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1 million parts made, our path towards distributed manufacturing

Protolabs Network was founded in 2013 with the manifesto of becoming the supportive infrastructure that would allow people to manufacture parts locally. It’s been over 4 years since that manifesto was written and today the 1,000,000th part was completed on Protolabs Network.

Written by Bram de Zwart

Protolabs Network was founded in 2013 with the manifesto of becoming the supportive infrastructure that would allow people to manufacture parts locally. It’s been over 4 years since that manifesto was written and today the 1,000,000th part was completed on Protolabs Network.

It all started out with a few friends who owned 3D printers in Amsterdam and me (Bram, CEO & co-founder) delivering parts by bicycle around the city. Our first order was handled by Ruben, a 13 year old running a printer out of his dining room. He provided Ken, an avid snowboarder, with a gopro mount for his holiday that he couldn’t have got delivered in time when ordering online.

Here you can see our first interview back in 2013 with Brian and me, outlining the vision we still have today:

We’ve come a long way since. Today Protolabs Network provides manufacturing services (Protolabs Network) across 6,000 locations in over 140 countries, with almost 50% of parts picked-up and an average turnaround time of less than 2 days.


Distributed Manufacturing

Distributed manufacturing — a form of decentralized manufacturing using a network of geographically dispersed manufacturing facilities that are coordinated using information technology

The concept of Distributed Manufacturing is simple, to manufacture products, on-demand and locally. Our vision is that one day we’ll live in a world that runs on these local products, all made on machines stationed in your neighborhood.


A perfect example of distributed manufacturing in action was the partnership with Fairphone creating custom phone accessories, on-demand and local to their point of purchase.

Fairphone is the world’s first ethical smartphone manufacturer who focus on creating sustainable electronics, free of conflict minerals and environmentally harmful components. Conventional smartphone industry leaders would normally sell mass produced accessories traditionally manufactured in China by the tens of thousands, shipped halfway across the world to then sit in warehouses to then finally be shipped again to the store or the person wanting the product. With the Protolabs Network partnership over 50% of those who ordered a Fairphone accessory picked it up from their local producer, with most cases collected within 24 hours of ordering.


From 1 City to 140 Countries

Jumping from operating with a group of friends in Amsterdam with desktop 3D printers to 140 countries with all manner of industrial technologies has led to many challenge, particularly the standardisation of high quality parts and the automation of the process. Some major steps forward we've taken to help combat these challenges and support our vision of distributed manufacturing are summarized below:

Printability Analyser

Our Protolabs Network currently offer over 400 different materials in a wide range of technologies. To help designers and engineers make the right technology decision for their application, the Printability Analyzer was born. It automatically analyses the designs you upload, looking at intricate details, thin walls and topological holes, with it finally making recommendations on which technology to use based on different technologies capabilities.

This relieved suppliers of having to do a lot of the manual work while making a customer’s life easier when picking the right method to create their parts. Thanks to this change the number of orders that had to be rejected because the design was not printable has reduced by 57%.

Print Quality Guidelines

Making sure every supplier produces parts to a set standard is especially difficult with technologies like 3D printing when there are so many variables to manage. At the same time having such an open platform meant that there was a wide differentiation in both supply and the quality of parts.

That’s why we began working on print quality guidelines for the most popular materials on Protolabs Network. To guarantee quality standards all suppliers had to opt-in to the agreed upon guidelines. This made sure all parts are produced according to the right specifications for each technology. Part accuracy is important, so working with the community on what was acceptable when writing the guidelines was key. The outcome since it was launched: a 46% increase in customer satisfaction when they were asked if they were happy with the quality of the part they had received.

Hub ranking algorithm

When we first started out we listed Protolabs Network simply by the distance with the vision this would promote local pick-up, a key benefit to distributed manufacturing. Clearly, as we soon realized, the nearest Hub is not always the best Hub.

This realization gave birth to the creation of the supplier score, an advanced algorithm used to rank Protolabs Network based on over 10 variables, including such things as print quality ratings, response time and repeat customers. It now acts as the key navigator, helping users leverage the power of distributed manufacturing without the risk of a poor experience. Using and improving supplier score has meant our rate of payment for those submitting an order has increased from 72% to now 86%.


Pricing automation

Offering lots of technologies is a huge benefit to distributed manufacturing, but creating a coherent way to price them is a major challenge we’ve had to overcome as the platform’s grown. Pricing all these materials and technologies was traditionally done manually by the machine operator who would look at the technology, the need for supports and total volume of the model.

We developed an intelligent pricing tool that uses the CAD file to instantly give a price per technology and per supplier based on clear parameters set by this supplier. At the same time of using the printability analyser, the design is rotated in various ways to make an estimation of the support material that will be needed. This support material calculation is then added to the total. This process was normally done by the supplier who would download the model, put it into specific software to calculate support and then update the order with a new price, we now do this automatically. The number of orders that needed a price change after it was submitted got reduced by 85%.

The Future of Distributed Manufacturing

Distributed manufacturing provides an abundance in every sense of the word; suppliers, materials and technologies. Protolabs Network job as the platform to support this has been to bring this abundance into one place that helps you make the most of distributed manufacturing. Whether that’s helping you check your files before printing, finding the right material for your project or guiding you to the right Hub. With continued machine improvements providing unparalleled quality control from the cloud, we see a future of centralised quality control with decentralised production.

The changes that have developed the Protolabs Network platform and evolved it into the 1,000,000 part producing platform it is today, is down to the brilliant team members past and present behind it, its passionate community of Protolabs Network who never fail to provide insightful feedback at every turn, and it’s supportive investors.

Our near future goal is to have custom parts delivered in all major digital manufacturing technologies and every common material in less than 24 hours, everywhere. Now that we have proven that distributed manufacturing is possible with 3D printing, it’s time to do the same with other manufacturing technologies. Our next step is to add CNC machining and build a global network of suppliers (already live), bringing us one step closer to our vision of local manufacturing.


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