Ex-BMW chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim once said in the 1990s: "The big will not eat the small, but the fast ones will overtake the slow ones." CEO of Laboratory Automation Specialist GLP systems Dr Robert Hecht cites Kuenheim only too happily because with this motto he is on the way to becoming the world leader in laboratory automation. It didn’t take him more than two years and his ace up his sleeve is the rapid parts manufacturer Proto Labs and its rapid injection moulding service, Protomold.
Still today, GLP systems in Hamburg looks like a recent start-up company: cartons in the hallway, people flock to the coffee machine, spartan offices and everywhere young and dynamic people welcome you as a new member of the team. But moving through the modern office complex and entering the "Labs", everything becomes clear: this is far from a start-up.
Nevertheless, the CEO Dr Robert Hecht, keeps up this founder-spirit. “He had a lot of decisive battles and long decision ways to pass when he was working for a group of companies in the past. During this time, he developed the first small automation devices for single workstations and supplied a large laboratory, whose owner, Dr André von Froreich, dealt with chain-free transport systems. The 70-year-old lab chief found in Dr Robert Hecht the ideal companion in order to help developing his idea. As a learned veterinary and mechanical engineer, he had the perfect mix.
Intelligent laboratory "cars" instead of dumb chains
"Primarily, it's about the stability of the system. If the engine of a chain system fails, the whole plant fails. In a large laboratory you can get up to 20,000 samples in four hours. The backlog would be enormous. Our system uses single transporters, called cars, in a guide groove. Each car has its own engine and corresponding sensors to become self-aware and make their way to its destination. If a car fails, this has no effect on the basic function of the overall system”, said Dr Hecht. In early 2011 the idea was born and now two years later, the company is just about to become a world leader.
"How do I get quickly to 100 plastic parts?"
Dr Hecht in sees the service provided by Proto Labs as very important. "We use Proto Labs to achieve stunningly fast development cycles. What another company does in seven years, we can do in just two. Using SolidWorks 3D CAD, I am able to realise in no time at all my designs for the body of the cars and the tracks. My next task was: how do I get 100-200 plastic parts for the chassis of our cars—fast. While rapid prototyping models help me only in terms of geometry adjustment, I needed proper insight into the materials and their frictional abrasive pairing of chassis and rail to help reduce abrasion."
Ingenious feasibility analysis within a day
"What is awesome is that I get from Proto Labs, within a day, a quote for the Protomold service and an analysis of my design for injection moulding production complete with visual display and clear information. For laymen looking to develop plastic parts this is almost paradisiacal, as you learn a lot very quickly. On top of all that, the analysis is completely free of charge and with respect to the material choice, I can only advise everyone to contact the excellent customer service team at Proto Labs. This is not an anonymous internet platform, there are plastic specialists with whose help I have been able to meet and overcome any challenge!"
Cheap tools allow leap
"With Proto Labs and Protomold, our revision cycle has drastically reduced. For the cars, I have four tools. Despite the fact the first batch were absolutely practical, the other three contained small changes that might otherwise not have made because of the cost of tooling. The cost of the four tools from Protomold came in below €10,000 and, even more impressively, within 15 working days I had the perfect solution. Ultimately the decision to use Protomold was based overall on the calculation of the price for parts together with the price for the tool price and the savings in development time. With standard tooling, I have a high initial investment that is not open for change, so leading to high costs. Even with Proto Labs, if I choose an enhanced delivery at extra cost, it is worth it because of the development time we save. "Time to market" are the keywords. While others are still testing and developing, we can sell our products already at a highly mature stage. We can even manufacture ourselves holders for caps, work supports, pipe plugs and other small parts using Proto Labs. With the simple system and high reliability of delivery, we are encouraged more and more to have things made by Proto Labs."
"To date we have finished about 20 tools associated with production batch sizes of around 1,000 parts,” added Dr Hecht, “We're shooting for production numbers next year of 20-40,000 parts, but even if we reach the 100,000 number I would strongly consider Proto Labs as a supplier. The other thing I like is any tool is simply replaced when worn. I pay—after a single tool—only for the parts and so do not have to worry about the storage, maintenance and care of the tool. With a supplier like Proto Labs, I place no value on the ownership of the tool."
The fast time to market the product has attracted worldwide attention in the industry. "Our performance has been so great that an international diagnostics company has taken notice of us is now taking delivery of an installation. The company from Australia asked us to design a system that would run over two floors. I developed a sort of spiral staircase for the cars,” smiled Dr Hecht.
Delivery reliability brings customers
"The reliability of Proto Labs in terms of delivery time and parts price has a direct impact on our competitiveness. No one else can get quotes and parts to us so quickly. The customer and the competition are often stunned at how quickly we, as GLP systems react. Our goal, to be the world leader in our specialist field, has therefore come within reach. On average, we are three years ahead of the competition. This immense advantage we owe in large part Proto Labs, which is why we believe we could not deliver any future project without this service."