COVID prompts new technology for Protolabs


“Every time we seem to hit a wall, we sit back, think, scratch our heads and then jump over the wall and do the next thing,” he said.

The COVID-disrupted supply chains of 2020 and 2021 also prompted rapid change at Protolabs. Singh said one key was learning to inspect parts quickly, without slowing down the manufacturing process.

“With COVID, we started noticing that we were getting parts to customers in three days, and then the customers took three weeks to validate those parts,” Singh said.

“We knew we had to solve this problem for a high-mix environment. So we put our R&D team to it, and that’s how we released what we call our Critical-to-Quality Inspection in March of 2021,” he said.

Protolabs asked customers what dimensions are critical to inspect, and it built inspection of those dimensions into the process with as much automation as possible.

“The other thing that COVID did, it pushed us into more high-volume molding,” Singh said. “We did it for the right reasons. Like for one home testing kit, we did over 5 million parts.”

With labor in short supply, that’s meant using more automation in injection molding, including collaborative robots.

“We always had the idea of deploying cobots. We started developing different cases for them, like removing parts, then removing and placing parts, and then that expanded to removing and trimming parts,” Singh said.

Singh said COVID also prompted Protolabs to use scientific molding, including monitoring cavity pressure on some jobs.

“That’s a result of the transition from being a prototype supplier to being a production supplier. With prototyping, all we talked about was speed. But when you go to production, it’s still about speed, but it’s also about consistency and reliability,” Singh said.

Now Protolabs can talk with customers about design-for-manufacturing, cavity pressure and other variables.

“We want to spend the time upfront because it helps set the right expectation and set us for long-term success. And then the customer gets consistency and reliability,” Singh said.

While business at Protolabs changes every day, including a wide variety of end markets, Singh said there’s one thing that its customers have in common.

“If there’s high level of innovation, we want to be there, we want to be your partner, because we can help you turn things around a lot faster, iterate through it,” Singh said.


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