Proto Labs adds low-volume insert molding capabilities

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Anaheim, Calif. — Proto Labs Inc. has added insert molding capabilities to its rapid injection molding offerings for custom prototypes and low-volume production parts.

The Maple Plain, Minn.-based company launched the service, which can produce 25 to 10,000-plus parts in 15 days or less, at the UBM Advanced Manufacturing Expo held Feb. 7-9 in Anaheim.

It’s the company’s ability to provide online quotes that makes the service stand out, according to Product Manager Becky Cater. Customers can upload computer-aided design models and get a quote within a couple hours.

“Our area of differentiation is the online quoting,” Cater said. “We help accelerate the time to market. With the traditional manufacturing process, it could take weeks or months just to get a quote. We get that quote right away if the part can be made.”

If there’s something on the part that can’t be molded, Proto Labs offers feedback and recommendation to resolve it, which reduces development time.

“Imagine if you’re an engineer and you’re designing a part,” Cater said. “You don’t want to get it really far down the road, give it to your production people, and they say it’s a great part but we can’t make it. We help customers work through that up front.”

Insert molding is the process of overmolding a thermoplastic material around a preformed component, such a metal screw, to create a finished part made of multiple materials. The metal inserts typically reinforce the plastic parts of medical equipment, electronics, knobs, handles and dials.

“In areas where you expect repeated wear, the metal insert helps extend the product life,” Cater said.

In the past, insert molding made economic sense for parts produced in high-volume quantities of 100,000 or more, Cater said, but Proto Labs offers inexpensive low-volume tooling for products with an uncertain sales outlook.

“Customers can come to us if they don’t know whether their product will take off,” Cater said. “They can get an inexpensive tool, and we can supply them parts. And, if their product does take off to hundreds of thousands or millions of parts, they can go to a steel tool. We help mitigate the risk.”

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