Plymouth, Minn. — As a specialist in rapid manufacturing, Proto Labs Inc. was in a strong position to help its customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We started seeing orders related to COVID back in February . We initially started seeing an order surge because factories in China closed down for the Chinese New Year and they didn't reopen right away," Gurvinder Singh, global product director, said in a recent interview at the company's Plymouth plastics manufacturing plant.
"We had customers who came to us because — and this is part of our business model — we always have open capacity to do urgent things. That allowed us to start addressing those supply chain issues that they were starting to see early on," Singh said.
"And then that quickly turned to a surge in COVID-related supplies. We said, to play our part for COVID, we're going to prioritize those customers, we're going to move everything to one day, which is the quickest turn we can do."
Proto Labs, which is known in official messaging as Protolabs, was founded in 1999 as a prototyping specialist. The publicly traded company, which is based in Maple Plain, Minn., has always been a mold maker and injection molder. But in many ways the company is more like a software/tech company than a traditional plastics processor.
Protolabs was one of five finalists for the Plastics News 2021 Processor of the Year award. To recognize its unique capabilities, it also received a brand-new award: the PN Excellence Award for Technological Innovation.
The firm was founded as Protomold Co. Inc. in 1999 and was an early adopter of digital manufacturing technology.
Founder Larry Lukis, an entrepreneur and self-described computer geek, believed that the time needed to manufacture injection molded parts could be radically reduced with the integration of complex software to automate the process.
"Larry was looking for plastic parts to go into printer engines he was involved with building at the time. And just the entire customer experience of getting a quote from an injection molder and then finally getting parts was frustratingly long," said Chris Walls-Manning, the company's director of manufacturing software.
"He basically, in back of his mind, said, 'I know I can do this better and faster,' and he set off creating what originally was Protomold, started in sort of a garage in Long Lake and eventually moved here to Maple Plain, with an emphasis on doing it better and faster with software edge," Walls-Manning said.