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Any opinions expressed in these blog posts by non-Proto Labs employees do not necessarily reflect the views of the Company.


Started From the Bottom Now We're Here: The Rise of 3D Printing

It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about the current state of manufacturing without mention of 3D printing, an additive process that uses digital CAD models to build physical, real-life objects, layer by layer. While additive manufacturing has existed for more than 30 years, it wasn’t until the last few that 3D printing, led by increased accessibility, has become the poster child for progressive technology within the industry — NASA prints telescope! Designers print runway pumps! Scientists bio-print human organs!

It’s undoubtedly an exciting time in manufacturing that has many eager to see what the future brings, but can the promise of a printed world withstand the heat? We deconstruct the layers of 3D printing to find the substance beneath the style.

The relationship between 3D printing and additive manufacturing is akin to Google and Web search or iPod and mp3 player. They’re essentially interchangeable with the former used much more frequently as an umbrella term that describes the latter. Technically, 3D printing refers to the process of building layered objects with an actual inkjet printer head; Z Corporation cleverly trademarked a process in the early 1990s called 3D printing (3DP), where a printer head solidifies powder layers with a liquid binder. However, a decade earlier, engineer Chuck Hull developed stereolithography (SL), which truly marked the dawn of 3D printing. Along with SL, which uses a fine laser to solidify layers of liquid thermoplastic resin, many other 3D printing technologies fall within additive manufacturing, namely:

  • Fused deposition modeling (FDM): spool of plastic filament or metal wire extruded from a nozzle into successive cross-sectional layers that form three-dimensional shapes
  • Selective laser sintering (SLS): thermoplastic nylon powder fused in layers to create solid objects
  • Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS): layers of atomized metal power fused to form fully dense metal objects
  • PolyJet (PJET): UV-curable photopolymers jetted by inkjet head, layer by layer, into final objects
  • Laminated object manufacturing (LOM): thin sheets of material cut and adhered together to form desired shapes
Read our complete cover story on 3D printing at protolabs.com/journal.

Medical Device Prototyping With A Manufacturing Hand From Proto Labs

Modern science has allowed surgeons to fix the human body amazingly fast, yet leave behind only small traces that repairs were performed. One of the more commonly used methods to achieve this is by a minimally invasive technique called laparoscopic surgery, where small incisions are made into a patient’s skin, a laparoscope is inserted to provide a magnified view of the patient’s organs, the procedure is performed, and the incision is closed by stitching or surgical staples. You can have your gallbladder removed before breakfast and be binge-watching Netflix from the comfort of your couch by dinner.

Typically, the small openings created during laparoscopic surgery are closed in one of two ways: manually stitching subcutaneously (beneath the skin) with a bio-absorbable, thread-like material and a curved needle that moves from one side of the hole to the other to close it tight, or with a surgical stapler that inserts metal staples into the skin to close the wound. The first technique is more time consuming, but leaves less surgical evidence. The latter method is faster, but can cause scarring and infection. Chuck Rogers, Ph.D., and Kenneth Danielson, M.D. of Massachusetts-based Opus KSD are nearing the launch of a device that combines the best of both worlds: the ease of a stapler with proprietary bio-absorbable subcutaneous fasteners.

“General surgeons are finding themselves under pressure because the user-friendly metal staplers that became very popular in the 1990s are not cost effective,” explains Rogers, CEO of Opus and longtime biomedical engineer. “When people really began doing cost analysis, the five minutes that a surgeon saved in the operating room did not compensate for the fact that their patient still had to come back to have the staples removed.”

Danielson approached Rogers with a concept for a new stapler and shortly thereafter the two began development on the SubQ It! skin closure system — a disposable, handheld surgical stapler that delivers bio-absorbable fasteners beneath the skin with one click of the device.

Check out our full case study on Opus’ SubQ It! stapler, and see how they used machined and injection-molded parts from Proto Labs to prototype the device’s entire thermoplastic assembly.


'Proposed Revision' Enhancement in ProtoQuote Makes Ordering Parts Even Easier

We hear it often: “How do I make my part moldable?” With the introduction of Proto Labs Proposed Revisions in our automated ProtoQuote® system, your part may qualify to receive our enhanced moldability analysis that automatically makes adjustments to areas like draft or wall thickness. Here’s how it works:

  • Upload a 3D CAD model of your part in any major file format.
  • If your part requires a simple amount of draft, a section is too thin or too thick, or other basic moldability modifications, we’ll generate an additional model for you to view directly in your ProtoQuote.
  • You can accept the new model or modify your original based on our moldability advisories.
  • If you accept our Proposed Revisions, you’re typically able to order parts right away; if you revise your original design, you can re-upload your model and we’ll send you a new quote within hours.

Our enhancement to ProtoQuote is designed to help you get better parts, faster. But keep in mind that more complex geometries and design modifications most likely won’t qualify for our automated Proposed Revisions, which is why we staff experienced Customer Service Engineers (877.479.3680) who can assist with any questions you have on how to improve your part’s moldability.


Red, White and Blue

The young lads on Team USA have had a solid showing in the World Cup. Taco Bell now has an amazing breakfast menu. The bald eagle is even undergoing a dramatic resurgence in the lower 48. What more could you ask out of America?!?

Well, raise those sparklers high in the air (like you just don’t care). Proto Labs is getting into the spirit of all things America! in the only way that a quick-turn manufacturing company filled with engineers can — by releasing new red, white and blue liquid silicone rubber color options. Obviously.

From the lakes of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee, and everywhere else, customers can now get LSR parts molded in these new colors in addition to Protomold purple, black and clear. All LSR colors are available in three durometers (3003/30 A/B, 3003/50 A/B and 3003/70 A/B) as we continue expanding our material and color options. LSR parts are strong and durable, like an old pair of blue jeans, and are frequently used in the automotive and medical industries as valves and seals.

If your injection-molding preferences lean less towards thermosets like LSR, and more towards thermoplastics, your menu of color options expands further. Protomold stocks more than 100 resins and about 45 different colorants. We can also add a 3-percent salt-and-pepper mix to white resin to provide additional colors (not an exact match, however).

Basically, it’s more material options in more colors, including the old red, white and blue in LSR. In the words of Lee Greenwood: “God Bless The U.S.A.!”

Have a great Independence Day.


Learn more about Proto Labs liquid silicone rubber molding services.


Checking In on Hockey and Manufacturing

Minnesota has formally dubbed itself “The State of Hockey,” a moniker that’s hard to argue with when the headquarters of Minnesota-based Proto Labs is brimming with hometown patriotism for its local team on the brink of advancing to the next round of the NHL playoffs. Hockey even shares some similar language with the manufacturing industry. Checking in hockey is a technique used to “stop or slow down the progress of something undesirable,” like Colorado Avalanche players. Checking in rubber components happens when “short, shallow surface cracks are caused by damaging action.” Both hockey and the molded rubber pucks that are used experience this disruptive nature of checking.

Proto Labs has had a long relationship with the athletic world. We’ve produced many parts for product developers who are changing the game with innovative sports products. We’ve made parts that help train tennis players, bring focus to batters awaiting fastballs, monitor oxygen levels in runners, train ballerinas and more. Our prototyping services help designers and engineers get parts quickly so they can test form, fit and function, make iterations if needed, and start field testing their products with actual athletes.

Our Journal cover story takes a look at why developing a product to compete in the sports market means first understanding the athlete it’s built for.