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Protolabs Grows Digital Manufacturing Footprint, Celebrates Two Decades of Expansion

In May digital manufacturer Protolabs celebrated its 20-year anniversary with the grand opening of its eighth manufacturing facility in the United States, and 12th globally.

A lot can happen in 20 years, and for digital manufacturer Protolabs, a lot has.

The company, a producer of rapid prototyping and on-demand production of custom parts and assemblies, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In its two decades, the Maple Plain, Minnesota-based manufacturer has achieved explosive growth that is reflected in a multitude of indicators, including this one: In 2004 it shipped 1.6 million total parts; in 2018 total parts shipped reached 47.3 million.

The growth has come by acquisition, by service extension, by global expansion, by technology advances.

And that growth hasn't stopped. Last week the company held the grand opening of its new 215,000-square-foot CNC machining facility in Brooklyn Park, Minn. The plant, which houses nearly 300 mills and lathes, is Protolabs' eighth U.S. manufacturing plant and 12th globally.

"Welcome to the latest addition to our fleet," said Protolabs President and CEO Vicki Holt during the event.

The grand opening – and anniversary -- provided the company's leader with an opportunity both to reflect on Protolabs' beginnings and envision its future.

"It's been a phenomenal 20 years," Holt said. She described Protolabs' start, born in 1999 (as Proto Mold) out of founder Larry Lukis' frustration with the length of time it took to get plastic injection-molded prototype parts.

"He questioned everything about the process … and then he reinvented it," Holt said.  

Speed is now a cornerstone of what Protolabs offers. The company touts its ability to provide many parts and assemblies within 24 hours via CNC machining, 3D printing, injection molding and sheet metal fabrication.

An emphasis on digital processes – specifically the digital thread -- underpins that speed and differentiates the company, Holt said. The software- and automation-driven approach to manufacturing, from the start of customer interactions and through production, is key to providing rapid turnaround.

Despite the anniversary, "In my mind, we are just at the beginning" of our growth story, the CEO said. Holt outlined the creation of roadmaps across every service the company delivers, showing how they would evolve to offer secondary operations or tighter tolerances, for example. She discussed the company's continuing evolution beyond prototyping, expanding into areas such as higher-volume production when customers suffer supply disruptions or unanticipated demand, as well as spare parts, or end-of-life services.

Holt also weighed in on the future of manufacturing, citing shortened product lifecycles, growth in IoT devices, personalization, as well as new production technologies that lower the cost of entry.

"All of these have huge implications for manufacturers," she said.

Those implications include the need for a talented workforce. "We want those STEM students," to come to manufacturing, Holt said, and we want them to know what advanced manufacturing looks like. To that end, the timing of Protolabs' grand opening was ideal. "It's a showcase" of where manufacturing is headed, she said.

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