Digital manufacturer Protolabs launched its rebranded Protolabs Network service, which is designed to leverage global manufacturing partners for expanded capabilities and pricing options. Formerly known as Hubs, the company says the move signals its commitment to a singular global brand and unified customer experience. The transition comes almost three years after acquiring the Amsterdam-based manufacturing network, which has seen significant annual growth since the 2021 acquisition.
Its business model combines Protolabs’ internal digital factories with a global network of suppliers to provide customers a manufacturing resource throughout a product’s entire life cycle.
Protolabs Network includes more than 250 supply partners to serve customers’ needs across the life cycle of their products—from innovation and prototyping to production and end-of-life product support. Customers can access tighter tolerances, enhanced finishing options and higher volumes at lower cost, among other benefits. The manufacturing partner network complements the low-volume, on-demand manufacturing services also available from Protolabs.
Machine Design reached out to Lucca Mazzei, strategic growth officer at Protolabs, to learn more about Protolabs Network. Below is the abridged Q&A:
Machine Design: What are the primary expanded capabilities that the rebranded Protolabs Network offers through its global manufacturing partners?
Lucca Mazzei: Overall, the network allows for tighter tolerances down to ±0.001 in., larger and more complex parts, and more cost-efficient pricing on production orders (more than 5-10 machined parts, for example). Specifically with machining, more complete parts are possible with all features milled, holes tapped and post-process finishing applied.
Plating (black oxide, nickel), anodizing (Type II, Type III), and chromate coating options are expanded and can be produced at higher volumes. Maximum part size increases to 40 in. (1,000 mm) with minimum part size down to 0.02 in. (0.5 mm). The network also expands materials to 50+ metals and plastic materials. This complements Protolabs’ factory (in-house, non-network facilities), which are geared towards quick-turn parts in low-volumes.
Soon, this comprehensive offer will expand to our injection molding and 3D printing customers, with many today already working with their account managers to access the network if our factory capabilities are not a fit.
MD: How does the introduction of Protolabs Network align with broader industry trends and customer needs in digital manufacturing?
LM: There are several distributed manufacturing (or marketplace) models in the industry right now, which is what Protolabs Network is. The difference is that Protolabs Network is paired with Protolabs’ in-house factories so engineers essentially have the benefits of both manufacturing models combined into a new hybrid model of sorts. This is something completely unique right now.
In the past—if engineers needed parts within a day, for example—they may have used one manufacturer, but if they had flexibility in their development schedule, they may have had to use a different manufacturer for those parts to get them manufactured at a lower cost. This hybrid model brings both of those worlds together. It lets engineers tailor manufacturing to their specific use cases versus settling on a set of capabilities and constraints.
MD: What specific customer needs or pain points does Protolabs Network aim to address, and how does it affect customer experience?
LM: Protolabs launched as a quick-turn injection molding company 25 years ago, and manufacturing speed was always at its core. But speed isn’t the only thing engineers need when they are procuring parts—they want a broad set of capabilities (larger part envelopes, materials options, finishing options), lower part costs, and higher part quantities. And we heard that through customer feedback.
So, that is what the network helps solve. With Protolabs Network layered on top of Protolabs’ existing rapid manufacturing capabilities, this help address those pain points. And since this is through a singular manufacturing source, it streamlines and simplifies the entire manufacturing experience for customers. Like most online-based companies, the end goal is to make the entire experience as user friendly as possible.
MD: How does the transition affect the integration of digital manufacturing and systems, and what technical challenges were encountered (and overcome) during this transition?
LM: Protolabs’ customers value our intuitive and streamlined ordering platform, so in everything we do, maintaining that ecommerce experience is vital. With that, the biggest challenge as we integrate Hubs.com into Protolabs.com is that the combined offer is much larger than the individual offers provided on each ordering platform.
Our technology teams needed to be very creative to not overwhelm customers with newly available options and lose that ease of use, for example. We worked through that challenge by identifying a way to present the expanded offer with additional options appearing only when relevant so we don’t clutter the interface.
Furthermore, longtime customers of our factory offering often rely on our automated design-for-manufacturability (DfM) experience. We look forward to expanding our automated DfM tool to network customers, so they can utilize it during early design work to ensure they are optimizing their design based on specific needs.
MD: What specific software tools, digital platforms or systems are used to facilitate the collaboration between Protolabs’ internal digital factories and the global network of suppliers within the Protolabs Network? Can you speak specifically on the topic of CAD/CAM/CAE?
LM: Protolabs does not rely on “commercial packaged software,” but instead we have developed our own proprietary software to automate every aspect of the digital manufacturing thread. Our network offering will be fully integrated into our homegrown software, which continues to be streamlined to remove friction in the process and allow for direct connection with customers to make sure all critical issues are resolved quickly and effectively.
In addition, the collaboration between both our factory and network technologies allows us to use the best solutions available in each across the larger business. For example, we can use our industry leading DfM analysis tools from our digital factories for the network, along with the advanced geometry analysis we use for digital factory, to better match orders to manufacturing partners’ capabilities. We are also able to use the network’s advanced AI capabilities for our digital manufacturing process.
MD: How has this rebranding/refocus shifted your business model? What, if any, legacy software programs will become obsolete as we iterate and evolve to further SaaS models?
LM: The business model has “expanded,” as the network adds significant scope to what has been our core value proposition of speed. We can still produce parts fast but also offer the most comprehensive offer in the contract manufacturing space, fulfilling all customer needs from fast prototyping to bridge production to small scale production across all of our technologies. We can now empower customers to make the best outsourcing decisions while continuing to get the best digital experience in the marketplace.