People, Not 3D Printers, the Most Valuable Assets at On-Demand Manufacturer

A recent tour of Protolabs' 3D printing facility showed that as cool as the equipment was, the operators were the real reason for the company's success.

When I found out one of IndustryWeek’s scheduled plant tours in Raleigh for our recent conference was going to be at an on-demand 3D printing manufacturer, Protolabs, I knew what I had to do: Demand I be the tour guide. I thought of all the reasons I needed to go, from seeing all the high-tech machines to seeing cool processes such as stereolithography (SLA) up close to a recent chat with Protolabs CEO Vicki Holt. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to storm into my boss’s office like a cop show detective would to present my evidence, as evidently, I’m the technology writer and was the going to go anyway.

Once I got to the rural one-floor facility, I received another pleasant surprise. The most impressive part about the place was not the millions of dollars of 3D-printing hardware, but the people who operated them. The Minnesota-based Protolabs, which also has plastic injection molding, CNC machining and the recently acquired sheet metal services, is brand agnostic, so the company’s strength is 100% the people working there.

This goes against the common belief that automating and digitizing is always a job killer. It’s a stereotype Holt has fought against since she took over in 2014.

“People might think, ‘That must mean you you’re eliminating jobs and doing things with robotics,’” Holt says. “Actually, we create a lot of jobs. Digitization makes things scalable, lower cost and much faster, but we still need people to run our process.”

One of her first acts was to add the Raleigh 3D-printing operation to the family. This Cary, N.C. branch, juxtaposed between Durham and Raleigh, started out as a separate rapid prototyping business in the 2000s called FineLine. Protolabs snapped it up for $38 million, repurposing this 77,000 square-foot facility in 2016 for $5 million. It has nearly tripled it employees to about 200 now.

In fact, Protolabs has increased employment across the board, adding 300 jobs organically in 2017, a 17% increase. The acquisition of the sheet metal fabricator, RAPID added 300 more, putting the company at about 2,300. The company's 3D printing revenue overall has grown to $43,329,000 annually.

Holt attributes this to the healthy manufacturing sector, seeing growth across all industry verticals, including industrial machinery and equipment, medical computer electronics, and automotive.

And it’s people, not robots, who handle how to best leverage and cater to all these markets and manufacturing processes.

First, you need strong salespeople to advise clients on which type of manufacturing would be best for their needs. Additive manufacturing has tons of design advantages, but any service bureau will tell you injection molding is still monumentally cheaper. And oftentimes traditional machining makes more sense than direct metal laser sintering.

Then you need a strong design team to not only quickly and expertly make the parts, but before that find a slot for your order that fits your needs and doesn’t impede the dozens of other jobs in the queue. A proprietary scheduling software Protolabs developed in-house gives them an incredible edge here.

Finally, the quality control division must always investigate operations and ensure the parts are to spec and scrap is at a minimum. Reducing wasted time on machines due to misprints is even more critical than the materials themselves, which are relatively inexpensive.

“Our entire productivity initiative, which includes the use of data and continuous improvement, will allow us to offset wage inflation and maintain our margins,” Holt says. “And that’s a big deal, because the job market is so tight.”

Click the slideshow to take the tour yourself!

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