Ambition has a distinctive sound— and you can hear it if you step inside the newly renovated plant outside Plymouth, Minnesota. Proto Labs’ machines are running 24 hours a day, sculpting small bricks from dozens of different types of plastics and metals into parts that will serve as prototypes for the likes of Xerox, Northrop Grumman, Medtronic, Siemens and Ford. Most of the vast, echoing factory floor (166,000 sq ft) is empty. Not for long: Vicki Holt, the 56-year-old CEO, has big plans.
Holt was hired in February to turn Proto Labs from a $185 million (sales) rapid prototyping outfit into a billion-dollar technology powerhouse. Tall and lean, with her gamine blonde bob and elegant coat, she’s hardly a factory boss out of central casting. Holt insists Proto Labs isn’t a manufacturing company at all, though it runs six plants in the US, Europe and Japan. That’s because its entire process is automated. All but one of the analysts who follow the company now have it pegged as a tech play and, says Holt with a grin, the last guy is primed to switch soon.
“It’s a very large market out there,” says Holt, sitting in her unadorned office in Maple Plain, about 20 miles west of Minneapolis. She is sometimes given to banging her desk for emphasis while outlining her hoped-for trajectory for Proto Labs: An eventual $7 billion bite out of the $90-billion-a-year market in three continents. “Our sales are only $200 million, so you can see we’ve got a long way to go.” With that steep climb in mind, she’s picking her targets carefully, emphasising medical equipment, because the road to FDA approval requires a lot of iteration and testing, translating into orders for highly customised parts, and the lighting industry (since buildings are being retrofitted with LEDs but under tight regulation requiring many prototypes).
Proto Labs was conceived in frustration. Founder and inventor Larry Lukis was fed up with the months-long wait and high cost of a few injection-moulded parts for the laser printers he was designing. So he launched the Protomold Company in 1999, using software to automate the process for those parts. Soon, he began thinking outside of printers.
Engineers in consumer products, medical devices, appliances, electronics and automobiles started leaning on the company for quick turnaround of prototype parts made cheaply and precisely. Protomold became the go-to shop for rush orders before a trial or product test—as well as for small batches of parts for discontinued goods still in use and for new products, like a Xerox copier, being rushed to market. Customers could shoot their 3-D computer-aided designs over the web and get a quote in a few hours. Most larger competitors scorned such small-bore jobs. Lukis’ startup grew on average 25 percent per annum every year except recession-rocked 2009, when it folded in a computer-numerical control machining service and changed its name to Proto Labs.
“No one can really do what they do,” says Troy Jensen, an MD at Piper Jaffray. But he has one concern: The growing enthusiasm for 3-D printers. As more industrial companies embrace the devices—and the technology evolves beyond plastic to more durable materials like metal—more prototypes may be made in-house. Still, says Brian Drab, an analyst at William Blair, for speed, scale and cost, nothing beats injection moulding.
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(This story appears in the 28 November, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)