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Collaborating on Digital Manufacturing

Protolabs has launched a new digital manufacturing quotation platform that supports collaboration and product life cycle optimization.

Daphne Allen

September 2, 2021

3 Min Read
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Image courtesy of Protolabs

On-demand, digital manufacturing may be the latest trend in medical device manufacturing, but even it continues to evolve rapidly. And rightfully so. Manufacturers may have previously dedicated a single employee to 3D printing, for instance, perhaps just for a single part, and maybe just for prototyping. Now, companies have several teams collaborating, on multiple parts and projects, Mark Flannery, global e-commerce director for Protolabs, told MD+DI.

Because of such increased interest and collaboration, the opportunities for design for manufacturing projects and improvements are also increasing. To support this new level of collaboration, Protolabs introduced a new digital manufacturing quotation platform earlier this year that couples a modern e-commerce system along with a system that leverages AI technologies with design analysis automation. "With DFM feedback, engineers don’t necessarily have to be experts in design for manufacturability since our quoting system provides an analysis,” Flannery said. (3D printing is just one of four services Protolabs offers, and design for manufacturability is primarily provided on injection molded and machined parts, the company reported.)

The company’s former online system has already been providing quick response with an interactive part quote, design feedback on those parts, and quick order placement and fulfillment, so this new system extends that. After all, in an “on-demand manufacturing model, customers want to get parts quickly,” said Flannery.

Once an order is placed, “we virtually manufacture the part, in an end-to-end digital thread,” said Flannery. “We know what machine we would manufacture it on and can therefore be very precise. Our digital thread is very unique, but we are building upon it.”

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To identify opportunities for improvement, Protolabs held “listening sessions” with more than 100 customers. Some of the feedback was pretty straightforward, such as “add manufacturing analysis to the ProtoViewer,” “make the images bigger,” and “enable the review of CNC machining threads in a 3D model.”

But other requests were more complicated and involved more of a shift in mindset toward greater collaboration. “Engineers wanted to be able to have a virtual document that other engineers could see,” said Flannery. They also wanted visibility into manufacturing costs. “If an engineer knows that the goal is to drive a part price down, having that information upfront allows them to iterate,” he added.

So Protolabs architected a new quotation platform that could support such collaboration along with enhanced technical capabilities and a window into economics. “It allows users to optimize the full product life cycle and to iterate quickly where all the right people are looking at the design, with no pause or going back to the beginning,” Flannery explained. It “allows different job functions to access the process for true collaboration.”

The end result is a “shorter process,” he said. For example, “gate and injection mold approval moved into manufacturing analysis upfront, so there is no delay in review. This way, the gate and injector pin layout could be reviewed while placing the order.”

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“The iterative approach allows you to get to the stage gate approval faster,” added Will Martin, director of communications at Protolabs. “There are 144 different things that potentially could be highlighted at any given time.”

In addition to facilitating collaboration, the platform provides a full price graph for the total price of ownership on molded parts. For instance, engineers are provided with prototyping and production options for injection molding, and the Price Curve tool compares prototyping with on-demand manufacturing options for a look at total cost of ownership of molded parts throughout the product life cycle, the company shared in a blog post.

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To learn more, visit Protolabs booth (#1006) at the upcoming Advanced Manufacturing Minneapolis event November 3-4, featuring MD&M Minneapolis.

About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 25 years.  Follow her on Twitter at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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