As an engineer, I can totally specify a part. Concept, shape, material . . . done! I can render in glorious 3D . . . . It almost looks like the real thing. I can tell if it will survive in the field with stress tests, or drop it in an assembly and find interferences or animate it. I have singlehandedly created this part from thin air for someone who didn’t know what they wanted until I made it. I am a god! I am living the dream.
Now, I want the part in my hands. The dream is interrupted. To get the part made, I have to hand my design over, convey the part to mere mortals, in language they understand. Their machines that only they can talk to. I have to wait. And hope they get it right, not butcher it, not change it.
If only I could push a button and get the part!
Push button manufacturing could be the unsung lament of the mechanical design community. But as engineers, we dare not say it, voice it. We are not supposed to believe in magic — that a part can appear from our designs. We defer to our manufacturing counterparts for that. They need to specify the process, pick the right material and place the bits in the machine . . . right?
3D printing promised the dream of push-button manufacturing. We flocked to it, only to discover it usually couldn’t do the job. Materials are limited, plastic is weak, the chemicals are messy, it’s slower than grass growing. And the good 3D printers cost more than cars.
We are desperate. MarkOne stole the show with its composites part printer (see Best of Show). We’d been making composite parts for so long. But here was a chance to push a button to get a composite part — from the computer into my hands. No layups. No messy chemicals. No annoying humans. But Mark One is a one-trick pony. It only makes small carbon fiber parts.
Enter Proto Labs
There is one company with the imagination and purpose to make this push button manufacturing a reality.
Proto Labs, a Minnesota-based firm with multiple locations and thousands of machines (not just 3D printers), says it wants you to push a button and send it 3D part files. You get to select the material, the process, the quantity. The part lands on your desk a few days later. You’ll know upfront what it will cost. You don’t have to deal with anyone. Unless you want to. Proto Labs has manufacturing engineers who can step in to assist. They are like good waiters — invisible, but who pop up when needed.
Proto Labs tries to automate as much of the manufacturing process as it can. Its software will check for typical manufacturing mistakes (thin walls, overdrafts, etc.) and flag your design. You may never have to call on a live manufacturing engineer. As such, it comes closest to putting and manufacturing an engineer’s brain in your computer for a hands-off, rapid part creation — the closest thing to this-is-what-I-want-now-just-make-it push button manufacturing. For all of us Spock-types (RIP, Leonard Nimoy) for whom humans are puzzles, it can be a straight shot, a machine birth without human complications. At least some of the time.
For the design engineer who considers their part totally defined and ready, nothing at this moment would be simpler than sending their 3D part file to Proto Labs. No other company is as far down the road to push button manufacturing.
What about Autodesk and Delcam?
The biggest deal so far in the CAD/CAM world so far has been Autodesk and Delcam. With it came the promise that the worlds of 3D mechanical design would merge with part manufacturing. However, Autodesk remains scattered as to its approach to manufacturing. Delcam continues to exist as a separate manufacturing portfolio, its products operated by those on the manufacturing side, just as before. Though it adds to Autodesk’s top line, Autodesk is making little attempt to automate the manufacturing process from inside Inventor using any its acquired manufacturing software, either Delcam or HSMWorks — to create anything that resembles push button manufacturing. The closest Autodesk comes to push-button manufacturing is its 3D printer, one more in the growing sea of 3D printers available. And as with them all, it is a point solution in the spectrum of manufacturing possibilities.
All major CAD programs are tied up with CAM, somehow. Many are in 3rd party partner programs. Some CAM products are under the roof of CAD companies, yet they continue to be operated as separate camps. Autodesk maintains a third party CAM vendor list, though it has withered after its CAM acquisitions. SOLIDWORKS has its CAM partners, notably MasterCAM, GibbsCAM, CAMWorks, SolidCAM and others. PTC and Siemens also have long-standing, trusted CAM partners.
Despite CAD tie-ins, CAM exists as a specialized discipline. Few design engineers can hope to match knowledge with a manufacturing engineer, or even a machinist. It’s a whole different world, with machine code, speeds and feeds. It’s messy, the cutting fluids, chips are flying . . . . Engineers can scratch the surface of this world, many dabble in it, some even make a hobby of it, but in the end, our day job is at a desk with a workstation with design software.
