Unleashing Creativity: The Power of Custom Manufacturing Services

By Protolabs

Custom manufacturing (or custom fabrication) has revolutionised how product designers and innovators bring their ideas to life. In a world where uniqueness holds immense value, custom manufacturing services offer a gateway to unleashing creativity and turning imaginative concepts into tangible realities. Whether it's a custom part for a new piece of technology, a meticulously crafted metal sculpture, or a customised architectural structure, the power of custom fabrication is incredible. This blog delves into the transformative potential that custom manufacturing services offers, exploring their artistry, versatility, and opportunities they present for pushing the boundaries of product design.

man with protolabs DFM on screen

Transforming Ideas into Reality: The Artistry of Custom Fabrication

At Protolabs, our engineers are dedicated to diligently reviewing and assessing every design. This enables us to guarantee its feasibility, and align it with our client's expectations. This process involves several steps, which include:

  • Design for Manufacturability (DFM): We use proprietary analysis software within our e-commerce that ensures your design is optimised for our manufacturing processes. This software will generally provide you with feedback within the hour unless your part is quite complex and one of our engineers needs to take a look, in which case you should still get it back within 48 hours.
  • Design Analysis: Our team of engineers conduct a comprehensive analysis of your design, examining all technical specifications and requirements. This involves scrutinising dimensions, materials and intended functionality to ensure your part is manufacturable using our services and to highlight any potentially problematic areas.
  • Collaboration and Client Involvement: Our engineers are always on hand, at the end of the phone (or email), ready to share their knowledge and to discuss your project at any point during your project timeline. Whether it be for a full-on consultation regarding design amendments, specifications, quote advisories, or answering questions you may have on the process, the quality controls, etc.
  • Quality Assurance and Compliance: Parts go through stringent checks to ensure that designs adhere to specific industry standards, regulations, and quality benchmarks. Here at Protolabs, we hold certifications for ISO:9001 Quality standards (amongst others). We also offer/ utilise scientific moulding, CTQ (Critical-to-quality) Capability reports, and CMM inspection, including GD & T testing, PPAP, and more. Please visit our quality page to read further about what we offer at Protolabs.


Tailored Solutions for Unique Projects: The Versatility of Custom Fabrication Services

Protolabs' technology-driven approach empowers engineers and designers. It allows them to push the boundaries of what's possible. Working to precise tolerances and utilising cutting-edge technology and quality control measures, we ensure that every part produced meets the highest standards, enabling our clients to bring their innovative ideas to life with confidence. How do we achieve this?

  • High-Precision Manufacturing
    Our cutting-edge manufacturing processes, including Injection Moulding, CNC Machining and 3D Printing, are equipped with state-of-the-art machinery and software. These technologies allow us to achieve exceptional precision when creating your parts and components.
  • Tight Tolerances
    At Protolabs, we work within incredibly tight tolerances to ensure the accuracy and consistency of the parts we produce. Depending on the manufacturing process and materials, tolerances can range from a fraction of a millimetre to microns. For example, through our 3D printing service, we can achieve tolerances as low as +/- 0.05mm. Using our MicrofineTM Green material, we can even achieve small features of a microscopic 0.025mm. Our digital network offers even smaller tolerances for our other services, such as tolerances down to +/- 0.02mm in CNC, whilst our factory offers tolerances down to +/- 0.1mm.
  • Advanced Quality Control
    Our technology integrates robust quality control measures. Automated inspection tools, coordinate measuring machines (CMMs), and other inspection equipment are employed to verify the accuracy of dimensions and features, ensuring that each part meets the specified tolerances and quality standards.
  • Digital Manufacturing Approach
    At Protolabs the digital manufacturing methods that we offer enable rapid prototyping and production. We utilise digital design files to streamline and automate the manufacturing process. Resulting in reduced lead times and accurate replication of your designs.
  • Iterative Improvement
    Our DfM (design for manufacturability) technology allows for iterative refinement of designs. This iterative process ensures that any deviations or issues are addressed promptly, enhancing the precision and quality of the final product.


