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Manufacturing speed, agility can help solve supply disruptions

Jul 08, 2023

Black swan events, ongoing challenges demand more responsive, nimble supply sources

It's been a tough few years for companies manufacturing products. Black swan events and ongoing challenges from the aftermath of those events have upended supply chains, and these problems seem never-ending.

As a supply manager, you know the list well. There are potential geopolitical challenges facing the sourcing of raw materials. China, for example, controls most of the world's production of cobalt, which is vital to the lithium batteries found in electric vehicles. Then, there are logistics and transportation issues such as shipping container and truck driver shortages. And of course, there's COVID-19—are we post-pandemic yet? Did I neglect to mention, the Russia-Ukraine War, which is now in its second year. The list goes on.

This litany of almost constant supply chain challenges, as noted in this timely survey conducted by our digital network team at Hubs, underscores a growing need for companies to find fast and nimble suppliers that can successfully navigate these challenges.

In the world of manufacturing, we at Protolabs see more companies turning to digital manufacturing services because we can deliver speed, agility, and both regional and global supply capabilities.

Digital manufacturers are fast, and at Protolabs, this speed is enabled by technology. Let me explain the process.

Start by getting a price quote for a part using our full e-commerce platform at I have an IT colleague who likes to call it the Amazonification of the manufacturing industry.

Using e-commerce for ordering parts has made the experience as easy as buying a book or Bluetooth speaker on Supply chain managers, product designers, engineers, and others can carry out the process quickly and on demand. Our manufacturing e-commerce system allows for customization and real-time revisions of a part's design, as it moves through the quoting, design review, ordering, and manufacturing processes.

We connect that automated front-end price quoting to every stage in the part or product lifecycle through a real-time digital thread, a continuous stream of data, which is made possible by a tech-enabled, automated, and connected infrastructure. In other words, the technology seamlessly links up the front-end ordering process to the back-end physical machines networked on the manufacturing floor.

The result? Manufacturing is accelerated. Turnaround is fast. You get price quotes in hours and custom parts in days. In many cases, it means we deliver on-demand production service, not unlike the on-demand standard we’ve all come to expect in these days of ridesharing, mobile banking, and of course, online shopping.

Companies needing manufacturing suppliers will either work directly with a manufacturer or find one through a network of suppliers. Let's make it simpler: At Protolabs we offer you both options for greater flexibility.

First, as a digital manufacturer, we directly offer four manufacturing services: injection molding, CNC machining, 3D printing (additive manufacturing), and sheet metal fabrication. Within 3D printing, we support six additive manufacturing options. A range of industries use all of these services for producing parts, including sectors such as aerospace, automotive, medical/health care, and consumer products.

As a digital manufacturing network, we can offer even more production capabilities. Our network team at Hubs works with a highly vetted group of 250 manufacturers worldwide to match companies with suppliers.

Finally, in our supply chain universe, there has been a lot of discussion about the breakdown of world markets, of offshoring vs. onshoring, of international vs. regional suppliers. At Protolabs, our goal is to merge the best of both worlds via a hybrid model.

What do I mean? The hybrid approach allows us to serve as a one-stop manufacturer to meet your timeline, volume, pricing and capability needs. If speed is not of the essence, our international network of manufacturers may be the best option to deliver on your priorities. Sometimes, that option can take advantage of lower piece-part costs, which is the prime reason many companies look overseas in the first place. At the same time, you can use regional suppliers like our quick-turn, U.S.-based digital factories when it makes sense, letting you take advantage of a supply source that's closer to the point of production and consumption.

The result of combining the best of both worlds is that our customers benefit from a fast and agile supply source, thereby strengthening their overall supply chain.

Bernie Henderson is the Director of Global Procurement at Protolabs. She has more than 20 years of supply chain management experience across several industries. Henderson holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn

High Tech Delivers Speed to Power On-Demand Production Agility Through a Manufacturing Platform of Options Best of Both Worlds: Regional and Global Supply Strategies