Manufacturing 4.0 is more than a lofty notion: It’s changing the landscape of manufacturing as we know it, and that’s a good thing, said Vicki Holt, president and CEO of Protolabs, during the CAMX 2019 general session on Tuesday. “Technology and digitization can bring value to the products we make, can bring value to the workplace of our employees and can bring efficiencies to our plants,” she said.

Founded 20 years ago, Protolabs is a manufacturer of custom prototypes and on-demand production parts with manufacturing facilities in five countries. It pushes the envelope of digital manufacturing to accelerate product development, reduce costs and optimize the supply chain. Holt shared her insight on how to harness manufacturing 4.0.

“The revolution is an evolution. It has been built on a lot of things that have come in the past,” said Holt. For instance, the growth of programmable logical controllers on plant floors for process controls in the 1960s and 70s were preambles for the type of digitization we have in manufacturing today. Even lean manufacturing is a precursor because it helps ensure you aren’t digitizing a process that has a lot of waste in it.

“All the work we’ve done as manufacturers sets us up for this industrial revolution. But we are at the early stages,” said Holt. “If you think you can sit on the sidelines and not be part of this manufacturing revolution, I think you are wrong. It will happen all around us, and we need to take advantage of the tools and think about how to use them to bring value into our businesses.”

Holt shared 5 tools that are impacting manufacturing:

  • Data Analytics and Computing Power – “Today, with all the data we can collect and the relatively inexpensive computing power that we’ve got, we can very quickly analyze a lot of data and put it through very complicated pattern recognition algorithms using multiple variables,” said Holt. Protolabs uses data to improve its efficiencies, optimize tool pathing, reduce waste and more.

  • Augmented Reality – “Virtual reality is a tool many of us can use in our businesses,” said Holt. Protolabs utilizes it in its sheet metal business to train welders. Some companies use it to do jobs more safely and efficiently, such as checking out large pieces of equipment before they are shipped to customers.

  • Automation – “Automation has been around for a really long time, and it’s not going away,” said Holt. “Robotics, sensors and co-bots – those that work right along an operator – are only going to grow.”

  • Industrial 3D Printing – 3D printing represents about 13% of Protolabs sales revenue, and it’s growing faster than the company’s other services. “We are leaning into 3D printing,” said Holt. “We think it’s a great tool for manufacturers across all industry verticals.”

  • B2B E-commerce – “I believe business-to-business e-commerce is a huge opportunity for the manufacturing space,” said Holt. “When you can connect with your supply chain digitally it takes out errors, you have a single record and a digital thread for quality purposes, and you always know you’ve got the right version because everything is digitally connected.” Protolabs uses a 100% e-commerce business model.