Protocase: An Interview With Co-Founder And President Steve Lilley About This Custom Electronic Enclosure Leader

By Amit Chowdhry • May 28, 2024

Protocase is a leader in B2B custom electronic enclosures and precision sheet metal fabrication for a wide range of industries through its ProtoSpace arm and a new division called Protomentum – which transforms product development and prototyping by providing an all-encompassing, one-stop solution for founders, venture capitalists, and innovators. Pulse 2.0 interviewed Protocase co-founder and President Steve Lilley to learn more about the company. 

Steve Lilley’s Background

What is Lilley’s background? Lilley said:

“My background is in engineering, earning a Bachelor of Engineering from the Technical University of Nova Scotia (now Dalhousie University) in 1986. Before founding Protocase, I held various roles in engineering, operations management, and software development. I served as President at Bras d’Or Technologies Limited, specializing in contract software development, and MRSI, focusing on the convergence of engineering and software development.”

Formation Of Protocase

How did the idea for the company come together? Lilley shared:

“The origin story of Protocase couldn’t be more quintessentially Canadian – our first company Protocase was originally hatched over beers after playing a game of pick-up hockey. Doug, my co-founder, and I, along with another engineer friend, were lamenting the difficulties we’ve encountered with metal enclosures.”

“The issue at hand is that to get a single metal box for the electronics we were developing, we needed to either order in large quantities, which we don’t necessarily need, or create it ourselves by ordering a prefabricated metal enclosure and then customizing it, i.e. drilling holes, painting it, and applying some labels to it.”

“Both options were time consuming, and the finished product looked poor and scraped together. We knew our problem was not unique to us and was a reality for most engineers. We realized that if we could figure out a way to manufacture custom enclosures for electronics quickly and be able to produce quantity one orders (not forcing people to order in large quantities), everyone – us and engineers like ourselves – would benefit.”

“Protocase was founded in 2012 as the solution to this engineering problem. We developed a unique mass custom manufacturing system that broke down the tasks of manufacturing sheet-metal enclosures into repeatable elements, then adding only the custom parameters. In doing so, the entire manufacturing process takes 2-3 days, rather than the weeks or months that was typical for similar orders. Since then, our company expanded its capabilities and offerings to include things like CNC machining and 3D printed plastic parts. We became AS9100 and ITAR certified to serve our customers in aerospace and defense, which ultimately led to the creation of our aerospace and defense division called ProtoSpace Mfg, launching in 2023.” 

“This year, we expanded once again to create a new division called Protomentum. This division is designed to cater to and focus on innovators and start-up founders. They’re the visionary people who have an idea for a product or new technology, but they aren’t experts in mechanical CAD design or manufacturing. They know they have an idea that can serve a real purpose or solve a problem, but they don’t know how to bring it to fruition. Our expert team of designers consults with the customer about their vision, their requirements, and their electronic components, and then we draft the design.”

“Protomentum really accelerates development because we are removing a ton of latency with the design process, manufacturing, and even the assembly. We had the idea to create this specific division for entrepreneurs, innovators and founders because we saw time and time again, for this specific subset of people, none of the options out there in the market were a full one-stop shop for design, manufacturing, and assembly. There was too much lag time between every step. And, having done product development ourselves, we knew that increased time ultimately increases costs. When it’s your own idea and business getting off the ground, no one wants to move slowly and have cost overruns.”

Favorite Memory

What has been Lilley’s favorite memory working for the company so far? Lilley reflected: 

“As we only recently launched Protomentum, an extension from Protocase Inc that not only provides design support and part manufacturing but now includes that final piece of assembly, the memories are few, but still fresh. I think the most exciting part of Protomentum thus far has been getting into the weeds of design with our clients and watching a product emerge at the other end. There’s no better feeling than being part of that product realization when you’ve got something that works, serves a purpose, and customers want it – there’s nothing better.”

Core Products

What are the company’s core products and features? Lilley explained:

“Our core feature is speed. It’s been at the heart of everything we do since the beginning when Protocase revolutionized custom enclosures and the quick manufacturing and turnaround time. Protomentum brings speed to every part of the product development process: design, manufacturing, and assembly.”

“Our speed is only possible because we have developed a proprietary system for mass custom manufacturing. This has been core to our ability to provide solutions in 2-3 days. Our design team are experienced, knowledgeable, and problem-solving gurus. They love a challenge. They can interpret an innovator’s vision, know the right questions to ask, and figure out options for the design – all with input and approval from the customer. Our manufacturing is truly the fastest one-stop shop for custom-manufactured metal enclosures and parts. We know every customer’s needs for their enclosures and parts are unique, which is why we have such a robust and effective lineup of manufacturing capabilities.”

