If you’re familiar with Proto Labs, you’ll most likely know that the company has specialised in the manufacturing of parts in production intent materials, using a variety of methods.
Its reputation was built around the combination of very quick turn around injection moulding of components (quicker than most moulders can get you a quote back) and its intelligent Proto Quote quotation system.
You upload your CAD model, you select what materials you want and you get an interactive quote back. Then once you order the parts, you could get them as fast as within 24 hours.
How did it do this? Firstly, it uses an intelligent backend that generates your quote and does much of the processing to generation the production information (set-ups, toolpaths required etc), so that when you hit ‘go’ the team has all it needs to crack on and get your moulds cut, your parts shot and in a courier’s van.
These remarkable turn around time is enabled by the use of Aluminium tooling (which is much easier to cut) and enforcement of design restrictions – that are worth investigation all on their own.
This was where the company, founded in the US, began. Then it launched the First Cut offering. The same concepts (interactive quotes, production intent materials, quick turn around), but this was applied to machined components (milled and turned).
Proto Labs’ facility in Telford (just up the M54 from D3D’s midlands workshop) is a sight to behold and I’ve not been in a year or two – but even back then, seeing all those machines working, pretty much 24 hours a day, in an ultra clean environment, was breathtaking.
Interestingly, Proto Labs have always managed to pitch themselves by offering very quick turn around of parts, quicker than 3D printed parts, better materials and generally, greater ability to handle scale. But a couple of years ago, the company moved into the 3D printing field.
As you’d expect, it didn’t mess around. Rather than trying to build up a service and do all the necessary learning, it acquired Fineline Prototyping – a US-based outfit that mastered many of the darker arts of the industry a good few years ago. I’ll give you an example. Back in the early ’00s, we launched (at a different publishing house) a quarterly than solely focussed on building prototypes.
As part of that publication, I came into contact with Rob Connelly, Fineline’s CEO and general all round wizard when it comes to building parts additively. The focus of that feature was the company’s mastery of a little used technique of electro plating SLA components.
You got a slick part, one with much more robustness than fragile SLAs of the time. It wasn’t just a case of building the part and plating it. Surfaces had to be adapted, offset and post processed. The result was remarkable and the part still sits on my desk to today. The turn of the century was a long time ago and Fineline moved on to master not only SLA related builds, but took in sintering of both metals and plastics.
With Fineline in house, Proto Labs launched the combined services some time ago in the US – but only until now have they started to move into the European operation, beginning with SLA production. The team expects that it’ll also bring online the plastics sintering and direct metal sintering services next year at some point.