The digitization of design, coupled with advanced manufacturing processes, is changing the manufacturing industry.
Courtesy of Proto Labs
By Andrew Zaleski
August 28, 2015

When Dassault Systemes started signing up companies for a “manufacturing network” last year, it had one idea in mind: let software eat the assembly line. Or, at the very least, let software begin to shift the manufacturing industry from one focused solely on a final product to one that equally emphasizes quick design and prototyping services.

To that end, it launched MySolidWorks in February. (The name, of course, refers to Dassault subsidiary company SolidWorks, the company that produces the eponymous computer-aided design software in use by many in the manufacturing sector.) On MySolidWorks, a virtual network of about 60 companies are listed that specialize in CNC milling, injection molding, 3D printing, and sheet metal manufacturing. All SolidWorks users have access to the network. The network is a do-over of a similar sort of network Dassault (DASTY) had set up about five years ago, but this time manufacturers and users share the same online platform. It’s Dassault’s bid to connect the roughly 2.5 million users of its CAD software—and those using the 3MF file format—with manufacturers who can accept users’ designs, quote them a price, and then manufacture and ship a product prototype.

“The goal here is to allow our users to use our software to design products, like in the auto, construction, and other industries,” says Andreas Kulik, director of product portfolio and business development at Dassault. “They use our products to design projects they’re working on, and then you get to manufacturing what the engineers design and testing it out, making sure it meets specifications.”

In other words: close the gap between design and manufacturing, especially advanced forms of it like 3D printing. Use software to shorten the time it takes between designing a prototype and manufacturing it, while attempting to save money in the process by having a large number of potential manufacturers from which to choose. Right now the listed manufacturers, which are Dassault customers with subscriptions, are limited to North America. However, Dassault plans to open up the manufacturing network on MySolidWorks internationally in Q4 of this year.

“It becomes kind of like the Yelp of manufacturing services, user-reviewed and -rated,” says Kulik. “We’re closing the bridge to: how can I find somebody who can build something for me at the right price?”

This is manufacturing as a service, says Kulik, which sounds like software as a service for a reason. Contract manufacturing has always been a service, but what’s changing the manufacturing industry now is the digitization of design. In a matter of hours, sometimes minutes, companies or individual customers who need a prototype manufacturing—and can’t do so in-house—can have a quote prepared outlining the exact production costs based on nothing more than a CAD design.

“This might not seem like a big deal if you buy a lot on Amazon, but I can tell you this doesn’t really exist very much in manufacturing,” says Robert Bodor, vice president and general manager of the Americas for Proto Labs. “This kind of instant feedback is very valuable.”

Indeed, so valuable that Proto Labs was chosen by Dassault as the launch partner when it debuted MySolidWorks in February. Based in Minnesota, the publicly-traded Proto Labs (PRLB) uses injection molding and other additive manufacturing processes to create custom prototypes and low-volume production parts. (The company recently made Fortune’s list of the 100 fastest-growing companies.) Using proprietary software algorithms, Proto Labs can receive a CAD file, evaluate the designed part in that file—the geometrics, the pathways cutting tools will have to make, and so on—and return precise manufacturing quotes to potential customers.

“We virtually manufacture the part in a matter of minutes to hours in a supercomputer cluster. Then we’re able to generate thousands of quotes a day for customers in a short period of time, and [you] get a quote that’s very precise because we’ve calculated what it’s going to cost to make that part,” says Bodor. “So we’ve cut a lot of manual labor out of quoting and the manufacturing design process.”

Embedding software into the manufacturing process allowed Proto Labs to generate quotes for more than 10,000 developers in the last quarter of 2014. Being listed on MySolidWorks—having access to potentially thousands more customers—the company now expects to push its annual revenues from roughly $210 million to $1 billion. Kulik thinks MySolidWorks can drive similar growth for other manufacturers listed on the platform, while simultaneously making it more convenient for individuals and companies to have product prototypes designed. Before any part heads to mass production, a quote from a MySolidWorks partner should be able to tell a user how much it costs and how long it takes to machine a certain part.

“The manufacturing network is a strategic initiative for us,” Kulik says. “We want to make users more productive; we don’t want users to experience barriers.”

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