Why did we Launch a Prototyping Bureau in Oxford?

Why did we Launch a Prototyping Bureau in Oxford?

Choosing the best possible location for a new company is a huge challenge, and when it came to our 3D printing and prototyping service, settling on Oxford as a home was no easy decision. All business owners start out with a vision of what the company could become, and uses that to drive the decision-making process at every stage. As the soon-to-be Managing Director of Printpool, I knew that the right location was a critical factor in seeing this vision realised, and we settled on Oxford based on a series of fabulous benefits.

A Central Location

Although Oxford is not positioned centrally in the UK geographically, it does sit neatly in the middle of the diamond formed by London, Birmingham, Bath and Cambridge, which houses a disproportionate number of the most quickly growing technology companies in the country, particularly in motorsport and transport technology. By train, we can be in central London for a meeting in less than an hour, which allows us to serve clients in the capital with ease, while still keeping ‘The North’ in easy reach.

A World-Leading University

Oxford University needs no introduction, and being within two miles of the world’s second oldest university gave us two key resources. One, a steady stream of talented graduates to help the company grow, and two, many hundreds of spinout firms with a ravenous demand for high quality 3D printed parts and prototypes to fuel their innovation. The culture of excellence and drive for new knowledge does rub-off too!

A Brand-New Building

We settled on the Wood Centre for Innovation (WCFI) in Headington as the perfect spot. Alongside other exciting technology companies, we work in a beautiful oasis of calm, surrounded 15 acres of woodland and wildlife, in a state-of-the-art building. There are very few sites, in Oxford or otherwise, where it’s a frequent occurrence to look out and see a curious deer or rabbit on the grass by the window. The threat of climate change is a hugely important issue for us at Printpool, and so we can also sleep easier knowing that WCFI has numerous environmental and energy-saving measures built in such as a passive air-flow system and grass-roof. The 100-seat lecture theatre will allow us to host events disseminating the latest advances in additive manufacturing, and the adjacent Science Oxford centre means that we can play a small part in educating and inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists.

A Culture of Success

A business started in Oxford has a 49% chance of still being operational five-years later, which makes Oxford, statistically, one of the best locations in the country to launch a venture. This is in-part due to the huge levels of business support available, as well as various venture capital firms, angel investor networks, and support grants that new Oxfordshire firms enjoy. Although commercial rents are significantly more expensive in Oxford than in more northern rivals, these connections provide new companies with a strong foundation for growth. There are a number of co-working spaces available in the city centre for freelancers and start-ups also, which provide Printpool with a steady stream of new designs to prototype, and manufacture using 3D printing technologies.

Looking back nearly a year later, we’re delighted that we chose Oxford as our home! If you belong to a fledgling company who is considering launching in Oxfordshire, please get in touch and we’ll do what we can to help.

The ONLY Three (and a Half) Applications Where 3D Printing your Design Makes Sense

The ONLY Three (and a Half) Applications Where 3D Printing your Design Makes Sense

In the world of engineering, product design and prototyping, everyone has heard of 3D printing. Sadly the majority of professionals working in the industry still struggle to identify the most promising use-cases for the technology, and often time and money is wasted chasing 3D printing for its own sake, or as an exciting manufacturing process, rather than because it is a fundamentally good fit for the project at hand.

This lack of understanding is one of the issues that has led to many of the negative experiences that some people have had with additive manufacturing (AM), and as with anything, a bad first experience can stick for life. This leaves these unfortunate designers and engineers reluctant to engage with a technology that is spectacularly powerful when used correctly – which is a tragedy.

That’s why I’ve categorised every great application of 3D printing into one of the three (and a half!) cases below. It’s a short and simple list, but if the way you’re considering using AM doesn’t fall neatly into one of these, then the chances are you’ll end up disappointed with the result.

1) When you’re prototyping a design that will ultimately be manufactured using another process

This is the most frequent use-case, leading to the common synonym of ‘rapid prototyping’ which is used to refer to 3D printing by many people. Whether your design will eventually be injection moulded, cast, CNC-machined or fabricated, printing one or more prototypes to confirm that everything works the way you expect it to is always a smart move.

The mantra of “prototype early and prototype often” is worth repeating; It is exponentially cheaper to fix problems when they are identified early in the design cycle than later. Holding a product in your hand and physically interacting with it is the single most powerful way to spot issues with fit, form and function immediately.

2) When your design has complex geometry that makes it impractical to produce any other way

Whether you are a product designer, mechanical engineer or technician, a thorough understanding of the principles of design for manufacture (DFM) will be invaluable throughout your career. For some applications though, conventional manufacturing methods can restrict your options so much that there is no path forward, and at times like that, additive manufacturing can be the ace up your sleeve that allows you to solve the problem.

Complex internal channels that optimise airflow; tiny features in seemingly inaccessible locations; beautiful lattice structures designed to optimise heat exchange… the most innovative and advanced designs demand nothing less than the most innovative and advanced manufacturing technologies to create them.

Be careful though! Design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) is a complex discipline in and of itself. “Don’t worry, we’ll 3D print it” shouldn’t be used as a ‘Get of Out Jail Free Card’ which permits you to submit wildly impractical designs for no other reason than you didn’t feel like reworking your design to make it machinable. You have been warned!

3) When you need a small number of parts for a specific application

Injection moulding, CNC-machining and many other manufacturing processes are inherently influenced by economies of scale. Generally, this is not the case for 3D printing. This means that if you’re producing 10,000 of the same plastic electronics casing, then I cannot emphasise enough that 3D printing is not the way to go! The cost per part when additively manufacturing designs stays relatively staticas production quantities increase.

If on the other hand, you only needfive or ten copies of your design, for a novel experimental test rig perhaps, or very short production run of certain components, then printing will certainly be worth considering.  This applies whether or not the design was originally intended to be 3D printed. Think discontinued parts from classic cars, or one-off replacements for a broken machine component on a factory floor.

The exact point at which short-run production changes from being economically and practically viable using 3D printing, to being better suited for other processes, varies. Often it lies somewhere between 20 and 100. More than that, and you should probably stick to more conventional methods.

3 ½) When your design benefits from being tailored or personalised slightly to each end-user

I’ve classed this one as half an application (because its really a sub-category of number three, with some elements of two thrown in) and it is the possibility of mass-customisation. This is the production of a basic design that is adapted slightly for every part, so as to meet the requirements of the end-user perfectly every time.

A very simple example of this would be integrating a different company logo into every part manufactured, and a more complex one might be custom made artificial knee joints, that are perfectly adapted to fit an individual patient’s anatomy. This second application is a major focal point of medical engineering research, and overlaps heavily with trends around ‘personalised medicine’ that will dominate the coming decades in health innovation.

So, there you have it! Hopefully this will help clarify the value of 3D printing, and assist you when identifying whether an application would really benefit from an additive approach. Was this useful? Do you have a great use-case that defies categorisation using this method?  Let me know what you think!