“Engineering led me to CAD, and CAD led me to here.” That’s how Peter Douglass, Analysis and Design Manager for Proto Labs, describes his path from college to his current role. Douglass majored in Mechanical Engineering at the University of St. Thomas because “I like to solve problems,” he said.
His engineering coursework introduced him to Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) software. “That’s where I really saw what CAD could do,” he said. He served as a teaching assistant in a couple of CAD courses at St. Thomas. At graduation, he “wanted to find a place that could harness what CAD could do,” and he found that place at Proto Labs. He’s been with the company for “coming up on six years.” After beginning as a CAD analyst, he “bounced around and landed where I am now.”
Proto Labs makes both prototypes and short runs of parts for a variety of industries including medical device, automotive, lighting, aerospace, technology, consumer product and electronics. “Our company handles everything—3D printing, CNC machines, injection molding,” Douglass said. “We do runs of one to ten parts, one to a thousand parts, a couple of thousand or tens of thousands. We love the one-part or two-part orders—it’s part of our business model. We do some bridge tooling. Companies ramp up production before they take it to a huge production vendor. We also do some business with end-of-life. They’re phasing out and just need a couple of orders here and there,” Douglass said. “It’s not just ‘here are your first ten parts.’”
Q: What is your current role?
What I do is manage teams that handle both the front end and the back end of our business. My team is in charge of creating the quote, and once the job comes in they’re in charge of making the files that will enable us to manufacture the part. When designers come to us, they have designed the part to fit within their specific needs. We have to figure out what to tweak to make it fit the standard manufacturing process. For instance, we would like to have draft angles added to a part so it can release from the mold. That’s something people don’t always think of it. Proprietary software does the analysis. It’s up to us to check through what the software is saying. We’re providing manufacturing feedback. On the back end, if we’ve made the change and it’s something we can manufacture, then it’s up to us to translate it into code that speaks to the milling machine.
Q: You trained as an engineer, and now you’re in manufacturing. What are the differences?
Manufacturing versus engineering—that’s the biggest challenge within our role. In theory we can do it, but we need to know if we can actually do it. How to you service the needs of that customer, but know the internal customer is just as important? I can design something in CAD forever, and it’s going to meet every application and solve all my problems. I might even be able to 3D print it. But there’s no possible way to injection mold it. With the injection mold or milled part, you’ve got two mold halves that are coming together and opening up. If there are features that have to have something holding it in place, but it’s not perfectly straight up and down, those features can’t be created. When you try to open up the mold, there’s a part that’s going to be hanging on. There’s a back and forth that is constantly going on. Having that manufacturing experience helps. You need to be able to communicate what you were trying to resolve and is it something we want to take on.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
My original plan was to go for mechanical engineering and business. In college, the engineering brain won out. I didn’t actually finish the business management, but the intent was always to get into that type of role. This is a great blend of those two aspects. It draws on all the technical and principles of engineering, but I get to take it a level up: How everything runs on the human side and team side. I manage three teams with a total of about fifty people. Each team has a couple of supervisors.
Q: Is it rare to find people with the balance of technical and customer service skills needed in your particular role?
I don’t think it’s that common but I think there are plenty of people out there who see it as an opportunity. To me a solution is not just the technical side. There’s also the human interaction. If you forget about that piece, you’re not really solving the entire problem. You’re doing a subset of getting there.
Q: Is there any particular character trait or skill that makes someone really great at this job?
The role is called “CAD analyst,” but one of the biggest things I look for is creative thinking. What can we actually do? There’s usually a solution. It’s up to us to figure out what that is. It’s not so cut and dried. You have to have some creative thinking to figure out the options. It happens pretty constantly. People get so fixated. If you think about the critical features, you can work around the rest.
Q: Is this a growth industry?
Our company is growing like crazy. Now that prototyping is becoming more and more available, people realize they don’t need to take that chance on their big production tool. We hire a lot of entry-levels for the front end. We bring people in, and we give them tons of exposure to all sorts of engineering-related fields. They get a ton of exposure to all the different areas. With 3D printing, there’s been an explosion of technical knowledge. Molding has been around forever, but we are constantly becoming better and evolving. Anything technical never plateaus. It’s a constant job just to keep up with it.