By Olivia Cahoon
With three-dimensional (3D) printers, manufacturers create a variety of products from prototypes to custom parts for concept review and form-fit function testing. However, 3D printing in the manufacturing space requires higher quality and more production capabilities than a desktop 3D printer provides. To meet deadlines and keep customers satisfied, manufactures utilize the latest technology and industrial grade 3D printers to maintain short and efficient production times.
Above: Proto Labs of Maple Plain, MN works with additive manufacturing technologies such as HP Multi Jet Fusion using an HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 3D printers to create custom prototypes for customers in the aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics, medical, and industrial machinery industries.
Founded in 1999 as ProtoMold by Larry Lukis, Proto Labs is a custom prototypes manufacturer headquartered in Maple Plain, MN. The company originally offered custom injection molded parts and prototypes.
Lukis, an entrepreneur and computer geek, wanted to radically reduce the time to create injection molded plastic prototype parts. His solution was to automate the traditional manufacturing process by developing software that communicated with a network of mills and presses.
“As a result, plastic and metal parts were produced in a fraction of the time,” says Greg Thompson, global product manager, 3D printing, Proto Labs. Over the next decade the company continued to expand its injecting molding practice, introduced quick-turn CNC machining, and opened global facilities in Europe and Japan.
In 2014, it entered the industrial 3D printing space, which gave product developers, designers, and engineers a simpler solution for moving from early prototyping to low-volume production. By acquiring 3D company FineLine Prototyping Inc., Proto Labs was grounded as a technology agnostic, on demand manufacturing partner that produced single parts. Thompson says parts were produced in significantly less time, with less risk and financial burden than traditional manufacturing methods.
Today, Proto Labs is a manufacturer of custom prototypes and on demand production parts. Its customers range from entrepreneurial hardware startups to Fortune 500 companies. According to Thompson, in 2016, the company served more than 30,000 unique product developers and its customer base is growing in the double digits each year. It currently has 2,000 employees worldwide.
Eight manufacturing locations on three continents with two manufacturing facilities in MN make up Proto Labs’ brick-and-mortar locations. Its European operations are in England with offices in France, Germany, and Italy. In 2009, Proto Labs expanded into Asia with the opening of a manufacturing facility in Japan.
Its 3D printing services are managed in Raleigh, NC, where Proto Labs recently opened a 77,000 square foot facility. “It was previously operating out of several smaller locations in this area, but we brought the expanding team—and growing number of machines—under one roof after the FineLine acquisition,” explains Thompson. Its original 3D printing space was 18,000 square feet across two buildings.
The company creates custom parts and prototypes for several industrial segments including aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics, medical technology, and industrial machinery and equipment. Thompson believes product developers and engineers approach Proto Labs because they are under increasing pressure to bring their finished products to market faster than their competition.
Prior to acquiring FineLine, Proto Labs focused on mostly subtractive manufacturing techniques. After implementing 3D printing services, the company offered total solutions to customers at any stage of the product development lifecycle.
Thompson says at the time of the acquisition, FineLine offered high-quality stereolithography (SLA), selective laser sintering (SLS), and direct metal laser sintering services to corporate customers in a variety of industries. “The addition of an additive manufacturing service is highly complementary to Proto Labs’ existing CNC machinery and injection molding services,” he explains.
70 percent of Proto Labs customers utilize an additive manufacturing service in their product development process. “Proto Labs creates more than 60,000 3D printed parts each month and the technology represents roughly 13 percent of the business by revenue,” says Thompson. 3D printing is also one of the fastest growing parts of the business.
The company uses 3D Systems, Inc., Concept Laser a GE Additive Company, HP, Inc., and Stratasys Ltd. machines. However, Thompson points out that Proto Labs is manufacturer and technology agnostic. “We select machines and processes based on consumer demand. Also, we select machines and technologies whose capabilities are in alignment with our value proposition of producing high-quality, high-resolution, 3D printed parts,” he explains.
With its 3D printers, Proto Labs creates prototypes used in product research and development and complex parts that cannot be reasonably manufactured by other methods. According to Thompson, many companies use 3D printing to cut costs through accelerated production, reduce waste, and minimize the tooling costs associated with injection molding.
Proto Labs selects materials suited for each individual application. “The properties of any material become increasingly important as a product progresses from concept and functional prototyping to production,” admits Thompson.
In addition to being technology agnostic, the company is also material agnostic and strives to offer a broad range of resolutions and material properties. This includes ALM PA 650, cobalt chrome, DMLS aluminum, DMLS titanium, DuraForm HST Composite, Inconel 718, PA 615-GS, PA 850 Black, and stainless steel printing materials.
