What's the best way to machine parts or tooling components faster? Many engineers would rightly try to squeeze some performance out of the machine tool itself — by improving its controls, drives, motors and mechanical elements. The Protomold Co. has picked up the pace of its machining operations by automating tasks that take place before the chips start to fly.
Recently, Protomold launched a new division, 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 Protomold's President and CEO Brad Cleveland.
For now, First Cut's “kind of parts” are plastic, smaller than 10 x 7 x 3 inches, and with geometries capable of being produced on three-axis milling machine. But the company has the potential to expand to larger parts, metals and five-axis machining, 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 design engineers do as they get ready to hand off the part to a manufacturer. Protomold received plenty of attention in Design News 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 — versus days or even weeks with a traditional mold-making house. First Cut also has a Web-based quoting system. Kubicek says it isn't yet as automated or full-featured as Protomold's offerings.
The Web-based quoting tools are only part of what make Protomold and First Cut so fast. While exhibiting 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 the cluster's parallel processors 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 company's computer cluster, it's capable of automatically generating tool paths from CAD files in minutes, according to Cleveland.