Read a company business plan, and the part that talks about taking the product to market often also mentions figuring out how to bring down the production cost per item.
Proto Labs in Maple Plain says it has figured out how to do this in the “overmolding” arena.
Overmolding is the process of encasing or coating a hard metal or plastic template with rubber or silicone so the end product has a soft, comfortable but mighty grip. Think of screwdriver handles, toothbrushes and cellphone cases.
After 18 months and nearly $1 million in investments, Proto Labs launched its automated “rapid overmolding” manufacturing service this month at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago — to welcome reviews.
“Our customers are thrilled that we have this capability. They have been asking for it for a long, long time. And now they are saying, ‘This is awesome.’ Our booth was packed,” said Vicki Holt, CEO of the milling and injection molding company.
By automating the design, ordering and the overmolding injection-molding manufacturing process, Proto Labs hopes to slash production time and reduce starting costs from $50,000 to $5,000. The changes are a big win for manufacturers who need to make fewer than 2,000 parts without spending a fortune.
The ability to consistently offer low-priced small-production runs of overmolded parts is new to the industry, said Becky Cater, Proto Labs’ global product manager for injection molding.
Automating the entire process “is a game-changer to the industry,” she said. “Using more software to automate these processes allows us to offer the parts cheaper and much quicker.”
The new process is computerized. It lets Proto Labs seamlessly receive a customer’s product-design data in a 3-D digital format that can communicate with Proto Labs’ injection molding machines. Using computers, Proto Labs engineers analyze the customer’s design, issue detailed manufacturing suggestions and then quote what it will cost to actually manufacture the parts. All three tasks are completed within two hours.
If the customer signs off, Proto Labs promises to make and deliver the overmolded parts in just 15 days; typically, it takes 90 days with traditional overmolding techniques.
While overmolding has been around for decades, speed and reasonable prices have been hard to come by.
Proto Labs is betting that its fast automated quotes and delivery guarantees will be a winner and create a fresh multimillion-dollar revenue stream for the company that closed 2015 with $264 million in sales. The service is expected to appeal to makers of tools, autos, medical devices and consumer electronics.
There are overmolding competitors in the industry, including Stratasys and 3D Systems. But Proto Labs is not put off.
“There are lots and lots of small shops out there, that if the stars aligned and they were not busy could also do overmolding quickly,” Cater said. “But we can do it to scale no matter how many orders we have. And we offer this in 15 days, guaranteed.”
The new service is a coup of sorts for Proto Labs, a fast-growing prototype maker that was founded in 1999. It has expanded to offer metal milling, plastic, silicone and rubber injection molding and 3-D printing services to its tool boxes. Now rapid overmolding joins the list. It took an international village of two dozen engineers, software designers, manufacturing specialists and marketers to get there.
U.S. team members from Maple Plain, Plymouth and Rosemount worked closely with Proto Labs’ England team. The employees in England were the first within the company to use digital software and automation to develop a rapid overmolding process. Months of cross-ocean flights and phone calls, meetings with resin suppliers and production tests gave officials confidence the process could be perfected and spread companywide.
Smiths Medical in Plymouth and a dozen other U.S. customers tested Proto Labs’ new service for months before the official service launch at the IMTS show.
“We had a great group of beta customers,” Holt said. “We did a full six months of beta testing with them and they loved it. They loved the quality and how the website is working.”
The beta testers even helped Proto Labs automate the uploading of Computer Assisted Design and Drafting files. “It’s a cool thing,” Holt said.
Proto Labs officials are now showcasing their new service around the country. On Wednesday and Thursday, the company was at the Medical Design and Manufacturing Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Then it’s on to the DeviceTalks workshop in Boston this week, the AutoDesk and Fabtech trade show in November in Las Vegas and at the BioMed Device show in December in San Jose.