While ProtoCAM had a very diverse customer base and was successful, the company saw that much of its business was based on a service model delivering just-in-time single prototypes based on one-time projects. They recognized that their rapid prototyping technologies could also be used in rapid manufacturing of finished products. Doing so could help them expand their capabilities and generate a steadier revenue stream. “To do this, we needed to know where opportunities might exist for products produced through our unique capabilities,” notes ProtoCAM President Ray Biery. “We wanted to explore markets, find opportunities for product manufacturing, identify key players and gauge their interest.”

ProtoCAM had been working on a strategic planning initiative with DVIRC’s sister center, the Manufacturers Resource Center (MRC) located on the Lehigh University Campus. MRC is the Lehigh Valley-based Federal MEP center. Biery decided to rely on MRC’s resources for assistance in exploring possibilities. MRC recognized the unique situation ProtoCAM faced in having a specialized technology, but not knowing where opportunities for it existed. MRC Business Advisor Jim Marler suggested relying on RTI International’s Innovation Advisors group and their expertise with technology transfer.

RTI is one of the world’s leading independent, nonprofit research and development organizations. Its Innovation Advisors group specializes in technology transfer opportunities, helping businesses and organizations make connections for exploring, enabling and deploying innovation. RTI has entered into a contractual agreement with the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) to provide their Technology Scouting and Technology Driven Market Intelligence (TDMI) services to support small and mid-sized manufacturers exclusively through MEP centers nationally. This resource is available through centers such as DVIRC and MRC.

RTI implemented a Technology Driven Market Intelligence (TDMI) process to discover and identify potential ProtoCAM opportunities. Unlike traditional research which typically looks at the market for an existing product, TDMI determines if a market or application exists for a new product, differentiator or technology – and if that opportunity is in line with the company’s business goals.

In discussions between RTI, MRC and ProtoCAM, it was determined that the medical market held the most potential for a ProtoCAM product. RTI then implemented the TDMI initiative, conducting broad-based research of ProtoCAM’s competition, current and prospective customers, the medical market as a whole and specialty subsets of that market. By doing internet and expert interviews across the medical sector, RTI was able to identify, assess, and validate the opportunities and barriers for rapid manufactured parts. With a detailed understanding of PRotoCAM’s capabilities and business goals, RTI was then able to assess ProtoCAM’s strengths and weaknesses relevant to capturing the best opportunities. A report was created and presented to MRC and ProtoCAM that revealed the findings and the best opportunities.

MRC conducted one-on-one interviews with identified prospects to further qualify potential opportunities. Jim Marler explains that, “We wanted to know if they were the right size in terms of potential sales volume, if they were progressive thinkers open to new technologies, and if a ProtoCAM product was a good fit for their strategy. We looked for prospects who were excited by the technology, were in a position to grow at a fast pace and had a network in place that could support that growth.”

The results of the TDMI research revealed that the medical market is extensive and there were many players. “We learned that there is technology similar to ours in the market, as well as competition,” notes Biery, “but there is space for us in this market. We also identified established rapid prototyping/rapid manufacturing anatomical model players with the potential to become partners, rather than competitors. The research provided several solid opportunities and additional insights that have the potential to develop into new business.”

Solid sales leads. MRC generated four solid leads for ProtoCAM, conducted all prospect qualification and due diligence, then presented the opportunities to ProtoCAM. MRC continues to work with these prospects on behalf of ProtoCAM, and is currently in negotiations for initial projects.

Partnership possibilities. RTI identified several businesses that had established relationships with medical companies, but did not have a means to supply the level of product quality required. ProtoCAM is currently in discussions with these companies for an arrangement that would allow ProtoCAM to leverage its unique technology and serve as a manufacturing partner.

Market connections. A European company was identified that was looking for a presence within the U.S. medical market. The company has connections within the anatomical modeling market. Opportunities are being explored for ProtoCAM to provide product manufacturing support.

New product applications. A new opportunity was identified for ProtoCAM technology in the production of specialized models of the brain based on individual CAT scans. These customized models would enable doctors to prepare for a brain surgery using an exact model of the patient’s brain.

New market opportunity. While the research focused primarily on the medical market, leads were also followed elsewhere. One led to an opportunity in a completely unexpected area. Exciting potential was identified in the market for personalized avatars, small-scale models created to match an individual’s own features. This area has the potential for large volume sales and is currently being explored in more depth.

Founded in 1994, ProtoCAM is the largest rapid prototyping service in the Eastern U.S. The company provides prototype development, manufacturing, and engineering consulting, and has deep expertise in stereolithography and other advanced prototyping techniques. ProtoCAM serves thousands of customers throughout North America in the medical, automotive, electronics and aerospace markets, and is recognized as a best-in-class source for high-precision, high-fidelity prototypes.

Rapid prototyping is a method used to manufacture and finish physical solid models of customers’ original designs, using additive fabrication technology. This process uses CAD technologies and advanced materials to incrementally create an object by building up successive layers. This differs from traditional subtractive milling, turning and EDM prototyping methods which begin with raw material that is larger than the object to be created, with the material then removed or carved to create the object.

Lessons Learned

Thoughts from Ray Biery on TDMI

“The TDMI engagement and RTI’s expertise were extremely valuable in validating our technology. We gained solid information and answers to our questions about the market, potential customers and our competition. We did not have capability to do this on our own.”

“We believed that our technology was unique. Through TDMI, we discovered that there were similar things out there. That information will help us refine our approach to the market.”