October 5, 2020

8 insightful answers in less
than 8 minutes

Internet of Business’ IoB 8×8 Series is designed to reveal more about the people who have helped shape IoB’s live event and digital content over the years, picking the key industry brains who have dedicated time to educating peers. 

Rich Baker, CTO at Protolabs explains the opportunities now afforded to manufacturers in the remote world, and which technologies they should look towards when accelerating plans for their future factory floor.

IoB: Can you introduce Protolabs in one sentence?
R: Protolabs is the most convenient way to quickly get custom-designed parts—period.

IoB: How are you helping manufacturers in their digital transformation journey?
R: We streamline the purchasing process by capturing all the requirements from a single digital source and return a clear picture of the part that will be delivered. We minimize the back-and-forth between engineers, purchasing, manufacturing engineers, quality engineers in a concise digital transaction, and the result is consistent quality, pricing, and lead times.

IoB: How do additive technologies generally fit into manufacturers’ plans?
R: Our customers are busy discovering the highest value use cases and correct materials for their applications. Everyone likes the design flexibility, not always the cost or materials with 3D printing. However, we offer an array of plastic-like and metal materials with developed processes to make it easy to try lots of options. We take care of the process development so our customers get the highest quality additive parts on the first try. They can focus on the design and their specific application.

IoB: What are the most common challenges you see holding manufacturers’ digital transformation plans back?
R: One of the most acute is the focus on manufacturing as opposed to the entire transaction. Part requirements are often not fully understood, so companies put in requirements meant to freeze the process. The parts were proven to work and then they want to hold everything about manufacturing the same. This limits the ability to produce locally or single batches. 

IoB: What do you think has been COVID-19’s biggest impact on supply chains? 
R:  The COVID-19 disruption has made many aware of traditional supply chains’ inflexibility. Manufacturers have optimized so much for cost that it has increased the risk of not being able to respond to changing environments. Hopefully, we don’t have this level of disruption on a regular basis, but not having the ability to flex capacity with multiple suppliers is a big risk. This is particularly a risk when the disruption impacts an entire sector or area of the economy.

IoB: And what about how the pandemic has affected future factory floors?
R: Social distancing is a challenge for many manufacturers. Luckily for those who are fully digital, many roles can be performed remotely. This is a benefit, even Protolabs didn’t recognize until we needed to reduce the density of workers. Future factory floors will include easy remote access to people throughout the world. Troubleshooting a process problem on the third shift in the US may be a video chat and remote interaction with Germany. This opens up support models and access to labor that were never considered feasible. If we can support manufacturing operations from home, why not from around the world.

IoB:  Which emerging technologies do you think will really accelerate digital manufacturing?
R: Remote monitoring seems quaint now. It is about to get a significant boost. We’re seeing entire factories with just a few people to handle physical tasks, while automation and decision making is handled remotely by people, supported by AI. The ability to use AI and data to predict and spot problems before any physical product is touched will drive tons of efficiency. Linking the manufacturing performance back to the front-end automation systems allows the AI system to improve over time. Problem-solving and production planning are effectively moving to the computer, usually in the Cloud, monitored by people in a different time zone.

IoB: And how can manufacturers best navigate the shift in work culture, and need for more diverse recruitment?
R: We need to rethink the term corporate culture and fit. It used to mean “a person who gets along well.” Too often that translated to a person who looks like me, talks like me, or shares my background. While that may be comfortable for those in the group—it is not good for everyone else and it’s not how Protolabs operates. Also, as we think about a distributed workforce, that definition needs to change. Employers need think about fit in terms of reinforcing self-awareness and openness to the fact that people on the other end of a video call have different experiences, which is a strength. The culture then needs to define teamwork as pulling together to achieve a result, rather than grabbing a beer after work. 

Rich Baker is the Chief Technology Officer at Protolabs. Prior to joining Protolabs, he served as CTO at PaR Systems where he led a team of 100, delivering unique manufacturing systems to a diverse set of industries. From 2005 to 2014, Baker helped grow MTS Systems from a $300 million to $600 million company, holding a variety of leadership roles during his tenure.