Proto Labs Ltd

The Project Triangle: fast, good, cheap. Choose two. You can’t have all three. This used to be the engineering designer’s dilemma, and the beginning of the buyer’s frustration. But, when you combine the speed of the Internet, the power of cleverly designed software, and the flexibility and precision of Haas CNC machine tool technology, the Project Triangle looks like a formula from the dark days of manufacturing, which is exactly what it is.

When it comes to making prototype parts, Haas customer Proto Labs . – based in Maple Plain, Minnesota, USA, with branches in Telford, England, and Tokyo, Japan – has radically changed the economics of getting new products to market without compromising quality. Using proprietary, web-based software and a large and growing fleet of Haas CNC vertical machining centres, Proto Labs can deliver all three sides of the project triangle. No more dilemmas for the designer; no more compromises for the buyer. Proto Labs provides two services: First Cut® and Protomold®. Both use the same combination of hard and soft technology to deliver prototype parts, but as the name suggests, First Cut is aimed at the early stages of the product design process.

First Cut is dedicated to producing plastic and aluminium prototype parts – CNC machined directly from solid blocks of material – as quickly and easily as they can be made using a traditional additive rapid-prototype (RP) process. CNC-machined parts are far superior to RP-produced parts due to their greater strength, better surface finish, and more accurate dimensions. First Cut allows customers to make functional prototypes much earlier in the development cycle, using production-intent plastics and aluminium.

But, what’s the difference between the many CNC machine shops that offer to cut plastic parts and First Cut’s service? Proto Labs’ European managing director, John Tumelty, explains: “First Cut customers can upload their CAD models to receive a FirstQuote™: an interactive and firm-cost analysis, as well as a manufacturing feedback facility. As soon as the customer places an order, First Cut’s software – running on large-scale parallel processing computers with 1.9 teraflops of processing power – automatically produces the toolpaths required to program the Haas CNC machines. This eliminates the non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs and delays, making it a fast and affordable process for quantities of between 1 and 10+. With conventional subcontract machining, one-offs usually can’t be obtained with short lead times, and are often prohibitively expensive.

“So,” adds Mr. Tumelty, “there’s no need to settle for a prototype part that resembles the finished part in appearance only.” Whatever material the designer specifies – ABS, nylon, PEEK, aluminium, etc. – a part produced by First Cut will embody many of the mechanical features and qualities anticipated in the production version.

“This is a major development for designers,” he continues. “There is no other way of getting high-quality, functional plastic and aluminium prototype parts manufactured as quickly and so inexpensively.”

As the product development process advances, a designer will often need more than just one prototype part; several may be needed during the testing and development phase. Once the product has been signed off for marketing purposes, part runs of 100s and 1000s are typical. This is the point at which designers can turn to Proto Labs’ Protomold service, which also relies on Haas CNC machines.

In the past, manufacturing an injection mould tool for low-volume or prototype purposes was a high-cost, high-risk strategy. But times have changed, and thanks to Protomold’s low-cost, high-speed Haas CNC machine tools and the company’s investment in CAD/CAM, so has the manufacture of aluminium injection mould tooling.

“The Protomold process can deliver many thousands of moulded parts in days from a relatively inexpensive aluminium mould that can be made on the Haas CNC machines in as little as just one day,” says Mr. Tumelty. “The precision-machined mould produces the same geometry as subsequent steel production tooling, so designers can easily replicate the intended shape and functionality of the finished product. Again, to make sure the actual manufacturing process was reliable, and to assure the quality of moulds, we needed the best CNC machine tools we could buy for the money.”

When Proto Labs was founded, it was originally called Protomold, and the concepts that are now also applied so effectively through its offspring First Cut were being developed, honed, and delivered to product designers in the USA, Europe and, more recently, Japan. Like First Cut, Protomold also uses a web-based quoting system to interact with its customers.

“Product designers submitting part models using the ProtoQuote™ receive detailed manufacturability analysis and an all-in production price in as little as an hour,” says Mr. Tumelty. “Finished parts in production-intent material can then be ready to ship in as little as one day. We pass on these time savings to product designers, giving them the ability to better manage their product development programs, reduce the number of pre-production difficulties, and bring products to market faster than ever before.”

Customers can interact with the Protomold online system from anywhere in the world to view quotes, amend and update quote requirements, access large volumes of detailed information regarding design and manufacturing, check shipping details, and order parts. Injection-moulded parts can be ordered almost as easily as a book on®, and design engineers who use the Protomold service can easily react to last-minute design changes, schedule revisions, and reduce time-to-market.

To meet demand from its growing European customer base, Proto Labs has recently invested in several new Haas CNC vertical machining centres, including two VF-1s, two VF-2s, and two VM-3s, all with high-speed machining options, making them ideally suited to rapid manufacturing.

Choosing Haas as the primary machine provider was one of the easier decisions faced by Proto Labs. “Haas stands apart from the plethora of machine tool manufacturers, offering a comprehensive range of machines and options coupled with great reliability and intuitive user interfaces, all at an affordable price.” observes Mr. Tumelty, “When you sell time, as Proto Labs does, you need highly reliable machines backed up by reliable, skilled, and efficient service. That is why Proto Labs chose Haas.

“The quality of the product we produce is as important as the speed with which we can produce it,” concludes Mr. Tumelty. “Haas VMCs are capable and reliable high-speed machines. Together with our software and processing power, Haas CNC machine tools are vital to Proto Labs’ success. Our investments in the machines enable us to provide a better, faster service, and pass on time and cost savings directly to our customers around the world.” 

“We’ve seen a major increase in productivity since installing the Haas machines. Our old lathe/mill combo could produce 4 axles a day, the Haas duo are pumping out 4 times that. Of course, it’s not just speed that counts it’s the accuracy and quality of finish too.”

Ron Gitlin