January 16, 2019

How Do You Move 295 CNC Machines? Glad You Asked.

By Protolabs

The key to maintaining our quick-turn lead times for machined parts is our infinite capacity model. By automating the front-end of the manufacturing process and combining it with massive machining scale, we can reliably deliver machined parts in as fast as 24 hours.

As demand for machined parts continued to grow at Protolabs, we needed to expand our operations. So in late 2016 we began searching for a larger facility to maintain the quick-turn lead times our customers count on us to deliver.

So how do you pick up a factory floor—one that has nearly 300 machines—move it to a new facility, and make sure your customers are unaffected? Glad you asked. 

  • 215,000 sq. ft. of floor space
  • 295 machines were moved and there is capacity for more than 300 additional CNC machines
  • 100 percent of workforce is now in a quieter environment
  • 95 percent reduction in forklift traffic
  • On average 22 machines were moved during each moving event
  • The move lasted for 5 weeks

Scouting Out a Location

As it became clear that we would run out of CNC machining capacity in the next few years, we kicked off a process to find a location that could house our growing operations. Early on, we determined that finding a lot and then building a new facility would take too long, so the first requirement was that we needed to find an existing building.

In order to understand the amount of floor space we would require, our manufacturing engineering team created hundreds of “what-if” mill layouts to work through various factory floor configurations. This exercise helped us understand the square footage we would need to continue growing our machining capacity for years to come.

Next was finding an optimal location. This required a few calculations. First, we wanted to ensure the move had a minimal impact on our employees at the current location, in Plymouth, Minnesota, a suburb in the northwest Minneapolis metro area. So we conducted a zip code analysis of the employees working at our CNC machining facility. We then took that information to calculate drive times and create a point map to determine a target area where relocation would have a minimal impact on our current employees commutes.Another important factor was finding a building that contained both a manufacturing floor and office space. Since we have a team of design analysts at each of our facilities this was critical. All of these considerations led us to choosing a building in nearby Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, which formerly housed a printing plant. The facility includes 165,000 sq. ft. of existing space, and the move included a significant addition of 50,000 sq. ft. of space.

We signed the terms for the building in fall 2017 and closed on it in March 2018. After, we immediately got to work prepping for the move.

New Building, New and Improved Layout

Having a building that is solely dedicated to CNC machining gave our team the opportunity to improve the layout with more organized flow of parts through the shop floor. For example, forklift traffic has been reduced by almost 95 percent in this facility through thoughtful design of designated forklift areas and pedestrian only spaces—this improves the facility's safety immensely. The move also opens up more capacity at the Plymouth facility, which will now only consist of injection molding equipment, so there are more efficiencies to be had there as well.

Another important benefit to the Brooklyn Park location is that 100 percent of the workforce will be in a quieter environment. Our manufacturing engineering team designed the floor with greater segmentation to decrease the need for personal protection equipment (PPE).  

The improved floor plan combined with a new approach to mill positioning and modifications to the machines, has also helped us fit 10 percent more machines in the same area compared to our previous facility. That may not sound like a lot, but with capacity to hold nearly 600 CNC machines, that equates to an additional 60 machines that we can fit. In short, that’s a lot more parts that we can send through our floor at any given time.

Our company culture survey also influenced the design of the building. As an organization we strive to be open and transparent and it’s reflected in this new facility. It's an open office layout with large windows and clear lines of sight through the factory floor.

Dozens of kaizen events were held to determine roles and responsibilities during the move. The team pictured above helped calculate the time needed to take down and move all of our CNC machines.
How to Move 295 Machines

The next step in the moving process was developing a plan to move our fleet of CNC machines 12 miles to the new facility, all while maintaining our 24-hour, quick-turn lead times. The No. 1 goal during the move was to keep our employees safe and ensure that our customers did not experience any delays or disruptions.

Naturally, as a manufacturing company, our first step in the move was to perform dozens of kaizen events to prepare for the move. We use kaizen events throughout our company to continually improve processes and make employees’ work easier and more efficient.

One of the major kaizen events we conducted helped identify the roles and responsibilities of each team member involved in moving a mill and to calculate how long it would take to move our fleet of machines. We found that it took about 37 minutes to take down a mill and approximately 3 hours to get it back up and running at the new location in Brooklyn Park.


Adam Poetter, manufacturing engineer at Protolabs, designed a positioning system for the move, using our own 3D printing capabilities. With help from our additive manufacturing team in North Carolina, Poetter used selective laser sintering to 3D-print brackets that attached lasers to each machine. The lasers were then aimed at the floor, so the movers had to simply align the laser with the marking on the floor to place it in the exact location. It was important to ensure each machine was precisely placed to maximize the capacity of the shop floor.

Scott Pedersen, the CNC machining plant manager, likened the process of moving a mill to how an aircraft carrier works. “Each team member has a specific set of responsibilities and need to understand where they fall in the order. This limits variation from mill to mill and makes it a more efficient process as a whole.”

From our kaizen event we determined that we can move anywhere from 24 to 30 machines a day, so we then divided the project into 14 moves over the course of five weeks. The first week would only consist of two moves in case any issues arose and the next four weeks would each contain three moving events.

Once roles and responsibilities were established, the next step in the move was to purchase 22 new machines, which were sent to the new location. These new CNC machines served as a test bed before the actual move took place and helped mitigate operational risk. It gave our team of manufacturing engineers the opportunity to spend time commissioning the new mills and troubleshooting any issues that arose when bringing a new CNC machine online.

Every mill is defined by a parking space and serial number when it arrives at the new facility. Carefully tracking each individual machine and its location on the floor is critical as toolsets will vary depending on what material the machine is set up for. This tracking system also gives greater flexibility going forward as it allows us to easily swap out machine toolsets to address a spike in demand for a specific material, for example.

A Successful Move

Starting in mid-November and into December we conducted our CNC machining move. It concluded on December 19 and all of the planning paid off. In addition to moving nearly 300 CNC machines and additional support equipment, 225 employees are now working in the new facility. This new plant now expands our overall machining capacity to more than 450 mills/lathes in the U.S and 600 worldwide.

Finally, we are happy to report that during the moving process we maintained on-time delivery and, most importantly, there were no injuries!