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: ODM


Hi and welcome to another insight video.  This week I’ll be talking about how to reduce your costs by outsourcing production to a rapid manufacturer.  At Protolabs we call it on demand manufacturing.

There are a number of times when it pays to consider this, so the best thing to do is to work our way through them. 

When I talk about on demand manufacturing, I’m generally referring to low and medium volumes, it could be anything from a bespoke one-off up to 50,000 parts.  It may involve different 3D printing technologies, CNC machining or injection moulding.

The key to it is a rapid response.  Now the astute among you may challenge whether injection moulding is rapid and our answer is that you can make it a rapid technology by challenging some accepted norms.  Instead of waiting more than 10 weeks for a steel mould, by using aluminium the time to produce tooling is just days.

So, it’s quick, which means you can get your parts in days as opposed to months, which will allow you to get your production line up and running in no time!

And this brings me to my first point.  There are times when you will need what we call bridge tooling.  If you are developing a new product or altering something, you can still get parts to get that product out to market while you are waiting for your mass production steel tooling.  This can save you weeks of time.

Having smaller production runs can also reduce your risk.  Let’s go back to that new product scenario.  Of course, like any sensible designer you’ve prototyped and tested your part design so you are confident that it will work in production; but do you know that that the product will meet your company’s sales projections?

Ask yourself are you ready to invest in expensive steel tooling or outsource mass production of the components?  You may want to pilot the product, have a soft launch for selected regions or customers for market testing.  On-demand manufacturing lets you test the market and mitigate your risk before you commit to a longer-term investment.

And this brings me to another advantage of on-demand manufacturing, you can rapidly flex and change direction if you need to.  If you discover that you could improve a part, do you wait another ten weeks and invest in a second set of expensive steel moulds or just a few days for new and cheaper aluminium moulds.  Sometimes you can even tweak the existing aluminium mould. 

You can see what we are doing here, we are challenging the traditional lines between prototyping, market testing, and production. Whatever you choose to call it, you are taking risk out of production until you are ready to invest in mass production tools.

And this links to my next point. You may not want mass produced parts. As manufacturers become more responsive to customer needs there is more customisation of products to meet smaller niches.  This means there will be parts that you need to order in smaller volumes, so instead of two hundred thousand plastic parts you may need twenty thousand.  Now I’ve already said that steel tooling takes longer to produce and is more expensive.  On the other hand, it is better for mass production – so now it’s all about the cost per part.

For low and medium volume parts of up to 50,000 then aluminium production moulds will offer you a better deal.  You need to ask how many parts you will need for the lifetime of the product.  Then do the maths and work out the cost per part. 

And just to give you something else to think about, some of that cost may come down to how you design the tooling.  For certain parts you may be able to use multi-cavity moulds so instead of producing one part for each injection moulding cycle you can now produce 2, 4 or even 8 parts.  This of course changes the maths again – so what was a cost-effective price for 25 thousand parts can be further reduced. Alternatively, you can now get better value for fifty or a hundred thousand parts.

It’s not always possible to use multi-cavity tooling for injection moulding, so if this is something you are considering then work with your supplier.

What else.  Oh yes smaller volumes of parts will reduce your inventory costs; you can order them as they are needed.

It can also mitigate your supply chain risks.  What happens if your regular supplier is unable to supply parts, perhaps their factory is flooded for example?  On-demand manufacturing can secure your supply.

There are also times in a product’s life cycle when you may want smaller volumes of parts.  Product obsolescence is an obvious example.  Do you want to keep expensive steel moulds lying around and only call off small quantities of parts as they are needed for spares – or have a more cost-effective fast response alternative waiting in the wings with an outsourced supplier?

There are a number of times when you need a fast response. It pays to know about on demand manufacturing particularly as we need to become more responsive and flexible to meet changing customer demand.

With that final thought I’ll wish you a great weekend and I’ll see you again next week.



With special thanks to Natalie Constable.


Why not gain deeper Insight into how to design better parts for CNC machining, injection moulding or 3D printing.

Find out how to reduce risk with on-demand manufacturing with Insight Podcast.