What Should a Prototype Cost?

My Experience with Prototlabs.

We’ve been developing a cool smart phone accessory in conjunction with Snapchat influencer Cyrene Q. Using our own 3D printing machine we put together a few rough prototypes to prove the concept. Now we need a refined functional prototype so that Cyrene can shoot video and help us on the path to launching a successful Kickstarter. 3D printing isn’t refined enough, even more, the 3D printed part isn’t strong enough. Plastic that flows into a mold in a single shot is stronger than plastic that is laid down 25-300 microns at a time. Our part needs strength. We also need to overmold plastics of two different hardnesses (Shore A and Shore D scales for those who care about technical details) and those plastics must bond to each other in the molding process.

And we want the parts TOMORROW.

Enter Protolabs. If you’ve been researching prototyping and short run production the odds are high you’ve heard of them. Protolabs is a premier digital manufacturing company. Send them a 3D model and they’ll make you parts. Fast.

I registered with Protolabs, looked at their terms of service, uploaded our parts and followed up with a phone call. A live person, a woman with a friendly, warm, modulated, top tier concierge voice, answered the phone, answered all of my questions, told me the name of the guy who would be handling my project and then introduced me to the guy who was filling in for him. The way the front desk treats James Bond when he enters a hotel is how I was handled in that phone call. Ok, I didn’t get a wink. The point is that it was first class. It made me feel rich.

It's nice to feel rich. People treat you better. But here’s the thing to keep in mind. People treat you better because you’re paying them to treat you better.

A first class airline ticket costs ten times more than a coach ticket. It doesn’t get you to the location any faster or more safely, it’s just a much nicer experience (I need to stop here, I get misty eyed thinking about the times I’ve been upgraded to first class… sigh).

As it turns out, Protolabs is a lot like flying first class. The quote for our part was $11,000. I had hoped to get the job done for $1000 and was prepared to go to $4,000. But $11,000??? No way. So I reached out to a wonderful Chinese supplier we’ve worked with in the past. His price for the same job was $516. The Chinese New Year holiday just started and we’ll have to wait until the end of the month for him to start on the project. But once he’s started the turnaround time will be the same as Protolabs.

$11,000 or $516? When it comes to prototyping, I’ll fly coach.

- Mike

share this article: facebook