Protolabs: the changing face of digital manufacturing
The global manufacturing industry is undergoing a transformation every bit as sweeping and profound as the one that took place over 200 years ago, when cottage industry gave way to coal-powered factories and the Industrial Revolution swept around the world. Thanks to meteoric advances in information technology and business practice, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is set to remake the way things are manufactured on a scale unseen for centuries. For the last 20 years, one company has been squarely at the forefront of this tidal wave of change. “We're the leader in digital manufacturing, in part because we were invented that way,” says Vicki Holt, President and CEO of Protolabs. Based in Minnesota, Protolabs is one of the world’s fastest turnaround digital manufacturers of small, mixed batch prototyping solutions.
Founded in 1999 by entrepreneur Larry Lukis, Protolabs (then called Protomolds) was born from his frustration with the slow process of acquiring custom injection molded parts. Gathering a group of software engineers and machinists, Lukis would go on to reinvent not only the process by which injection molding is executed, but also the customer experience associated with it. “He automated all of the front-end engineering associated with making a custom part using software,” says Holt. “When you look at how much time it takes to actually make a part, a big portion of the work is that upfront engineering where you have to put thought into how you're going to make that part. We've automated that process with software, which is what makes us so unique.”
One of Protolabs’ key differentiators is the way in which it engages and interacts with its customers. “We're 100% e-commerce, which in a B2B world is a little bit unusual, and very unusual in the world of injection molding and CNC machining,” Holt explains. “Making sure we've got the best e-commerce experience and can service tens of thousands of industrial customers efficiently with an awesome experience is really important to us.”
The model has proved a success. Today, from its eight facilities located in five countries, Protolabs provides CNC machining, injection molding, sheet metal fabrication and 3D printing services to industry-leading enterprises worldwide. “We're operating at the cusp of this industrial revolution that's taking place,” says Holt. “We're in a great position to help other manufacturers take a look at how they can take advantage of information technology and software in their manufacturing processes.” Holt sat down to discuss the strategies Protolabs is using to create and maintain its competitive advantage, and how it is meeting the challenges of an industry being reshaped by consumer demand and technological advancement.
Holt has worked in manufacturing for over 40 years. Working first for the solution spinoff arm of Monsanto before stints at industrial giants like PPG Industries and Spartech, she later arrived at Protolabs in 2014. “When this opportunity first came across my desk, I wasn’t sure. It was a smaller company compared to the other ones I'd run, but when I took a deeper look at Protolabs, the more I realized that this is the most intriguing business I have ever been involved in,” she enthuses. Protolabs specializes in creating hyper-customizable prototype parts for companies in need of hyper-specialized manufacturing builds.
In 2014, the company was one of the first digital manufacturers to launch an industrial 3D printing service. The versatility of the medium suits the company down to a tee and, true to form, Protolabs is approaching the process in its own way. “We're very differentiated in the way we approach 3D printing,” she explains. “We focus on the industrial engineer and are completely technology agnostic in the sense that we select the 3D printing technologies that are best for the industrial engineer and we will work with the engineer to determine which type of technology is best for them to make their part depending on what they're trying to do with the part. Then we make very high-quality 3D printed parts with a broad range of materials.”
The added versatility of 3D printing is perfectly suited to the hyper-specialized builds Protolabs is known for, and constant technological advances mean the company is always expanding its offerings to keep pace with new frontiers of possibility. In June 2019, Protolabs announced the launch production capabilities for 3D printing using metal. The added tensile strength, dimensional accuracy and cosmetic appearance of metal parts has lead to clients using Protolabs prints for production parts rather than just prototypes. “We're starting to see a lot of interest in the aerospace and medical device areas, where people are taking advantage of the full design freedom that you get from 3D printing in order to create something very unique,” says Holt.
Even with the advantages of a 20-year track record in digital manufacturing, the landscape today is not without its challenges. “I think people have this idea of manufacturing as a dirty, dark assembly line – like it was in the old days,” says Holt. “Today, it’s a high tech, exciting place to work with lots of change.” She emphasizes that attracting talent, helping young people entering the workforce to understand how vibrant and exciting the space is, has become a mission-critical priority for Protolabs. The need for top talent is only emphasized by the second big challenge in the industry – something that Holt notes is sweeping through every business ecosystem: the accelerating pace of change.
However, generational transformation appears to be on her side. “One of the main trends right now in the manufacturing sector is very short product life cycles,” she explains. “People expect improvements at a pretty fast clip these days. So, being able to very quickly design, prototype, and launch products is a critical success factor for manufacturers.” In addition to short production cycles, consumer demand for quick delivery and customizability is fast becoming in vogue. Thankfully, Protolabs’ unique business model in the manufacturing space looks to put it in good stead as generational change permeates the industry.
“The younger people, in particular, are very accustomed to 100% e-commerce. They expect to be able to buy a custom part over the internet,” Holt says. “That change helps our business because part of the challenge we’ve always faced is being a little different. We're not like a traditional manufacturer, so people and companies have to adapt to our process. Buying over the internet, which was different for so long, has grown so much. We've got demographics on our side with younger people moving into the workforce who are very accustomed to doing business digitally and over the internet.”
Looking to the future, Holt believes that Protolabs’ future is bright. “We continue to grow. Every year we're adding more and more product developers to our user base,” she concludes. “It's just a matter of driving that awareness and then seeing how easy it is to use us and how much value we can deliver to our clients.”
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.