On-Demand Manufacturing

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: On-Demand Manufacturing


Hello and welcome to this week’s Insight.

Today I’m going to talk about on-demand manufacturing and how it can help you at different times of your product lifecycle, from development right through to end of life, and also how it can help with what I call mass customisation.

Specifically, I’m going to explore how injection moulding fits into this mix, but not in quite the way that you may think.


If I was to ask you about on-demand manufacturing you might talk about controlling your supply of products and components from the comfort of your desk, where you can upload your CAD, get it checked for manufacturability and then get a quote. 

After approving the quote, you press the button and let the supplier get on with it.  Of course, you want to see what is happening and change details such as delivery dates and perhaps share the information with your colleagues.  All of that and more is possible in the digital age that we live in.

But what I’m going to talk about is the manufacturing technology that lies beyond that, which enables you to order different volumes cost effectively and get it delivered quickly; because this is what shortens your lead times and meets new challenges such as customisation. 

What you need is your supplier’s online ordering and quoting system to steer you into making the right manufacturing choice and it’s worth noting that those choices are expanding.

First, check that their system allows you to choose between different technologies. For prototyping or production of a one off or a few hundred you may choose a 3D printing technology or perhaps CNC machining.  Both are great choices for the right project and for granular customisation of products and components.

Equally for mass production there is no shortage of injection moulding suppliers ready to press the button and supply you with say fifty or a hundred thousand parts.

All of which leaves a massive gap in the middle.  What do you do if you want to develop parts or components for two to twenty thousand parts? This an area that is sometimes called mass customisation.

Let’s look at your injection moulding options. Steel moulds will take up to 15 weeks before they are ready and will cost you a lot of money making the price per part for an order of a couple of thousand expensive.  It’s hardly a fast or cost-effective response and if the mould needs changing or tweaking, well need I say any more.

Luckily, there is another answer that you can use for injection moulding. You can use it for both rapid prototyping and fast and cost-effective production of small to medium volumes.

The answer is actually very simple, you need to find a supplier who produces aluminium moulds. 

An aluminium mould is faster to produce, sometimes even taking just 1 day. Yet even at this point you can choose a more nuanced option. 

As an example take our on-demand manufacturing through injection moulding.  If you need to validate your design or will only ever need fewer than 2000 parts, then you can get a lower priced prototyping mould.  If you need to tweak your design, you can often amend this mould.

Alternatively, our online ordering will steer you towards an on-demand manufacturing mould – again, aluminium – if you need more than 2000 parts.  The cost of producing this mould is a little higher, but it is guaranteed for longer and for more parts and it is still far more cost effective than a steel option.

And when you think about it, lower volume injection moulding solutions can help with several issues.

First, as I have already said it is ideal for what I call mass customisation because you can have smaller volumes at a lower price per part.

Second, you can get new products to market more quickly, both through rapid prototyping and because the shorter lead times for aluminium tooling allows you to produce parts while you are waiting for the steel option.

Third, you can manage supply chain emergencies whether it’s due to your normal production tools being repaired or because of the sort of demand volatility that we have seen with coronavirus.

And finally, you can manage a product at the end of its life cycle and obsolescence by only ordering the parts that you need for spares.

So, to conclude I would say that if you are after smaller volumes of injection moulded parts then think about your options. Steel moulds are not the only answer. Aluminium moulds, through on-demand manufacturing, may provide a better choice if you want to order smaller volumes.  

That’s it for this week. I look forward to seeing you again next Friday.



With special thanks to Natalie Constable.

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