From Concept to Creation: The Process of Custom Fabrication

Custom fabrication involves the creation of unique parts or products to meet specific requirements put in place by the designer. The process can vary depending on the method used (such as machining, 3D printing, CNC machining, etc.), materials used, and the desired end product. Let's look at the general process for custom fabrication;

  1. Design At the start of the process the client provides an engineering drawing or CAD (computer-aided design) files. These designs outline the dimensions, features, materials, and any other relevant details necessary for creation of the part.
  2. Material Selection Materials are generally selected based on design requirements and end-use of the final product. This material could range from anything, from metals such as aluminium and steel, to plastics, composites or specialised materials.
  3. Preparation and Planning Engineers review the design to ensure it’s manufacturable. This involves assessing factors such as feasibility, cost-effectiveness and the chosen manufacturing method’s compatibility with the design.
  4. Fabrication Process:
    1. Injection Moulding The melting of thermoplastic or thermosetting polymers and injecting them into a mould cavity. Once cooled and solidified, the part is ejected from the mould.
    2. CNC Machining Selected material is placed into the CNC (computer numerical control) machine. Following the CAD’s specifications, the cutting tool removes material from a block.
    3. 3D Printing/ Additive Manufacturing Layer-by-layer construction of the part based on a 3D model. Different printing technologies fuse materials or cure resins to create the part.
  5. Quality Control and Inspection Throughout the fabrication process, quality checks and inspections are performed. This ensures the fabricated part adheres to the specified tolerances, dimensions and quality standards.
  6. Finishing and Post-Processing This stage is optional. Additional steps like surface finishes, polishing, painting, coating etc, may be applied to enhance the parts aesthetics or functional properties.
  7. Assembly If required, multiple fabricated parts might need putting together to create the final product. This could involve fitting, joining or fastening the components together.
  8. Testing and Validation The finished product undergoes testing and validation to ensure it meets the intended specifications and functions as expected.
  9. Delivery Once the fabricated parts pass quality checks and validations, they are packaged up and delivered to the client.


Breaking Boundaries: Pushing the Limits of Design with Custom Fabrication

At Protolabs we are no stranger to pushing the limits of our capabilities and supporting customers with creating complex, detailed, precision parts. Here are some examples of precision parts that Protolabs has supported with.

Nokia High-Tech Drones – Protolabs supported with the development of high-tech drones from Nokia, which had to take into consideration connectivity requirements and stringent aviation regulations.

“It was an extraordinary engineering challenge that was met by an extraordinary service from Protolabs. We appreciated their efficiency, expertise, attention to detail and the speed was something that not many other manufacturers could have achieved. Once we had the material locked in, Protolabs were able to mould the parts and get them shipped out to us extremely swiftly."

Thomas Eder, Head of Embedded Wireless Solutions, Nokia Enterprise Solutions

Read the Case Study

Novax DMA – Protolabs supported with the production of a cranium implant, which had several difficult challenges to overcome. The part was required to go through special secondary service processes. The part not only needed to be mindful of the patient being exposed to too much sun leading to overheating. It also had to work around the fact that it could not be permeable to tissue fluid from the brain, and it needed to be clean and sterile, so that when implanted into the body it wouldn’t lead to infection or rejection. This isn’t simply a cleaning process, but a strict procedure that would ensure the part was completely germ-free. On top of that it was also important that the implant did not hinder the recovery process.

“We've completed many projects successfully with our manufacturing process”, said Christoph Erhardt, Head of 3D printing and Quality Management at Protolabs. “We're particularly proud of this implant - and not just because of the precise forming of the shape. The chief concern was keeping things perfectly clean. Porous structures, with inherent small hollow spaces, are particularly difficult to keep clean. The precise nature of the process is confidential but, basically, Protolabs has a multi-step process of abrasive and mechanical cleaning, rinsing and ultrasound to reach the level of cleanliness needed for medical applications. It took a full 6 months to develop the process.”

Read the Case Study


Craftmanship and Precision: The Quality Standards of Custom Fabrication Services

Protolabs adheres to many quality standards such as ISO:9001 and follows part production with a stringent list of inspections and reports to ensure quality parts.
Need proof? Here are some examples of comments customers have left in the past regarding the quality of work they received from Protolabs.

“Protolabs' ability to provide rapid, precise, and material-specific machining services significantly contributed to Space Inventors' capability to develop satellite systems and advance aerospace technology. The ongoing collaboration continues to foster innovation and success in the space exploration sector.”

Michael Maciejczuk, Marketing Manager, Space Inventor A/S

“I could not find another supplier that could produce the part we needed to the accuracy and quality required.  Protolabs made the whole development process simple and fast,”

Knut Holen, Canute Rail

"Efficiency is built into the Protolabs system. It’s fast, you get answers quickly and can be confident in the accuracy. We benefitted from that hugely."

Euan Crowder, Product Designer, ICE

We take immense pride in these testimonials, which reflect our commitment to delivering exceptional service and top-notch quality to our customers. Our dedication to meeting and surpassing client expectations is evident through the positive feedback we receive, underscoring our emphasis on precision, speed, and customer satisfaction. You can explore more of these first-hand experiences and feedback directly from our Case Study section on our website.