Digital Manufacturing and E-Commerce in a Post-COVID World

Protolabs launches new e-commerce platform to accommodate larger teams and more complex projects.

Time moves quickly in manufacturing, not just on the production line but in the sector as a whole.

One year ago, manufacturers were facing some hard choices about how to proceed in the uncertainty of the first global pandemic in a generation. Today, remote work has become a fact of life almost everywhere, including manufacturing.

I sat down with Mark Flannery, global product director for E-Commerce at Protolabs, to discuss the launch of the company’s new quoting platform and the prospects for digital manufacturing in a post-COVID world.

Mark Flannery, global product director for E-Commerce, Protolabs. (Image courtesy of Protolabs.)

Mark Flannery, global product director for E-Commerce, Protolabs. (Image courtesy of Protolabs.)

Can you give us an overview of the major changes in the new platform?

We’re really focused now on optimizing the whole product life cycle, from the moment that a design engineer has an idea to the time that they go to market and start producing parts. Our previous platform was outstanding at doing single parts, oftentimes for a single engineer interested in a single service such as prototyping. Now we’ve expanded it for the whole product life cycle, from prototyping to production across multiple services, including multiple parts and for large team projects. There’s also tools for revisions and version control so, if you’re iterating, you can pick up right where you left off.

What drove these changes?

It’s primarily our customers. We’ve had hundreds of engineers providing feedback and we needed a platform that could accommodate all of our services and offerings as well as make sense out of all the choices that engineers have nowadays. That’s why one of our goals was to make it easier to jump between services, whether you’re doing machining, injection molding or 3D printing.

What industries are you serving primarily?

We do a lot with the medical device industry, as well as aerospace, automotive and consumer electronics. Automotive is actually our biggest industry in Europe.

And in terms of manufacturing vs prototyping, where would you put that ratio?

It’s about a 50/50 split, though we’re starting to do more low-volume production work. I think the balance is starting to shift as we see growth in on-demand manufacturing. We started as a prototyping company, so the mix has certainly become more balanced as we’ve grown. I’ve been with the company for four years and I’ve been working on launching this platform since I got here. Launching this globally has been exhilarating (and a little tiring too).

What can you tell me about the user experience on the new platform? Is it substantially different for the lone engineer working out of a garage vs a team working for an OEM?

Yeah, the look and feel are very different from the old platform. There are a lot more collaboration capabilities, such as sharing a quote between multiple engineers as well as your purchasing department. We also have capabilities to help make the decision as to whether to go with prototyping or on-demand manufacturing, with price graphs that help lay that out. There are also a lot of quality-of-life improvements: making it easier to do threading assignments, allowing the user to review and approve gate and object layout prior to molding, and having multiple parts on the same quote.

Threading assignments in the new Protolabs e-commerce platform. (Image courtesy of Protolabs.)

Threading assignments in the new Protolabs e-commerce platform. (Image courtesy of Protolabs.)

Can you comment on how AI features in the new platform?

Our incoming CEO is very interested in using AI in our design for manufacturability analysis so that it’s automated on the front end without needing one of our engineers to touch it. The idea is to give quotes back with suggestions on how to improve parts for manufacturability instantaneously.

So, in terms of turnaround time, does the new platform shorten the time from when I load up the quoting engine to when I have my parts in hand?

That’s the goal, and I think we’ve been having good results on that so far. We don’t have all the metrics yet, but what we really focused on was reducing the amount of back-and-forth. For example, by moving that gate and objector design review before you place your order, as opposed to after you place the order and having to get the engineer back involved. And then the tying in of those revisions, so that if you are going in those cycles, it’s clear that you’re doing a revision as opposed to a new part.

Protolabs’ new e-commerce platform. (Image courtesy of Protolabs.)

Protolabs’ new e-commerce platform. (Image courtesy of Protolabs.)

How much beta testing did you do with clients before launching?

We were doing a lot of usability testing with engineers around the world throughout the journey. Then we did a full beta test in Europe last summer. That seems like a long time ago. So yes, we did a full beta test where we had some 200+ engineers come in and use it and give us feedback.

How would you characterize the digital manufacturing landscape today given COVID-19 and the events of last year? Would you say e-commerce has grown in manufacturing?

Absolutely. I think when you disrupt logistics and procurement, when you can have on-demand manufacturing and make quick adjustments, I think many companies are, more and more, going digital. That ability to be agile and really being able to ramp and adjust, companies are just feeling that pressure—they just need to constantly be innovating and adjusting to the landscape. And that’s both their supply chain of how they’re getting things, as well as just the products that they’re producing.

It’s exciting for me to see all the innovation going on by so many companies. And, with our acquisition of 3D Hubs, we’ll be focusing on how to take advantage of more than 240 manufacturers globally.