Your masterclass in product design and development


Protolabs’ Insight video series

Our Insight video series will help you master digital manufacturing.

Every Friday we’ll post a new video – each one giving you a deeper Insight into how to design better parts. We’ll cover specific topics such as choosing the right 3D printing material, optimising your design for CNC machining, surface finishes for moulded parts, and much more besides.

So join us and don’t miss out.


Insight: Customisation


Hi, it’s Friday again, which means it’s time for me to share another insight video with you. 

This week I’m going to talk to you about how new manufacturing technology can help you customise products without breaking the bank.

We’re getting better at understanding what our customers want with modern Customer Relationship Management systems giving us more data than ever.  Whilst on the production side Enterprise Resource Planning software tells us all about our production and supply chain.

It’s not a big leap to join the dots between these sources of data so that you can customise products to meet more of your customers’ needs.

But hang on, we are in business to make money and we need to ask how much is a customer willing to pay for their customised product?

I’m not even going to try and answer that one, but what I can say is that production technology is moving so quickly that you can now customise and mass customise products more cost effectively than ever before.

Our colleagues in marketing and sales are defining ever tighter market segments and sub segments and the challenge for production now is how to better meet the needs of those segments.

To add to your headache, these segments and sub segments will all be different sizes so there is no single correct production answer.

To try and solve this puzzle, let me give you a range of manufacturing technologies that you can pick-and-mix the best solution from.

We’ll start with proper customisation where you need a one-off, or at most a few hundred parts.

For hundreds of different plastics and increasingly for different metals the go to technology here is often 3D printing.  You can 3D print virtually any shape you want, so what was once impossible is now possible. 

The technology is constantly improving, so you can have your parts quicker and at increasingly lower prices.  As an additive technology you also minimise your waste if that material is expensive.

Many have taken this technology in-house but think before you do so, because to keep up with new developments you need to keep an eye on what is happening and reinvest regularly. 

Another option is to outsource these parts. 

Technology can help you make some suppliers an extension of your own production line.  All you do is upload your CAD into their software, check their design for manufacturability analysis, approve the quote and wait for delivery a few days later.  Some will deliver the parts in just a day.

This system works for rapid prototyping and is now branching out into an area that we call on-demand manufacturing.

But let’s get back to manufacturing.

CNC machining is another great option and a technology that is great for anything from a few hundred to a couple of thousand parts and again could be used in-house or outsourced for rapid turnaround.

Okay I’m going to take a leap in production volumes now but stay with me.  If you need hundreds of thousands of parts or components, then there is no problem – I’m guessing that you can either produce them yourself or turn to any number of different suppliers.

Sadly, this leaves a huge gap – what if you want a few thousand parts or components quickly let’s say between two and twenty thousand.  I call this mass customisation.

For plastic you typically turn to injection moulding for mass manufacture.  The problem for smaller quantities is that steel moulds are expensive and you have to wait 10 to 12 weeks for them to be ready.  Sure, you could call off ten thousand but if that is your only order then the price per part will be expensive.

This begs the question, why are you using steel moulds?

Aluminium moulds are faster and more cost effective to produce.  It’s a softer metal so I’m not going to pretend that they would work for huge quantities, but if you will only ever need a few thousand parts then it’s a faster and a more cost-effective option.

Remember that bit about uploading your CAD into a supplier’s software – well if you do that and the moulds are approved for manufacturing then you could have those two to twenty thousand parts in a few days. 

So, to sum up the manufacturing technology for cost effective customisation exists and there is a supply chain waiting to respond and get your parts shipped quickly.  Modern ERP systems make the management of this process far simpler.

From uploading your CAD into a supplier’s software to delivery of a one-off, a few hundred or even a few thousand, those parts are often just a few days away and sometimes even just a day.  And you can manage this entire process from behind your own desk.

This is the future of manufacturing, one that joins the dots and puts the customer in charge of what is produced.

And with that thought, I think it’s time for me to sign off.  Have a great weekend and I’ll see you next Friday.



With special thanks to Natalie Constable.

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