The fall and rise of rapid prototyping

December 04, 2009

In 1999, not long after the collapse of many of the large service bureaus that provided rapid prototyping during the 1990s, Ron Hollis founded as a custom manufacturing service for engineers and designers who wanted parts (you guessed it) quickly. has risen rapidly within the new generation of service bureaus offering rapid prototyping (SLA, SLS, FDM, Polyjet), cast urethane parts, injection molding (tooling and parts), sheet metal parts, CNC parts, and plaster and metal castings. Hollis also authored the book, "Better Be Running! Tools to Drive Design Success."

Ronald L. Hollis is president, CEO, and cofounder of Inc. He earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Alabama as well as an MS and PhD in Engineering from UAH with a focus in the management of technology-based business. Upon graduation he worked as: a design engineer on the Space Station Freedom for the Boeing company; director of Alabama Center for Advanced Technology; VP of Fastec Engineering; and president, CEO, and founder of Rapid Tech Engineering, a technology integration company.

MPW: What happened in the mid-1990s that caused such a collapse among the rapid prototyping service bureaus?
Hollis: The people who entered this business were strictly in the RP business. They let their customers transition in and out of the company without figuring out how to provide additional services. They came in, got their prototypes, and left to go to the next step in the process. These early adopters were less intimidated by change, but the big crash of 1996 took most of them out of the game. Compression actually had the complete cycle, but they crashed and burned. Service bureaus today have moved up somewhat but many are reluctant to move out of their comfort zone.

MPW: You started at a time when many were still reeling from the collapse of the previous service bureau model. Didn’t you think it was risky given that failure was so prevalent in that arena?
Hollis: Well, to start any business is risky. However, for me to pursue my goals and passion, it required the development of a new kind of business that would be able to change the world in a positive way. has definitely served that role by helping over 12,000 customers get the parts they need easily and quickly.

MPW: What was this new business model and how did it evolve?
Hollis: At, we built a distribution model so that we could always have the flexibility to add new services that would make work easier for our customers. Fortunately, when we started in 1999, there was a lot of manufacturing capacity in the market. We decided to leverage this capacity by building a business model that could use the excess capacity of the quality manufacturers. By merging this capacity with an Amazon
.com e-commerce business model, we were able to significantly improve the customer experience in the market.

We have proven the concept of a virtual manufacturer, where a customer gets outstanding customer service and high-quality, custom-manufactured parts at great prices and fast lead times—truly a transformational jolt to a stagnant industry.

MPW: Why has become so successful?
Hollis: We’re advocates of leveraging technology to make humans more efficient. We believe in empowering the human with the technology to make the process more efficient. For example, when we introduced our online, automated, instant quoting, we had an outstanding response. As many realize, quoting is a waste of time for everyone. The engineer spends time preparing RFQs and sending them out. The data are never current because the engineer doesn’t stop when he sends out the RFQ, so the manufacturer (molder or moldmaker) spends time preparing a formal quote for a part that might still be evolving. This all happens before the manufacturer even gets into the consultative mode or sales mode.

With automated quoting, we’re inserting the human at a point where he is most effective, and that is the sales mode. Computers can analyze data and do it more efficiently than a human can. By making the RFQ process more efficient, the OEM gets products to market faster, and the manufacturer doesn’t waste time on sending out quotes that he doesn’t have a prayer of getting.

MPW: But what about people who believe that you have to be face-to-face with the engineer to get the work? How does online automated quoting get you there?
Hollis: We started online quoting with RP because that’s the area where engineers work—in the product development phase. The question was, would an engineer be willing to go online, upload his data to our website, and get a quote? Naysayers said they wouldn’t do that; that it needs a personal relationship to help the engineer. “You, Mr. Customer, need me” is a fallacy. We picked the low-hanging fruit.

We were able to play on the introversion of the engineer. He can sit in his cubicle, get a quote, and buy his parts online. Now, how do we serve in this product development life cycle? It took us three years, and we moved into low-volume injection mold tooling—real production tooling. We did that and developed automated quoting, and today we make almost 1000 molds a year.
Online quoting is the power play that allows us to leverage the real power of the Internet. The online piece is using the Internet to get to the world. How can we reach a mass market? As it did for Amazon—which we tried to emulate—the Internet creates a store front to attract buyers and engineers and create demand. By having this efficient approach with a reasonable marketing strategy, a manufacturer is able to touch thousands of customers and expand their market without leaving home.

