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21 sep 2021

Podcast: Accelerating digital manufacturing, with Protolabs

Welcome to the third episode of our new investing podcast, One Step Ahead , brought to you by Lyxor ETF.

What better topic for our third episode than 3D printing? In this episode, Libby Potter explores the future of manufacturing, learning how ground-breaking techniques such as 3D printing and digitally accelerated manufacturing are disrupting supply chains and manufacturing processes across industries – from aerospace and automotive, to medical devices and electronics.

To help us understand these disruptive technologies, Libby is joined by guests Robert Bodor, President & CEO, and Bjoern Klaas, VP & Managing Director, from Protolabs. They explain how these advanced technologies present entirely new possibilities in the efficient design, prototyping and large-scale production of parts, and even have potential to create more sustainable end-products.

The episode was introduced by Robert Harrison, Professor of Automation Systems and Head of the Digital Technologies Directorate at Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick, who helped set the scene with his perspective on Industry 4.0.

Diana

Robert Bodor     
President and CEO, 

Protolabs

Marg

Bjoern Klaas
Vice President & Managing Director EMEA,

Protolabs Europe

Below are a few edited highlights from the episode. You can listen to the full episode on your favourite podcast platform (including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher) or right here on the Lyxor ETF website:

Libby: Rob, this is a whole new sector for me — a whole new world, in fact. Could give me a bit of an overview about where we are in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 and how, if in any way, has the pandemic affected the sort of evolution of that sector?

Rob: It goes by many names, but this is really about the digitalisation of manufacturing, a trend that's been going on for many years. There are really two key thrusts: there's the ‘front end’, which is about e-commerce and using the internet for transactions between businesses. And then there's the ‘back end’, which is about the transformation of the manufacturing process and incorporating internet technologies, and industrial IoT [Internet of Things] devices throughout the manufacturing process, and in other areas within the network to capture data – often referred to as ‘big data’ because there's a lot of it – and wrapping learning around it such that we can transform how we do manufacturing in the presence of this more intelligent system.

You mentioned the pandemic and the impact of that. I think it’s caused the greatest shock to the supply chain that we've had in a generation. And on the ‘front end’, the big impact that we've seen is a dramatic increase in B2B [business to business] use of e-commerce to transact. McKinsey believes that it sped up the adoption by 3-4 years versus what the trend had been. 

Bjoern, where does Protolabs fit into all this? 


Bjoern: Protolabs is about exactly around what Robert said, digitalising front end and also the manufacturing process behind that. The idea goes back 20 years: trying to improve the process of the speed of how we get to [design/manufacture] a part fast. The nature of it was then to digitalise the process – and not only the manufacturing, but also the design in the first place. That is the cradle we came from, and we have been evolving in that direction for over 20 years now.


Rob: If I could just add, Protolabs was a real leader in the digital space. As Bjoern said, founded two decades ago with the mission of manufacturing injection moulds and moulded parts in days – targeting prototype applications and engineers. But the way we did that was by reinventing the manufacturing process, combining the physical manufacturing process with software technology, with internet technology, which was brand new at that time, and automating the process of going from a CAD file [the design that designers shape into the part they need] to making first parts very, very quickly – within a day – by removing a lot of the waste.


Rob, can you tell us how Protolabs uses technologies such as CNC machining, 3D printing, sheet metal fabrication and traditional injection molding? And can you offer a bit more context around those services, and who would need them? 


Rob: We can offer plastic and metal parts of a broad range to our customers who are OEMs [Original Equipment Manufacturers], manufacturers, companies who are making products. And throughout the lifecycle as they are making those products, they need to test, validate, prototype, and then bring to production products of all kinds.

Our largest segments are medical devices – we make a lot of products to support medical devices. Aerospace, automotive, computer electronics, industrial equipment – those are all large segments for us. So think about companies like rocketry companies who are launching satellites into orbit. Think about companies who are making electric vehicles. Think about companies who are making drones. Think about companies who are making computer electronics projects, VR headsets, medical devices of all kinds, including some implantable. During Covid-19, we made 20 million parts or more for products that fought Covid-19, whether those were test kits or ventilators or respirators or face masks or those kinds of things.


Can you talk to me a bit about 3D printing and the sustainability aspect? Is that something that you were aware of prior to entering the space, or something that you've had to push? 


Bjoern: Sustainability is very important to us. We offer our customers speed and a virtual inventory, which means faster and digitally manufactured parts. With a more reactive and a more flexible supply of parts, the customer doesn’t need to keep inventories on site, which means less space used at their end and mitigates the risk of obsolescence [of old inventory]. Less space means a smaller [physical] footprint and lower CO2 footprint as well.

For additive manufacturing, 3D printing has digitalisation in its nature and with how it's built – layer on layer on layer – it uses less material. This reduced material use is also in the parts which are themselves reusable or at least recyclable. So, the energy uptake, the material uptake is much lower in additive manufacturing.

A good example is in aerospace. Aerospace engineers are always looking for ways to reduce weight. There's a figure which I like to quote: each kilo saved in the flying object such as a plane will reduce CO2 emissions by 25 tons in their lifetime. That's a significant reduction. 3D printing enables the designers to do exactly that, and reduce weight by sometimes up to fifty-five percent. In aerospace we now see the first flying parts which are doing exactly that.


Bjoern, we’ve talked a little bit about the type of products you make and the type of companies you work with, but what sort of 2021 trending products are you making the most of right now?

Expect us to be in those trends which need speed! That's basically what I would shout at you. Some of them are particularly around automotive in regards to autonomous and electric vehicles. Their time to market is currently really of essence. Design risks apply because there's many, many different vehicles being tested, being brought forward. And also the volatility of demand is rather very imminent because of government impact and government subsidies for those vehicles and so on and so forth, which drive demand up faster than you can usually ramp.

Recent studies in that market also show that for electric vehicles, when they approach a price point where they are equivalent to combustion engine vehicles, which is currently taking place all around Europe, and with legislation also changing for example with the EU saying that by 2035, the electric vehicle will be the only vehicle and combustion vehicles should not be allowed, there could be a 20 fold growth for electric vehicles by 2025. 

Catch up on the rest of the conversation in the full episode of One Step Ahead.

We hope you’ll join us in upcoming episodes for more exclusive and unfiltered expert insights on the future of the planet – and how we can invest in a better future. 


Relevant ETFs

At the time of this podcast recording, Protolabs was a holding in our SFDR 8 compliant Lyxor MSCI Disruptive Technology ESG Filtered (DR) UCITS ETF (Bloomberg ticker: UNIC) and Lyxor MSCI Digital Economy ESG Filtered (DR) UCITS ETF (ticker: EBUY). It was also held in the index tracked by our Lyxor Robotics & AI UCITS ETF (ticker: ROAI).

Learn more about our Thematic ETFs

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