Consolidation is happening in 3D printing and prototyping. Not long after 3D printing leader Stratasys bought two service bureaus, rapid prototyping service bureau extraordinaire Proto Labs has embraced the technology by buying a service bureau focused solely on additive manufacturing (AM). Before this acquisition, Proto Labs has concentrated on CNC machining and injection molding for its quick-turn manufacturing services.
The service bureau is FineLine Prototyping, and it's got a healthy range of AM technologies: SLA (stereolithography), SLS (selective laser sintering), and DMLS (direct metal laser sintering). Its customers are corporations in industries such as medical, aerospace, computer/electronics, consumer products, and industrial machinery. The company is known for high-quality, precision, rapid prototype parts, especially small, highly detailed parts including micro-fine resolution SLA. Its 3D Systems machines include Viper SLA, iPro SLA, and SinterStation Pro SLS. FineLine also operates the Concept Laser M2 and Mlab machines for metal AM.
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FineLine Prototyping, just acquired by Proto Labs, is known for high-quality, precision, rapid prototype parts, including metals.
(Source: FineLine Prototyping)
Proto Labs president and CEO Vicki Holt said, during a conference call, that the combined organizations will offer product developers parts in an ever broader set of materials and processes, from concept models, to form and fit testing, to functional testing and short-run production, in as little as one day. Additive manufacturing services are complementary to Proto Labs, not competitive with it. "We've found in surveys of our customers that a majority of product developers have had at least one additive manufacturing part made before they bring us their designs," she said. "So this lets us offer a new service. We believe our combined organizations will have the largest potential user base in the world for additive manufacturing." Holt, who joined the company in February, said Proto Labs has 300,000 customers and FineLine brings an additional 17,000.
FineLine's principals Rob Connelly and Craig Goff will lead Proto Lab's additive manufacturing business and operations. Connelly has been named vice president of additive technology, and Goff is now director of operations for additive technology, Holt said.
Last month, Proto Labs also added two new quick-turn injection molding processes to its existing Protomold plastic molding service. It now offers liquid silicone rubber (LSR) and stainless-steel metal injection molded (MIM) parts as a standard option. Protomold is the company's proprietary technology that lets its technicians analyze part geometry, give customers design and manufacturability feedback about the part, and produce tooling. The company's volumes for both LSR injection molded and MIM parts are typically 25 to 5,000 pieces.
Ann, this is a great move by Proto Labs. I have been following them for a while, and their injection molded small lot processes are very good. It seems that they have decided that their opportunity is rapid prototyping and small lot parts. 3D printing is just another tool in their arsenal. I expect that they will be able to offer good engineering and manufacturability advice for 3D as well as their current technologies. This is definately a plus for customers.
Thanks, Lou, well said. Proto Labs has been focused on rapid prototyping and small lot parts for quite awhile. I think this acquisition lets them retain business from existing customers that would otherwise go elsewhere, when 3D printing can be seen as an integral part--just another step--of what they're already doing.
Everyday you hear about this company or that company buying other ones. If I already had a CNC shop I would have just expanded my horizons and bought some 3D printers, hired a guy that knows them, and done. I wouldn't have bought a whole comapny for it.
I would think you already have the CAD guys doing 3D models and everything in place. You don't need to acquire a new company...you have what you need....just missing some printers and some guys to run them.
Cadman-LT, I agree. But that's easy to say as a user with a 50,000-foot perspective. Being inside a successful business, there are a host of things to think about before making a decision like this. In any case, there's a lot of acquisitions like this going on and I suspect we'll be seeing more.
Cadman-LT as you point out, buying outside expertise requires a lot of cash. But even if you are Google or Facebook or 3D Systems, it also requires correct business strategy, correctly executed on several fronts.
It's interesting when consolidation begins in any industry; it's sort of a sign that the industry is evolving from early stages to maturation, I think. This seems like a good decision and reminds me of when technology companies began adding services to their portfolio to become more well-rounded. Indeed, less competition means less options for customers, so there is always a fear that people won't get top service because there's no one to pushing a company to strive for more. But I think it's too early to say this will happen here.
I agree, Liz--that's certainly a traditional, and well-proven, interpretation of consolidation in an industry in its early stages, especially one based on a truly disruptive technology like 3D printing. There are some other acquisitions that have occurred recently in this space, as well. (Consolidation in later stages often indicates a downhill slope toward the end of an industry's life, when demand is shrinking.) BTW, one of the most interesting business books I ever read was by the guy who invented the term "disruptive technology." It's "The Innovator's Dilemma" by Clayton M. Christensen (1997).
Time will tell. 3d printing is another old business model destroying disruptive technology. It's distributed super low cost manufacturing.
Stratasys deserve a lot of credit for making it a practical tech, but now, they are trying to keep it a high priced elite tech, buying up little companies that might threaten that model like makerbot, and service bureaus to keep a monopoly on the business. Ultimately that will fail, but it may buy them another decade. Protolabs is giving them an early run for their money and may drive price down faster.
Our company has a 35k$ Stratasys system, mostly it's been a great investment, though our Stratasys tech took a long time to get it calibrated right. We also recently bought a makerbot, the first one with open source, and it's rather impressive, but much more difficult to use in production.
Trenth, thanks for your comments. It's always good to hear from people using the products we write about. I think what will drive prices down is more machines, i.e., competition, and an open materials market.
It's really interesting to see how markets follow similar paths, Ann, especially with disruptive technologies that everyone wants a piece of. I will have to check out that book, it sounds really interesting.
Liz, with the exception of silicon chips, and some things made with them, many industries follow similar paths assuming other things are equal. I find the history of technology especially interesting. That book intrigued me partly because of what he says, but also because the products he did his classic analysis on, hard drives, were ones I had covered as a reporter during the time of his analysis, just as new tech was disrupting the market.
Ah, yes, I covered tech, too, Ann, and saw a lot of market consolidation in the time I was writing about it. I remember writing about all the software (middleware) being used to run the Web and how it used to be sold separately by different vendors but more and more became part of a larger platform offered by a big company. Some consolidation is inevitable in nearly all markets, I think.
How can automakers, aerospace contractors, and other OEMs get new metal alloys that are stronger, harder, and can survive ever higher temperatures? One way is to redesign their crystalline structures at the nanoscale and microscale.
Although a lot of the excitement about 3D printing and additive manufacturing surrounds its ability to make end-products and functional prototypes, some often ignored applications are the big improvements that can come by using it for tooling, jigs, and fixtures.
A fun and informative tour you can attend at the upcoming Design & Manufacturing Minneapolis, MD&M Minneapolis, and other events there, is the Materials Innovation Tour on Wednesday afternoon. I'll be leading it.
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