What's the best way to machine parts or tooling components faster? Many engineers would rightly try to squeeze some extra performance out of the machine tool itself–by improving its controls, drives, motors and mechanical elements. The Protomold Co., however, has picked up the pace of its machining operations by automating tasks that take place before the chips start to fly.
The company operates a growing bank of high-speed milling machines to support its two prototyping businesses. Protomold can turn a CAD file into injection molded plastic parts in as little as three days, which means that it has to machine core-and-cavity sets for the mold in even less time. And recently the company launched a new division, called First Cut Prototype, which will supply machined prototype parts in as little as one business day. "For the kind of parts we make, no one is faster," says Brad Cleveland, Protomold's president and CEO.
For the time being, First Cut's "kind of parts" are plastic, smaller than 10 x 7 x 3 inches, and compatible with three-axis milling. But the company has the potential to expand to larger parts, metals, and five-axis machining in the future, according to Mark Kubicek, First Cut's vice president of operations.
Protomold and First Cut react so quickly in part because they use web-based tools to automate or partially automate the work that design engineers do as they get ready to hand off the part to a manufacturer. Protomold, for example, has received plenty of attention in Design News (here and here) for its web-based front end. Called ProtoQuote, this software not only returns pricing and delivery options but also includes a free 3D design-for-moldability review. That process can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours hours–versus days or even weeks with a traditional mold maker or molder. First Cut likewise has a web-based quoting system. It is up and running right now. Kubicek notes that the First Cut web-based quoting system isn't yet as automated or full-featured as Protomold's offerings. "But we're moving in that direction as the system matures," he says.
The web-based quoting tools are only part of what make Protomold and First Cut so fast. While exhibiting here at the Pacific Design & Manufacturing Show in Anaheim, CA, Cleveland revealed some details about the behind-the-scenes secret to the company's speed. "The core of everything we do is our computer cluster," Cleveland says, noting that the cluster's parallel processors currently offer 100 gigaflops of computing capacity. Protomold uses the cluster to run the increasingly-sophisticated, computer-intensive engineering software that it develops in-house. For example, the company has written its own CAM software. Optimized for the cluster, it's capable of automatically generating tool paths from CAD files in a matter of minutes, according to Cleveland. The company has also developed a mold filling simulation software whose results can be displayed as part of the ProtoQuote.