Magnesium Rush

My husband and I recently went to dinner and a movie for our 10th wedding anniversary. We chose “Rush,” which is not necessarily a romantic movie, but it’s directed by Ron Howard, who I love. I was pleasantly surprised that even in 1976 mechanics were using magnesium as a material to help lessen the weight of their cars. My husband called me a nerd after I went on a long tangent about how fascinating this bit of information was. Continue reading

Visit Proto Labs on Manufacturing Day

Pirates get a day. Bacon gets a day (as it should). Even mathematicians celebrate 3.14 with Pi Day. But today! Today manufacturers get their day. Manufacturing Day is a coordinated effort by manufacturers to open their doors to customers so they can see what manufacturing is, and what it isn’t, by explaining processes and dispelling misconceptions about the industry.

So on this day dedicated to manufacturing, we lay out our virtual welcome mat and invite you to take a digital tour of our comprehensive website for a glimpse inside Proto Labs and its services.

We have four online tours filled with info, photos and video of our two services (Protomold and Firstcut), our global presence and the technology we use to make it all happen. Before you enter our humble abode, here’s a primer:

  • Protomold. Our injection molding service offers customers affordable parts, and fast. How fast? Up to one business day in some instances. There are hundreds of resins options that can be molded in quantities ranging from 10 to 10,000 parts.
  • Firstcut. Our CNC machining service blends proprietary analysis and programing software to bring real parts to our customers. If you’re looking for a small run of prototype parts, fixtures, jigs or one-off projects without having to invest in traditional tooling, Firstcut can quickly deliver what you need.
  • Global Presence. We began in 1999 specializing in rapid-turn manufacturing of custom plastic injection molded parts. We’ve since expanded to full-scale facilities in England and Japan to help service our international customer base.
  • Technology. Learn how our cutting-edge, internally-developed software running on a giant computer cluster has automated many manual molding and machining processes to bring customers quality parts really fast.
  •  Extras. In addition to the virtual tours, our site is filled with a wealth of useful information including material options, design and machining tips, future tradeshows we’ll be at and a lot more.

Our door is open 24 hours a day and you never have to remove your shoes. Ready to visit Proto Labs? Right this way:

There’s a Right Time to “Lay Down” on the Job


Imagine that you’re molding a simple straight-sided cup. The traditional approach is to make it in a two-part mold, with the A-side forming the outside of the cup and the B-side forming the inside. As long as both sides are suitably drafted to facilitate ejection, it’s all very simple. But add a C-handle, and it gets a little more complicated. Because the handle acts as an undercut, you’ll lay the cup on its side, form the outside with A- and B-side mold halves meeting at the handle, and use a side-action to form the inside. Continue reading

Lean is in these days

lean (lēn), adj. 1. Thin, esp. healthily so; having no superfluous fat.

Lean is in these days, at least for individuals if you believe the labels in the frozen food aisle. The same is true for business, partly due to constrained budgets coming out of recession but also due to the demands of hungry markets and hungrier competition. Manufacturing has been “lean” for a couple of decades, and in 2001 a new approach to programming was officially dubbed “agile” (more-or-less another word for lean). The concept of lean startup, however, is relatively new—described just two years ago by Eric Reis in his book The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. To say that the concept has caught on would be a colossal understatement.

In the past, products were painstakingly planned and designed, were manufactured in huge quantities, and were expected to have some longevity on the market. Change tended to be slow and superficial. Today, the large production run is still a goal, but long life in the marketplace is a vanishing dream. Even Apple, the champion and model of meticulous design, supplants its own products almost as quickly as it introduces them.

The lean startup concept can be applied both to new companies and to the new products of established companies. It overlaps product development with production and sales, encouraging introduction of a “minimum viable product” (MVP), something that previously might once have been considered a step on the way to a market-ready product. Marketing a MVP serves two functions: it brings in revenue by selling what would previously have been considered a prototype, reducing the need for startup capital. And it generates market feedback from early users, which can be incorporated into ongoing development of the product.

In a sense, operations like Kickstarter are an extreme form of lean startup, in which products are introduced to the market, and in some cases sold, before they even exist. But the early introduction and sale of physical product was only made possible by changes in technology. Processes like laser cutting of metal and Protomold’s injection molding of plastic using aluminum molds have enabled speedy, low-volume production of market-quality products. And when the market evaluates those products and demands more or different capabilities, CAD lets developers quickly make changes and put the redesigned products right back into production.

In the short time it’s been around, lean startup has developed an enormous fan base. It has been a cover story on Wired magazine. There are over 900 lean startup meetup groups in over 300 cities and over 50 countries around the world. And while these groups have over 200,000 members, it is reasonable to assume that there are many more who are applying the principles of lean startup without attending meetups. You can find more information on lean startup at

Greg Kagan is an independent writer specializing in technology marketing, and is author of his own blog,

Big Year for Steel

Steel is having a very interesting year. A copy of Action Comics #1, which marked the first appearance of “the man of steel,” was found in the insulation of a home during renovation and sold at auction for $175,000. Then on June 13th Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures released Man of Steel for an opening weekend gross of $128 million. And, perhaps less widely known but at much more reasonable prices, Firstcut is now producing low-volume machined parts in four different types of steel.

“Why steel?” you might ask. Well, in Superman’s case, it was 1938, almost a decade into the Great Depression. Americans needed a hero, and that hero needed to be tough. Steel, which had made possible the growth of the Roaring Twenties culminating in skyscrapers like the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, was the toughest material known. And while Superman’s Kryptonian flesh is actually stronger than steel, the man-of-steel title reflected the respect that steel had earned. In the case of Firstcut, we’re offering steel because our customers asked for it.

That brings us to the matter of progress. In the case of superheroes one might question whether there has been any. Captain America first appeared in 1941, and one would think that, based on seniority alone, he should be Brigadier General America by now. But despite all his exploits he remains a captain. And what about Ironman? He was created in 1963, 25 years after Superman, and built by a technogeek industrialist, so why iron? Admittedly, steel was already taken, and Ozzy Osbourne would have sounded ridiculous growling “I am titanium man,” but the Iron Age ended somewhere around 500 A.D, folks!

The only possible explanation is that Tony Stark created the original Ironman suit out of scrap in the jungles of Vietnam and had to use what was available, but one would assume that in 50 years of seemingly annual model changes, our flying metal friend should have been renamed Vibranium Man or Adamantium Man or for some other form of unobtainium found only in the Marvel Universe. But despite their love of innovative special effects the fans remain traditionalists at heart.

Not so our fans at Firstcut. In the short time since introducing steel, we now offer stainless 304/304L, stainless 316/316L, steel alloy 4140, and mild low carbon CR1018. And to keep up with customer demand we plan to keep expanding our material offerings. But we don’t plan to machine kryptonite anytime soon, so don’t ask.