Top Manufacturers Awards 2014: Protofab: Process innovations increase speed, lower cost

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PETALUMA -- Optimizing cycle time by "chaining macros" and using "lights-out" overnight production to produce machined prototypes and manufacture multiple production parts are just two of the process innovations Protofab has implemented to stay ahead of the game.

Part of the Protofab workflow includes lights-out manufacturing, defined as an unmanned work environment where CNC machines run from midnight to 6 a.m. following automated programs chained together using subroutines and macros that define cutter path.

On weekends, this process continues. Staff arrive only periodically to reload material and remove finished parts.

[caption id="attachment_95466" align="alignleft" width="360"] Protofab General Manager Gordon Parchman (left) and President Mike Maendl in front of one of the company's advanced CNC mills.[/caption]

"Companies have to embrace automation and robotics to increase margins and reduce, or offset, lower labor rates in other parts of the globe," said Mike Maendl, founder, president and chief resource officer of this 16-year old ISO 9001:2008-certified precision CNC machining company.

"Our 22-member staff works with large and small customers supporting quick turnaround of a diverse range of close tolerance products."

The company’s client list includes contract manufacturers as well as large Sonoma County and Bay Area OEMs such as Agilent Technologies, Centellax, Inc., LEMO USA, Inc., GCX Corporation, Southwest Microwave and Tesla Motors, Inc. of Fremont.  

In addition, Protofab (707-782-9669, serves a broad spectrum of industry categories, such as medical, biomedical, orthopedic, microwave, semi-conductor, connector fluid deposition, hardware, transportation as well as mechanical design and engineering services.

[caption id="attachment_95467" align="alignright" width="405"] Some of the many automated milling machines on the manufacturing floor at Protofab in Petaluma, an ISO 9001-2008 precision CNC machining company.[/caption]

The firm’s competitive manufacturing capabilities include CNC 5 axis; horizontal and vertical milling; 7 axis Swiss screw machines; state-of-the-art metrology; engineering and programming capabilities utilizing CAD/CAM, Feature CAM, Part Maker and solid modeling software.

"We strive to stay ahead of the technology curve," according to General Manager Richard Parchman. "Mike’s vision when he started the company was to develop a manufacturing model that supported our customer’s technology requirements while also meeting their production cost objectives."

The company also incorporates tool life management and monitors production remotely using video surveillance systems.

Mr. Maendl established Protofab in 1998 in Novato after a 15-year career with Schlage Lock Company in San Francisco. At Schlage, he started as an apprentice tool- and die-maker and quickly moved up to research and development as well as model-making. His forward-thinking and organizational skills brought project turnover time down from six to eight weeks to just two weeks on average.

"Schlage Lock’s manufacturing model did not include investments in new technology soon enough to compete with those who were innovating," he said. "Over time, Schlage outsourced to suppliers who had invested in newer technologies, which did help to keep Schlage competitive."

He learned from this experience during the early North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) years and when outsourcing to Asia when he established Protofab.

"I was fortunate enough to have creative and experienced people around me so we would not make the same mistakes as we focused on beating offshore competition on price and quality," he said.

In 2004, Mr. Maendl relocated the business to 1310 Stub Rd. in Petaluma and later expanded the building to accommodate additional equipment.

"We are more than a prototype and parts manufacturer," Mr. Maendl said. "We build trust and confidence while working with our customers’ design and engineering teams and purchasing departments to resolve issues in the early development stages and get the product to market quickly as we stay within budget."

An example of this collaboration is when Tesla Motors was having cost and delivery issues for a family of parts being built in China. Protofab was asked to quote the project and realized it would require an unconventional design-for-manufacturing processing approach, combined with a lights-out manufacturing strategy, to be competitive.

For Tesla, Protofab collaborated with engineering and quality assurance groups and found a way to cut the labor component to less than 10 percent of the overall project expense.

"We created an efficient, cost-effective plan and then found the equipment to do it," Maendl said.

During the next four months, the process was qualified, verified by the customer and went into full production with parts shipping weekly to meet the forecast. 

Mr. Maendl, Mr. Parchman and the management group have mentored their core team to work smarter and be tech-savvy.

"It takes higher skill levels and the ability to give our employees the tools they need to succeed," Mr. Maendl said.

Protofab supports specialized training vocational technical education programs, such as those offered through the California Tooling Machinist Apprenticeship Association.

"During the 1990s through 2010, a high percentage of manufacturing work was outsourced overseas. As a result, few young people in the states considered careers in machining and manufacturing," Mr. Maendl said. "Today, outsourcing is not as popular, and manufacturing seems to be growing in the U.S., leading to a shortage of experienced machinists."

The Protofab management team is considering a move to new, larger building in 2014, with space to support a clean room, assembly area, prototype shop and additional production equipment, such as a bar mill, needed as the company grows.

"Today it’s hard to survive by just being a job shop," Mr. Maendl said. "To be successful you have to be innovative, adaptive and flexible as you plan years into the future and have a strategy for acquiring capital equipment, space and resources. The company is customer service oriented. We want to develop relationships as a strategic manufacturing partner with our clients."

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