It’s about marketing, reaching out and really touching the customers, and expanding the customer base more efficiently. And these customers are highly reticent to do this. However, the reality is that most manufacturing websites are terrible. They are just brochureware circa 1999, which doesn’t do much to drive demand.

MPW: What’s the next phase?
Hollis: Quoting is one thing, but a data-management system totally geared toward custom parts is something else. It’s complicated and unique, but it’s one of the challenges. We’re always changing and adapting, trying to figure out how to quote custom and unique parts, and processing pieces of the data efficiently. We need sales management systems that are Web based and designed for the sale of custom parts. Then we need project management systems and finance management systems.
It is often underappreciated how much and how complex the data are for custom parts. There can be more than 50 unique pieces of data—from CAD to drawings to logistics to QC—that are dynamic and must be current to work. Companies that lack these systems are inherently restricted in the number of projects they can successfully manage before their customer service significantly suffers.

MPW: It seems that marketing is a major stumbling block to many manufacturers because either they don’t understand what it is, or, even if they understand it, they can’t seem to execute a strategy. How have you been successful?
Hollis: Most molders and moldmakers are poor at marketing, but it turns out that this deficiency is correctable if there is a desire to do so. Many don’t really respect the science of marketing, so they gladly outsource it or ignore it. They think that going to a few trade shows and sending a sales guy that sits in the booth reading his paper is powerful marketing. Well, it’s not. It is amazing how many of these manufacturers don’t get this and then complain about how bad their businesses are doing.
We study what they do in the retail arena, particularly Home Depot. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Marketing is a very important part of being successful. People have to know you exist and that you can solve their problems. How do you get a custom manufacturer into the Web world? It’s transformational. With the power of the Internet today and a willingness to change, many manufacturers could implement highly effective marketing programs and really grow their businesses.

MPW: has been very willing to share methods that have made it successful. Many manufacturers say they don’t want people (meaning competitors) to know they are around. What prompts this type of thinking, and will it be detrimental to the new manufacturing paradigm?
Hollis: With a lot of custom manufacturers, it’s closed-mindedness. They think they all do something unique or special, but of course, they don’t. The new world is an open world, a sharing world. We share, we evangelize it because we believe we have something that people can learn. As the world continues to shift, as globalization matures, and as product life cycles decrease, the volume of parts will continue to decrease. This will be a major challenge for the old-time manufacturer that wants to have one customer who wants a lot of the same parts.

The new world will be many customers that make relatively few of many different parts. The manufacturers that see this coming and are willing to redevelop their business for the present will survive and possibly thrive, but most will just die. A part of my book shares some insights for U.S. manufacturers and challenges them to adapt to the world as it is and quit the whining and crying about China.

MPW: It was obvious to many that RP held some promise for moldmakers and molders to provide this service as a natural front-end service to their customers, but it never seemed to catch on among that group. Why?
Hollis: Many in the moldmaking industry are averse to change and technology, especially a technology that’s so very different from cutting chips. We started in 1999 to build the bridge between engineering and manufacturing. There are still a lot of manufacturers who spend a lot of their day trying to figure out how to make the manufacturing process better, but no one is moving up the product development chain to make it better at the front end, where the whole process starts. The application of additive manufacturing in mainstream production is so very difficult and can easily become a square peg in a round hole. In the early days, I just tried to get many of them to use CAD.

MPW: Were moldmakers threatened by the idea of rapid tooling?
Hollis: Rapid tooling has been a dream for over 15 years, but realistically it won’t happen on a large scale. I think most of this dreaming has been from the RP guys, actually. Since the early days of rapid prototypes, these high-tech makers of parts have always felt slighted by the manufacturing world because they were always classified as “just prototypes.” So, to increase their status, the RP world has wanted to become “manufacturers,” rather than just being great prototypers. Rapid tooling was one of those pursuits that has lagged in performance.

The industry has tried many things including epoxy tooling, AIM tooling with SLA, Keltool, and a few others. One of the early arguments I recall was with the then-CEO of 3D Systems after it had acquired the rights to Keltool. It didn’t make any sense, but he knew he was right. It probably resulted in a good write-off. The future of rapid tooling has transitioned into low-volume layered manufacturing where some parts with some materials can work adequately in their production environment. While this is not a new idea, it does have some strong marketing momentum behind it.

MPW: Why aren’t moldmakers doing more rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing now?
Hollis: That’s a head-scratcher. There’s a significant number of them with blinders on, but a few are starting to add more and more services. They may perceive that adding value to the customer requires adding new equipment, people, etc., which is not always the case. Clare Goldsberry

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