Let’s Get Together
It’s been a while since we looked at Proto Labs (Get Real - Proto Labs One Off Parts Made with Actual Engineering Materials, Feb 10, 2011).
I am reminded of them at SOLIDWORKS World 2015, where it occurs to me that . . . Proto Labs could be the answer to my dreams! Push button manufacturing comes true!
But for push button manufacturing to happen, there has to be a merger of the companies. Proto Labs was the first SOLIDWORKS manufacturing networks partner (Proto Labs Joins MySolidWorks Manufacturing Network ). (Could this be a dance before that wedding?)
Proto Labs’ functions need to exist in a SOLIDWORKS menu, as SOLIDWORKS commands. SOLIDWORKS is already a common, comfortable interface to more than a million users. It is a trusted design tool. To take a part out of SOLIDWORKS and send it to Proto Labs still seems like throwing it over the wall, with the uncertainty of dealing with a new company, a new process. Getting a new vendor is work. To work inside of SOLIDWORKS, better than one of its Gold Partners, talk in the language of design engineers, not machinists, reduce the number of pop-up warnings one can get in Proto Labs, increase the automations with less back-and-forth . . . . This can only happen if the developers of both companies meet under one roof, with one goal: push button manufacturing from a CAD program.
Buy Proto Labs Already
|Proto Labs||Dassault Systemes|
|Annual Sales (2014)||$185M||$2.7B|
An acquisition by Dassault Systemes (SOLIDWORKS’ parent company) seems doable. Let’s say Proto Labs could be had for 3x revenue,* a very general rule of thumb for acquisition, its price would be $555M. DS is used to deals this size, having just paid $750M earlier this year for Accelrys, maker of molecular modeling software. It bought RTT, maker of visualization software at the end of 2013, which had about the same number of employees as does Proto Labs. It paid $350M for SOLIDWORKS in 1997, which judging from more recent acquisitions and SOLIDWORKS ongoing success, seems to have quite a bargain and its best deal ever.
The dream now has a happy ending. Both sides of the equation are solved. I imagine tens of millions of part orders raining down on Proto Labs from all of the SOLIDWORKS users, who now can go all the way to a physical part, rather than be interrupted by having to deal with a manufacturing process, which only slows them down. It gets better, if you can imagine. Their creativity unleashed, the engineers only too happy to be masters of their own destiny, create more, better designs, more often. Proto Labs can’t keep up and has to increase their capacity, buying more manufacturing machines, more 3D printers to meet demand as it is now handling the production from the vast majority of engineers out there. As Proto Labs has to ship physical parts to customers, it must locate its facilities to avoid borders, taxes and tariffs and reduce shipping costs. Engineers find that their designs are actually being manufactured in their own countries. Manufacturing returns to its own shores, rather than it being sent to cheap labor markets in Asia. It is the manufacturing of today, fast turnaround, one-offs and custom products, small production runs — but all done on a ridiculously large scale, as everyone becomes a manufacturer as manufacturing is suddenly accessible to all who have access to design software.
Will The Marriage Take Place?
Acquisitions are difficult to predict with any certainty. Applying a logic and reason or exposing a crying need is insufficient to close a deal. Companies do secret dances and engage in back room discussions which are never revealed. Often, a deal in the works can be derailed due to “cultural incompatibility,” greed (acquired company execs want to get too rich in the transaction), or some business issue. Even the most obvious matches-made-in-heaven just never happen and we never know why.
Software vendors, even big ones, are in the habit of saying “they are not in the hardware business” and Proto Labs is essentially a hardware company. As if saying that you would not want them to try to make a product they had no experience making, all the time planning acquisitions that lands them smack in an industry they know nothing about. (PTC buys Arbortext, Dassault buys Accelrys, Autodesk buys Socialcam, to name just a few). CAD companies refer to their products as “solutions.” But a real solution solves a problem or fills a need. The picture on the screen, no matter how pretty, is only a means to an end. An engineer needs a part he can hold and use. Design and manufacturing are interlinked to the point that neither can function without the other, yet both exist as pieces of the solution. A true CAD visionary with means needs to lead the way for Proto Labs acquisition — and practically everyone who uses CAD, now or in the future, will thank him.
*Should the CAD CEOs panic at the thought of being left behind, a bidding war for Proto Labs could increase the price well over 3x.