Challenges Faced

What challenges have Lilley and the team faced in building the company? Lilley acknowledged: 

“Staffing challenges are a common hurdle in our industry, and we are no stranger to this issue. With a dedicated team in engineering, we’ve focused on innovative solutions to enhance our productivity and streamline operations. Our approach focuses on integrating automation within our software and processes. This enhancement not only makes our workflows seamless and more transparent to our clients but also significantly enables our engineering team to focus on higher-value tasks. By automating routine tasks, such as creating detailed work instructions, we’ve made substantial progress. This shift allows our skilled professionals to engage more in the cognitive and interactive aspects of engineering, enhancing both our operational efficiency and the quality of human interactions in our projects.”

“The other challenge we are currently in the process of overcoming is our Canadian headquarters. For the majority of our customers, our products being manufactured and shipped from Canada is not an issue. We have a wonderful relationship with FedEx, so our orders get shipped priority overnight across North America. However, for some customers, particularly in aerospace and defense, there are certain requirements for parts to originate from an American supplier. In order to serve this specific subset of clients, we are establishing a US-based location. More details to come on that soon!”

Evolution Of Protocase’s Technology

How has Protocase’s technology evolved since launching? Lilley noted: 

“Our technology is constantly evolving and advancing. On the manufacturing side, we have made a significant investment in different machinery in order to increase our capabilities and efficiency. This includes press brakes with automated tooling changes, digital printing with vision alignment, CNC machining equipment, etc. We’ve been software-driven since the beginning, developing our own internal automation in terms of ERP, automated manufacturing work instructions, and a myriad of other process control features.”

“We also developed our own design software for our customers called Protocase Designer. This has really evolved since its original inception of being able to customize three different types of enclosures and panels. Today, it has more than 80 templates and a robust editor for doing all kinds of customizations. Our focus as of late is the creation of multiple AI tools for improved efficiency for our Engineering & Design Services team.”

Significant Milestones

What have been some of the company’s most significant milestones? Lilley cited: 

“Our sister company 45Drives launched in 2012, which revolutionized data storage to be ultra dense, affordable and open source. In 2015, Protocase became AS9100D certified, which signaled our quality system’s alignment with aerospace and defense requirements. 2023 saw the official launch of ProtoSpace Mfg, the world’s fastest aerospace supplier of metal and plastic parts, components, and enclosures. Lastly, 45Drives launched HomeLabs this year, serving the home-based market. For Protomentum, the newest division of our company, we don’t have many significant milestones – yet!”

Customer Success Stories 

After asking Lilley about customer success stories, he highlighted:

“We have 18,000+ customers all over the world – it is difficult to single out a specific customer success story. Additionally, many of our customers, especially those involved in aerospace, aren’t able to speak publicly about specific projects. What I can share is that we work with some significant companies in aerospace, and one in particular that is focused on new aerospace, our design software has completely shifted how the test systems team works.”

“Protocase Designer is deeply intuitive, template-based and built with manufacturing constraints in mind, which allows this company’s technicians – who are not trained or experienced in mechanical CAD – to design the rack-mount test enclosures needed for their Test Division. This frees up their mechanical engineers to focus on other projects and builds. On the Protomentum side, our customers’ success stories include a burgeoning startup that is developing a unique system for recycling coffee grounds. Through our skilled design team, they were able to dramatically speed up their development and get a working prototype to present to their investors in days.”

Target Market

What total addressable market (TAM) size is the company pursuing? Lilley replied:

“It’s hard to quantify. Essentially, for Protomentum alone, we are targeting all entrepreneurs and innovators who are looking to develop an electronic product that involves either sheet-metal, CNC machined parts, or 3D printed parts, or a combination of all three within an assembly.”

Differentiation From The Competition

What differentiates the company from its competition? Lilley affirmed: 

“Protomentum eliminates latencies like no other design house or manufacturer can. Our one-stop shop for design, manufacturing, and assembly means that timelines are shrunk to days, where weeks – or longer – are typically the norm. We have a design team that uniquely understands how to design manufacturable assemblies because they work within our manufacturing capabilities every single day.”

Future Company Goals

What are some of the company’s future company goals? Lilley concluded: 

“Twenty-three years ago we founded Protocase based on a vision. As time progressed, through constant attention to our clients’ needs, we would pivot, adding new capabilities or tweaking existing ones based on customers’ demands.”

“We recognized a growing customer base in aerospace and defense, each with more demanding quality, inspection, and documentation requirements, and would again pivot, in this case creating ProtoSpace Mfg, specifically set up to meet those unique customer demands. We fully expect the same to occur with Protomentum. Customer requirements will evolve and we will respond accordingly. What will these look like, who knows for certain, but I’ll be happy to share when the time comes!”