Proto Labs launches on-demand manufacturing services, opens metrology lab

Digital manufacturing company Proto Labs (Maple Plain, MN) announced today that it has added on-demand manufacturing of low-volume, high-mix products to its suite of services.

The new capability is designed to address a gap in manufacturing services for low-volume, custom molded components, said the company in a press release. “Companies had to purchase in large volumes to meet the minimum order quantities often required by traditional manufacturers, and work with multiple vendors to address varied needs from prototyping to final part production,” said Proto Labs. By tailoring its offerings to specifically address the needs of both prototyping and on-demand manufacturing, Proto Labs is able to reduce cost and the time spent on parts procurement. 

“Since every manufacturing project is different, our two injection molding options let customers begin to focus on what is really needed from their tooling,” explained Becky Cater, Global Product Manager for injection molding at Proto Labs. “Whether it’s a product development need for molded prototypes or a strategic partnership for on-demand production parts, we now have a total solution for the entire life cycle of a product.”

The medical device market is one beneficiary of this service because it often has products with fairly low total annual volumes and unpredictable demand, CEO Vicki Holt told PlasticsToday. But, she added, on-demand manufacturing reduces supply chain risk and brings value across all industries where there is either demand volatility or low- to mid-volume annual production quantities.

“We serve leading companies across many industrial segments, where on-demand manufacturing can help manufacturers reduce working capital, respond to unpredictable customer demand or tap into revenue growth streams with lower volume end products tailored to specific customer needs,” said Holt. Beyond medical manufacturing, those segments include computer/electronics, aerospace, industrial equipment and even automotive, according to Holt. “My favorite examples are customers who have launched successful products because of Proto Labs that they could not previously afford to launch with their existing supply chain,” added Holt.

Injection molding versus 3D printing

Just about a year ago, Proto Labs opened a 77,000-square-foot additive manufacturing hub in Cary, NC, which houses more than 70 machines and has room for 70 more. That is consistent with Proto Labs' strategy of offering a range of manufacturing services to meet demand for low-volume, high-mix plastic parts, noted Holt, including CNC machining, 3D printing and injection molding.

“Comparing the last two of these services, we find that 3D printing tends to work best for very complex designs that cannot be made in another process. For designs where this is not true, beyond a few [other] parts, the economics favor Proto Labs’ technology-enabled digital process for manufacturing a custom injection molded tool and molding the parts,” explained Holt. “Given our injection molding process and prices, our experience is that if the part is manufacturable via injection molding, it usually makes economic sense to build an injection mold tool and mold the parts rather than print them, unless you are making a small handful of total parts.” Proto Labs intends to play in both on-demand manufacturing of injection molded parts and 3D printed parts, said Holt.

New metrology lab provides robust inspection reporting

Proto Labs has also announced the opening of its first metrology lab for enhanced inspection reporting on end-use production parts. The lab houses a range of standard inspection equipment, as well as state-of-the-art 3D scanners that provide an automated 360-degree look at parts within minutes. In addition to the standard range of first article inspection reports, the company also offers a digital inspection report that includes a precision surface scan with a detailed color map for a direct CAD-to-scan comparison to quickly identify dimensional variances on parts.  

“Digital inspection reporting is a final checkpoint for the digital thread as it moves from CAD model to final part,” said Jeff Schipper, Director of Special Operations at Proto Labs, and lead engineer in the metrology lab. “We’ve always provided our customers with front-end design analysis on their CAD models really fast—digital inspections bookend this process by significantly reducing the cost and time associated with conventional inspection reporting.”

Click here or on the image below to take a virtual tour of Proto Lab’s manufacturing facility.

Proto Labs on-demand manufacturing

Nearly 700 CNC mills and injection molding presses enable on-demand manufacturing of molded parts within days.


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