Ever heard of Proto Labs? What about Protomold or First Cut? Well, if you have, you probably know all about their service, if you don’t let me explain. Proto Labs, in both their US and European operation, have managed to build up a very interesting business – starting out with injection moulding, the company focussed on squeezing out the inefficiencies in the whole process and have squeezed things down until they’ve got it absolutely nailed. You load up the web-site, upload your 3D CAD data and get a quote back.
The quote is hyper-interactive, lets you see any potential problems and gives you a huge amount of Design for Manufacturing advice (its worth using it for that reason alone, as a sanity check). You get a price that’s an amalgamation of the cost of the Aluminium tool, batch size, material selection and time. If it meets your needs, the machine kicks into gear. The factory set-up in the UK (I’ve not seen the US operation) is super slick. Aluminium tools are produce, plastic is shot and parts are shipped. That’s pretty standard right? no. These guys can turn it around in 24 hours. Yup. Part uploaded, paid for, tool machined, loaded onto a moulder, parts produced, packed and shipped – in 24 hours. Now tell me that’s not impressive.
In the last few years, the company has been expanding its services, mostly notably with the creation of First Cut Prototype, where you can order prototype components, machined directly from production intent material (rather than moulded – and it just does plastic.. at the moment). Why would you want to do that when there’s a wealth of rapid prototyping technology avialable that claim the same? The answer is firstly, production intent means production intent, rather than a resin or powder-based simulacrum. The second is again, speed. They can get your order, give you the same ProtoQuote, then once accepted, you can get those parts, to your door, in the same time frame – 24 hours. Something that makes a mockery of the Rapid tag often attributed to some prototyping techniques.
Well, the interesting news is that the company has just added a 4th axis to its First Cut service – this means that they can rotate the around the z axis and can produce more complex components. Oh and John Tumelty, the MD of Proto Labs Europe, is also a columnist in DEVELOP3D, where he gets his hair off over manfuacturing issues every month. Why did we ask John to write for us? Because when it comes to design for manufacturing, these guys have got it nailed.