Proto Labs Inc., which does injection molding, 3D printing and computer numerically controlled machining, has also opened its first metrology laboratory, boosting its inspection reporting.
President and CEO Vicki Holt said the company specializes in digital, on-demand manufacturing. Proto Labs' molding runs are usually 10,000 parts or fewer, she said. Most average around 1,000 or 2,000 parts.
“We will be in the low- to mid-volume production. We will not be in the high-volume production, generally,” she said.
The metrology laboratory has advanced 3D scanners that give an automated, 360-degree look at parts within minutes. In addition to the standard range of first-article inspection reports, Proto Labs also offers a digital inspection report that includes a precision surface scan with a detailed color map, for a direct CAD-to-scan comparison between the part produced and the customer's original 3D CAD drawing.
Proto Labs makes its own aluminum tools. Customers can start with a prototype, then upgrade to a short-run production.
The company can quickly provide online quotes, using 3D CAD drawings uploaded by customers. That part data allows Proto Labs to help design the part and to produce the injection molds on its automated metalworking equipment. Holt said Proto Labs' proprietary technology uses that digital CAD information to drive efficiency and speed to produce low-volume custom parts.
Holt said Proto Labs employs more than 120 software engineers.
“We are a technology company that manufactures,” she said. “We are a digital manufacturer.”
Holt said customers have asked for expanded inspection capabilities. The new scanning equipment enables the company to do the work in-house, instead of customers using third-party providers.
“We used to offer just a quality inspection report,” Holt said. Now, Proto Labs produces a detailed digital report that can show measured dimensions, including color-heat maps of the part.
Holt said the fast 3D scanning technology is a major investment for Proto Labs. “I think we're charting new territory here,” she said.
“We are particularly suited to do this since we are digital today. We already run on a digital platform,” Holt said.
“We've digitized a lot of the front-end engineering,” she said. “We really optimize our environment in a high-mix, low-volume world.”
Proto Labs, based in Maple Plain, Minn., is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The company also has plants in Rosemont and Plymouth, Minn.; Cary, N.C.; Europe; and Japan.
Proto Labs has 123 injection molding machines in North America and a total of 200 globally. In recent years, the company has added overmolding of liquid silicone rubber and insert molding.
Company sales were $298 million in 2016. Injection molding accounts for about 60 percent of the total, 30 percent comes from CNC machining, both of parts and molds, and 3D printing generates around 10 percent.