabilities with the addition of several Haas CNC lathes, a move that Krantz says will greatly expand the company’s ability to better produce cylindrical parts. “We looked at the CNC lathes on the market and, once again, Haas had the capabilities we needed at the right price. Our local Haas Factory Outlet [a Division of Productivity Inc., was able to demonstrate how we could load the tool carousel with a mix of live and fixed tooling that fit our automated processing requirements.” 

In a little more than 15 years, Proto Labs has gone from a one-man band to a global leader in prototyping and low-volume production. If you’re a small shop wondering when these guys are going to eat your lunch, don’t worry. Krantz sees Proto Labs as a complement – and in many cases, a much-needed tool – for job shops and product manufacturers aiming to become more efficient. 

“We don’t compete with traditional shops,” Krantz explains. “In fact, for a lot of them, we help out with overflow work when they’re busy, and do so very affordably. And for those companies not equipped for low-volume work, our services are there to bridge the prototyping gap until order quantities grow. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of shops that we work with in this manner.”

Need some real parts, really fast? Give Proto Labs a call.

  • 10 November, 2015