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Protolabs: Pivoting Production for the Front Line

Protolabs is collaborating with its partners to produce millions of parts for COVID-19 virus-fighting applications.

As we navigate the extraordinary challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has created, I’ve been incredibly impressed with how the manufacturing industry is stepping up wherever it is needed around the world to bring solutions and agility to the medical community. The swift pivot the industry has made to refocus innovation and manufacturing know-how on this crisis has been inspiring. I’ve really never seen anything like this in my more than 30 years in manufacturing.

At Protolabs, we established a COVID-19 Task Force early on. The top priority was the health and safety of our employees, communities, and customers. We also made a Protolabs COVID-19 Commitment with three key elements: remain fully operational (deemed an essential business, all our locations in the U.S., Europe, and Japan remain open); prioritize COVID-19-related orders and needs; and temporarily wave expedite fees for COVID-19-related orders.

In our manufacturing facilities, we initiated new cleaning and sanitizing standard operating procedures, plus new shift-change and break-time procedures to minimize employee interaction and achieved social distancing with new employee workstation layouts. Our non-manufacturing employees globally transitioned to working remotely. About 90% of those employees were working from home within three days. Being a digital, ecommerce-based company certainly helped us react extremely fast.

We’ve partnered with a variety of companies to produce parts for face shields, ventilators, respiratory masks, test kits, and more. We already have orders for, or have shipped, more than 4 million parts with COVID-19 virus-fighting applications from over 150 customer companies.

For example, Zverse is a manufacturer that came to us initially for thousands of injection-molded headbands that attach to protective face shields for health care workers on the front lines. We continue to work with the company, which expects to produce 20 million face shields by July. 

Accelerating innovation to help save lives is really at the core of all of these efforts.

Also, Dr. Stephen Richardson, a cardiac anesthesiologist at the University of Minnesota, had an idea for a low-cost, easy-to-assemble ventilator. We helped get him machined prototypes in three days. He received emergency FDA approval shortly thereafter and we are now working to scale this to production. One news outlet called this joint effort “going full-on MacGyver.”

And in partnership with Ventec and GM, we’re 3D printing and shipping thousands of production parts for Ventec’s critical-care ventilators.

Cross-industry examples abound of many companies pivoting to fight COVID-19. Ford, with design consultation from 3M, developed a new powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR). The automotive giant is also manufacturing reusable gowns from airbag materials with supplier Joyson Safety Systems. And Medtronic recently made design files for its PB ventilator system available to the public with the hope that engineers and others will use this intellectual property to inspire their own potentially lifesaving innovations.

The list of innovative companies leveraging digital manufacturing for quick-turn production of critical parts and products continues to grow. Accelerating innovation to help save lives is really at the core of all of these efforts and it is also central to our company’s mission as a digital manufacturer of custom parts. We help companies large and small fast-track innovation, rapidly moving those ideas from design to commercialization.

We’ve worked with thousands of medtech companies for many years, so we’re especially proud to now work with new medical customers, as well as our existing partners ,on COVID-19-related parts and products.

Of course, anytime a company is hit with a crisis, you first respond as quickly and as best as you can, and then you reflect on what you’ve learned and plan for the future. The playbook for the pandemic has not been created so we’re writing it now, and it’s evolving as we, as an industry, continue to learn more. 

I’m proud of the role our industry is playing in the fight against this global pandemic.

Two key lessons come to my mind:

Leverage ecommerce: companies in the B2B world are learning pretty quickly that ecommerce can be very efficient and effective, especially now, as so many of us are working remotely. Engineers, designers, procurement managers, and executives are learning we can conduct business digitally. Digital audits can approve suppliers. Quality data can be exchanged in real time between suppliers and manufacturers. Production processes themselves can all be done via manufacturing software automation and the connected digital thread—a prime example of M4.0 technologies in action.

Bolster supply chains: no question that during this crisis supply chains have been disrupted. Companies will need to be more flexible and take the risk out of long, complicated supply chains. Digital manufacturing combines manufacturing scale with reliable, fast lead times that enable companies to quickly adapt to market demands and unforeseen forces in their supply chains, such as our current pandemic. Additionally, opting for regional suppliers when possible can be an effective way for companies to mitigate risk and not be blocked by global disruptions.

It’s not superfluous to say we’re facing a truly unprecedented medical, public health, and economic crisis. Accordingly, this crisis requires unprecedented solutions, like the kind of work our company and the entire manufacturing industry is now delivering. Moving forward, I’m proud of the role our industry is playing in the fight against this global pandemic.   M

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