WATCH: From 3D CAD to Final Parts

We’re officially kicking off our series of short Proto Labs videos today. Throughout the year, the series will take brief glimpses into our different manufacturing processes, technology, quoting and other areas that make Proto Labs unique. Our first short follows an initial concept as it moves from sketch to 3D CAD model to final part. Have a look:

14 Reasons Why Optical LSR is Good for Lighting Applications

As LEDs increasingly supplant metal filaments in light bulbs, optical LSR — in addition to plastics like polycarbonate and acrylic resins — is replacing glass in many optical applications including lens covers and light pipes.

Optical LSR is a transparent, flexible thermoset material that is replacing glass in many optical applications.

The flexible, transparent material is second in clarity only to glass; it can withstand heat in proximity to high-output LEDs and operate in a range of ambient temperatures. Optical LSR is flexible enough for rough duty, outdoor and automotive use. It also allows for very flexible design including accurate replication of fine features. It can support minor undercuts and negative draft without the need for side-actions, and both thick and thin walls. Designs in this material can often integrate multiple parts into a single unit, combining for example a lens, a clear lens cover and a sealing gasket, reducing the bill of materials for a final assembly.

Proto Labs stocks Dow Corning MS-1002 LSR, a material that has been engineered for molding finely detailed parts for LED applications. Read our full Design Tip to see how optical LSR might help on your next lighting project.

2015 Manufacturing Trends

Last year was pretty big for the American manufacturing industry. Milestones both big and small made headlines: the White House hosted a Maker Faire; scientists achieved firsts in 3D printing technology by printing living human tissue and printing in zero gravity; President Obama announced his commitment to supporting American manufacturing through the creation of research hubs in key U.S. cities; a resurgent labor market has continued to fuel an “onshoring” trend with manufacturing jobs returning stateside; we figured out how to 3D print pizza, chocolate and sugary treats.

3D-printed chocolate confections are a real thing. Photo by Choc Edge.

As important as all of the strides made in the U.S. manufacturing space were in 2014, we’re most excited about what might be around the corner. We’re confident this is only the beginning of an exciting new era in our industry. Here are a few trends we’re keeping an eye out for this year: Continue reading

Proto Labs Launches New Website

Protolabs website screen captureWe’re excited to close out 2013 with the launch of our completely redesigned website. Like many of the parts we manufacture, we built protolabs.com with a blend of style and substance. One could say it’s a tough, stable, wear-resistant site with good optical properties that is used by many different industries. Within the makeover lies a strong visual presence yet it retains all of the reliable content we’ve always had. 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 http://theleanstartup.com/.

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