When digital manufacturer Proto Labs decided to add 3D printing to its services, the Minnesota-based company searched for a strategic opportunity to expand – and found more than it imagined in North Carolina.

A leader in the “Industry 4.0” manufacturing revolution, Proto Labs acquired Cary, N.C.-based FineLine Prototyping in 2014, and quickly saw 3D printing become its fastest growing line of business.

We have a fantastic workforce that really understands the transformation going on as more companies get connected and digitalize their manufacturing processes. – Vicki Holt, Proto Labs CEO

The company not only inherited FineLine’s 3D expertise, it also gained access to a pipeline of talent in a state long known for innovation in manufacturing. North Carolina’s positive business climate also helped persuade Proto Labs to invest $25 million in a state-of-the-art 3D production facility to expand its presence in the state.

“We have a fantastic workforce that really understands the transformation going on as more companies get connected and digitalize their manufacturing processes,” said Vicki Holt, Proto Labs’ CEO. “There’s also a steady stream of talent from the North Carolina colleges that can sustain our growth and bring new ideas. And North Carolina is a friendly state for doing business.”

Proto Labs helps companies innovate, partnering with engineers and product designers around the world to make prototype and production parts for a range of industries. It employs digital manufacturing technology to streamline and expedite CNC machining, injection molding and 3D printing. By automating much of the manufacturing process, Proto Labs can ship parts as soon as the same day designs are submitted.

Medical, computer technology and automotive sectors are leading customers. A North Carolina pharmaceutical company, for example, recently turned to Proto Labs for help producing a lever – using 3D printing – that would control the dosage of medicine dispensed from children’s inhalers.

“Companies everywhere are rethinking how they design and assemble products,” Holt said. “It’s crucial that we help people understand American manufacturing is a technology leader, so we can stay on the leading edge of this revolution.”

Drivers Behind Success

It’s rewarding to see a business that started here almost 20 years ago grow into a world leader in manufacturing. And it totally makes sense this would happen here – in a state built on manufacturing.

- Kenny Capps, plant manager

Proto Labs sees North Carolina as a key piece of its growth strategy. The state’s manufacturing workforce of 460,000 is the largest in the Southeast, and supports traditional industries such as furniture and textiles, as well as advanced manufacturing fields including aviation and aerospace, automotive, biotechnology, plastics and chemicals, and information technology.

“As manufacturers, we have to help develop talent and processes that will propel the growth we want to see in the digital age,” Holt said.

Proto Labs has tripled the size of its North Carolina operation, opening a 77,000-square-foot plant in 2016. The company also plans to more than double its workforce and has already hired dozens of people, from PhD-level engineers to high school graduates who are trained to be high-skill finishing operators.

Holt cites several factors for the venture’s success:

  • Talent. Proto Labs gained 3D expertise in its acquisition and tapped into engineering and software talent at nearby North Carolina State University. The college offers a course of study in 3D printing at its Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics.
  • Training. The company has also relied on Wake Technical Community College to help design its curriculum and training programs for new employees. North Carolina’s community college system is the nation’s third largest, with more than 58 community colleges offering customized training.
  • Logistics. The company’s location at the edge of Raleigh-Durham International Airport allows for easy shipping – critical for the quick-turn parts manufacturer whose clients need products fast. North Carolina sponsored road improvements and a turn lane at the plant to improve access.
  • Incentives. North Carolina provided performance-based incentives to support Proto Labs’ plant expansion and creation of training programs, in a process made easy by the state’s business recruiters at the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Collaboration between the town of Cary and economic developers at the local Chamber also helped Proto Labs work through the local permitting and approval process, and secure matching development grants.

Proto Labs’ strategic location in North Carolina’s Research Triangle has also helped drive success, says plant manager Kenny Capps.

“We have intellectual capital and a culture of business incubation in the Research Triangle,” said Capps, who joined Proto Labs in the FineLine acquisition. “It’s rewarding to see a business that started here almost 20 years ago grow into a world leader in manufacturing. And it totally makes sense this would happen here – in a state built on manufacturing.”

For more information, visit the Proto Labs website.

With more than 75,000 jobs, North Carolina’s plastics and chemical manufacturing workforce is the nation’s fifth largest. Since 2010, the industry in North Carolina has grown 50 percent faster than the national average, as companies find the state ideal for relocation or expansion.

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