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The need for a robust supply chain that can respond to rapidly changing demand as product life cycles shorten hasn’t changed, says Protolabs CEO Vicki Holt. 3D printing isn’t always the right solution, nor is injection molding — you have to consider the many variables of a project.

Clare Goldsberry

October 29, 2020

4 Min Read
gears representing supply chain
Image: EtiAmmos/Adobe Stock

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers is holding a one-day virtual event today, Oct. 29, called The Best of SMX (Smart Manufacturing Experience). At the event, Vicki Holt, President and CEO of full-service digital manufacturer Protolabs, participated in a panel discussion with Marilyn Gaska of Lockheed Martin and Joel Neidig of SIMBA Chain debating how smart manufacturing is disrupting the supply chain and its response to the pandemic. “For me, this topic has accelerated and broadened with COVID-19, but the industry has been dealing with disruptions for a long time — typhoons, hurricanes, port-of-entry backlogs. The pandemic has brought home a realization of the risks that a long and complex supply chain brings to manufacturers,” Holt told PlasticsToday in an interview.

Protolabs produces a variety of products for a mix of companies in a unique way. “We have a lot of engineers making custom parts cost effectively in lower quantities,” said Holt. “Our manufacturing services specialize in acceleration from idea to product quickly and in relatively low volumes. It’s often difficult to get parts made if you need just a few parts, but this is where Protolabs excels,” said Holt.

Additive manufacturing has become one solution to the challenge of getting quality prototypes and small quantities of end-use parts quickly, but Protolabs makes it a point to tailor its services to each customer’s specific needs. “3D printing isn’t always the right solution. Injection molding isn’t always the right solution,” said Holt, adding that there are many variables involved from the characteristics of the parts to the required performance. “My advice is to make sure you stay informed about the technology of 3D printing as it evolves. We’re still in the early stages of learning what the technology can bring, both in regard to equipment technology and material technology. There is some great material out there, and more and more 3D printed-parts are being [produced] for end-use applications.”

The many types of 3D printing represent another challenge for manufacturers. It’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition, Holt explains. “We help customers understand the best technology/process for the part, including form, fit, function, and cost,” she said.

“It’s about where your risks are and where your supply chain needs fortifying. Some customers use [Protolabs] for prototyping but find it very comforting that we can make their production parts, too. When our customers with production in China were having trouble getting parts during the pandemic, we produced back-up parts. We encourage manufacturers to look at where the supply chain needs fortifying and address that.”

3D printing bowed by COVID-19, but not broken

IDTechEx released a new study, “3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing 2020-2030: COVID Edition,” that looks at the increased value of 3D printing. An “explosion in 3D printing” over the past decade and the ability to prototype or even, increasingly, industrially produce almost any component with a CAD package and a 3D printer “has transformed the manufacturing landscape,” says the report.

IDTechEx argues that the COVID-19 pandemic, which wrought havoc among many manufacturing sectors including the automotive, aerospace, and industrial markets, is impacting 3D printing just as it is “reaching maturity as a versatile manufacturing technique” and has stalled its growth. But for how long? IDTechEx is optimistic, noting that “there remains every reason to forecast a brighter future” for the technology.

Smart manufacturing and the digitization of the supply chain mean greater collaboration between OEMs and suppliers. Holt notes that acceptance of e-commerce as a B2B way to purchase even custom parts has improved those collaborative efforts. “In this COVID-19 world, we’re using these technologies in creative ways — not only for procurement but for remote audits and qualifications. We can do that very effectively with customers as they qualify vendors. One hundred percent of our business is transactional over the internet,” said Holt. “Being digital, our whole process starts with a customer’s CAD file that’s uploaded to our site. That data then allows us to quote and to understand how we’ll manufacture that part. It’s all done digitally and allows us to manage a high degree of complexity with low quantities,” explained Holt.

In addition to Protolabs’ extensive range of 3D solutions, Holt said that about 45% of the company’s business involves injection molding. Tooling is manufactured where the customers are located in the United States. Protolabs can turn out an injection mold with simple geometry in about a day at a cost of around $1,500, said the company.

A few recent articles blamed supply-chain disruptions on the just-in-time movement that became big about three decades ago. Does that mean manufacturers should go back to keeping inventory? Not necessarily, said Holt. “In the end, inventory is waste and the more we can develop our supply chain to respond to actual demand, the better the performance of that supply chain. 

“Having a supply chain with the capability to respond to demand is not going to change. Product life cycles are getting shorter and all that will drive supply chains to respond,” said Holt. “When there was a shortage of PPE, Protolabs could [adapt] quickly — our business model made that happen. We have over 250 projects for medical equipment and PPE, and we have a supply chain that can respond very quickly to changing demand.”

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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