The company’s software automation reduces development cycles and design risks to drive savings for customers. Proto Labs was founded on proprietary software that draws a digital thread from 3D CAD software to product design, through its e-commerce driven digital model, where customers upload, interact, and order parts through a secure storefront. “Custom software connects Proto Labs’ digital model with hundreds of machines around the world,” adds Thompson.
While 3D printing quickly produces prototypes for concept review and form-fit function testing, it’s also becoming popular for production and end-use parts. If volumes are low enough that casting and molding are not cost effective, or part complexity prohibits processes like machining, 3D printing is favored.
“3D printing has been around for more than 30 years, but is gaining traction in industrial manufacturing because of its ability to produce highly complex and custom parts quickly, while reducing waste and risks associated with larger production runs,” says Thompson.
Traditional manufacturing methods reduce materials to achieve a final part. While this practice is considered subtractive, 3D printing is additive—parts build upon themselves with precision and complexity to achieve intricate results.
According to Thompson, the largest industries that utilize 3D prototypes are in medical, automotive, and aerospace segments. Automotive and aerospace customers are focused with light weighting, a trend in product design intended to cut as much weight and bulk from industrial parts to save on fuel costs. “Some 3D printing processes can accommodate the complex geometries that achieve these characteristics and produce parts strong enough for end use,” he explains.
Despite its benefits, 3D printing still presents challenges for manufacturers. For Proto Labs, one of the biggest challenges is selecting the proper 3D printing process and materials and also designing parts that are optimized for that method. He says some 3D printing methods are quick and inexpensive, but the finish quality of the parts is low. Other methods produce high-quality parts but at higher prices.
Finishing 3D Parts
While industrial 3D printing creates functional plastic parts, the parts can sometimes benefit from secondary operations and finishing techniques that improve appearance, durability, and functionality.
Threads don’t form well in 3D printing due to layering, tolerances, and over-curing the material, according to Thompson. To improve thread performance, manufacturers can thread or tap holes after the build is completed, which provides smooth threads and enhanced performance. Threaded inserts can also be installed to improve strength.
“With SLA, we install threaded inserts by gluing them in place. With SLS, we heat stake them in because SLS uses commercial-grade thermoplastic nylon,” explains Thompson.
Part performance can also be improved by using a nickel plating (SLArmor) applied to SLA parts which increases heat and mechanical properties. SLArmor is selected when parts need to mimic die cast aluminum. It can also be applied with different surface finishes. However, it has two thicknesses that can change material properties.
Color and cosmetic appearance options are generally limited. This can be improved in post-production so 3D printed parts resemble injection molded parts. Proto Labs has a few different ways of altering part color, which include applying a colored dye, custom paint, or soft-touch paint to SLA and SLS parts.
Polishing, texturing, and clear coatings are used when manufacturers need to produce clear parts without layer lines or to produce a matte finish. A clear coat may also be used if a part requires longer UV protection.
In 2017, a repeat customer in the automotive industry requested speaker covers and housing. Proto Labs was tasked with developing a functional prototype for an injection molded part. The company worked with the client to understand the process and optimize their design.
“We helped the engineer assess the properties of 3D printing against injection molding by balancing cost, strength, and structural integrity,” says Thompson. He believes 3D printing was the best option because the product’s complex geometry would have been expensive to mold during design iterations.
The company utilized an HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 with PA 12, a unified nylon 12 printing material. It is powered by HP Multi Jet Fusion technology, which uses an inkjet array to apply fusing and detailing agents across nylon powder. These are then fused together by heat into a solid layer. This process is completed for each layer until the part is finished.
After building the speaker prototype, the entire powder bed with the encapsulated parts was moved to a processing station where a majority of loose powder was removed by an integrated vacuum. Parts were then bead blasted to remove any of the remaining residual powder before reaching the finishing department where they were dyed black to improve cosmetic appearance.
After the order was placed, Proto Labs shipped a complete set of parts in less than ten days and the first set was shipped out within four days. The company printed nearly 40 11x11x5-inch speaker covers and housing pieces.
“Although HP Multi Jet Fusion is a new process, we can leverage our experience in SLS to get high-quality parts to customers in a fast turnaround, and add value in the design and part feedback,” offers Thompson.
The client was very impressed with the completed parts including quality, appearance, and functionality. The parts are now integrated into its broader assembly and the client continues to work with Proto Labs and use HP Multi Jet Fusion technology.
On demand manufacturers like Proto Labs use the latest 3D printing methods to produce prototypes and custom parts for industrial segments including aerospace, automotive, electronics, and medical. With a background in custom injection molded parts and prototypes, additive manufacturing practices like 3D printing were the next logical step for the company. Its use of this technology allows Proto Labs to accelerate production times and reduce costs associated with more traditional prototyping methods.
Jan2018, Industrial Print Magazine