CNC machining is a popular way to obtain prototypes and low-volume production runs. And engineers can choose from a range of providers, from full-service providers to independent shops. But the key to selecting a vendor is still how fast can they deliver parts, and do so consistently. The preferred answer is days, not weeks. At least one service provider can deliver custom machined components in days, maybe even hours. Protolabs’ machining capacity and entirely digital front-end enables it to provide online quotes and deliver parts in as fast as the same day. More importantly, given that their process is highly automated, it is repeatable, which means you know your parts will be delivered on time, every single time. No need to worry about adding in slack time to handle potential delays.
How does Protolabs do this? “We operate our CNC service with a model that we call an infinite capacity model,” says Judy Carmein, Global Product Manager for CNC Machining. “If a traditional machine shop takes on more jobs than it has the capacity for, their lead times get longer. But, by design, we have more machines than we need to handle the peaks in demand. So, you will have a three-day lead time on a given geometry, and when you come back next month you’ll will still have a three day lead time, regardless of what our shop capacity looks like at that time. We don’t vary the lead-time based on the orders coming in through our factory. And, if needed, parts can be expedited and shipped the same day they are ordered.”
To achieve this repeatability and consistency in delivery times, Protolabs has developed a streamlined process using software automation. Plus, the company stocks about 30 different types of materials.
“At the time of quote we are actually developing the commands for the machine to build the part,” continues Carmein, “so when an order comes in and gets scheduled, someone simply pulls the block of material from the shelf, and puts it on the machine. Often, we have chips flying for your part within a half an hour. That is unprecedented in CNC operations. Usually, it takes at least a day for preparation. Someone must write the program, get the material, do all these things, and so most shops won’t even start your parts for a few days. We’re starting your parts within a few minutes to less than an hour. That’s how we can do same day expedite. If you get your order in in the morning, we can ship those parts that night.”
Automation shaves costs
Protolabs quoting program is so sophisticated and automated that majority of CNC quotes go out without a single human touching them. (In many cases, you don’t even need to talk to one of Protolabs application engineers – unless you choose to do so, of course.)
In addition, Protolabs recently acquired a company in New Hampshire called Rapid Manufacturing. Rapid handles allows Protolabs to offer its customers higher volume CNC runs at lower costs. Additionally, Rapid’s CNC operation is AS9100 certified and serves many Protolabs’ customers in the aerospace industry.
“A key point about Rapid is that customers can order a run of 500 parts while they are determining demand, and then order additional quantity as demand changes. The lead times are short and consistent–they won’t change,” adds Carmein.
“We’re perfect for all the stages of prototyping through part test phase and low volume production” adds Carmein. “Many times in testing you’ll need a higher quantity of CNC parts because you want the test to be statistically significant. And we’re great for products that need mass customization or have low volumes. There are a lot of designs where customers need only 500 or 1000 a year. Then, we’re also perfect for products near their end of life and you don’t want to go get another huge order with a minimum order quantity. So, it’s prototype, early testing, early life, parts that have mass customization, and end-of-life in our sweet spot. Our sweet spots are quantity 1, up to about 1000 plus.
What you need
The critical data you will need for Protolabs’ process is a CAD model. “It drives our whole processes,” says Carmein. “Our shop tolerance is plus or minus 0.005. At this point, we don’t accept prints to get tighter tolerances on different features, but again it’s all about getting the streamlined process. It’s important for customers to look at our quotes, and make sure that they notice any material that’s being left behind, and to make sure that the parts will be exactly how they want it. We also offer lots of different types of threading capabilities, which are standardized, and available on our website. Our CNC machining process is about the simplest, with the most reliable CNC parts that you can get from just about anywhere.”
For additional information or to get a quote, visit www.protolabs.com
Filed Under: Design World articles, Manufacturing, Machine tool industry + subtractive manufacturing