‘Great oaks from little acorns grow’ goes the saying and it holds true for Andesign. The roots of the firm lie in founder Andy Williams’ parents’ garage, where the business started 22 years ago. Its most recent investment, a Massivit 1800 large-format 3D printer, would be too big to fit in the garage, in fact the firm took on an adjacent factory unit to house the machine and the rest of its new 3D department.
Based in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, the firm is a graphics, signage and large-format printer offering production, fulfilment and installation services to the construction, corporate, events, exhibition and retail sectors. It employs 35 people and has a turnover of £3.5m. Recently Williams relinquished day to day control to a three-strong management team to take on the roll of chairman. At the helm now are managing director Garry Hassell, who stepped up from operations director, finance director Sarah Taylor and client services director Alison Corrall.
In March this year, as part of an overall investment of £500,000 in the new 3D department the Massivit 1800 was installed. It’s a large-format 3D printer capable of producing objects up to 1.45x1.11x1.8m in size.
“As a company we have a can-do attitude,” says Hassell. “We want to partner with our clients strategically. Our aim is to make the people we deal with look good within their businesses. There are hundreds of other companies out there with flatbed printers and routers, what sets us apart is that can-do attitude and high levels of customer service.”
The Massivit isn’t the firm’s first 3D printer. It dipped its toe in the waters a few years ago with a basic Makerbot machine, which Williams spotted in a supplier’s showroom when buying a new roll-to-roll solvent printer. Having cut its teeth with 3D the firm was keeping a watching brief on the emerging market.
It knew it would need a lot of space to house a serious 3D department so when the adjacent unit to its factory became available at the beginning of this year it seized the moment.
“The timing was a little earlier than we had planned but it was such an opportunity,” says Hassell. “We took a calculated gamble; it was a big investment but with our other machines paid for it was the right time to do it.”
Before the premises became available Williams and other members of the team had already scoped the market and settled on the Massivit as the right machine, going so far as to visit its HQ in Israel last year to see it in action and run samples. Large-format 3D printing is such a new market that Massivit has had the market to itself since launching at Drupa 2016.
“We spent a lot of time researching the market and there was nothing else at that size,” he says.
Layer on layer
The Massivit works by ejecting a bead of photopolymer through a nozzle, which is then UV-cured. Output is built up layer by layer on a flatbed. The nozzle steered in its X and Y axes to create each layer of the design. Once a layer has been printed the bed is stepped down and the next layer is applied on top. Due to the layered production the output comes out with visible ridges, to produce a saleable product the surface needs to be smoothed by filling and sanding and then decorated. Depending on the complexity of the shape and the desired effect decorating can be by spray painting or the application of printed vinyl for simpler shapes.
Gearing up to offer a 3D service has taken the firm a considerable investment, not just financially but also in terms of time and skills. The new department has a full-time production staff of two and a half – a dedicated 3D designer and a finishing specialist are supported by one of the firm’s artworkers, who spends half the time on 3D and other staff can step in and help with finishing when needed. It has also taken on a dedicated sales person for 3D.
In addition to the Massivit Andesign’s 3D department equipment includes a Formech large-format vacuum former, mould making and a spray booth.
“Installation of the Massivit was spot on and it took about a week to get in,” he says.
The time to get up to speed with offering 3D has been considerable. The installation of the Massivit took place a week back in March but the firm launched its 3D service in October. In the meantime it has been busy getting to grips with the new machine, learning how to design, print and finish jobs and preparing samples.
One of the jobs it was preparing for the October launch was a life-sized elephant, its most ambitious 3D print job to date, which graces the side of its building and was unveiled by local Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell.
The elephant was chosen for a number of reasons; as a showcase for its large-format 3D capability the largest land animal was an apt choice and was also a cause close to the heart of MP Mitchell. To give something back for the elephant’s role in promoting the business it has donated £250 to The David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and will donate an additional £50 for every 3D print order it receives.
Since the launch the elephant has also been accessorised to tie in with topical events, it gained a hat for Halloween, bore a suitably sized poppy for Remembrance Day and the firm is running a competition for local children to design it a suitably festive appendage for Christmas. Its presence has proved a draw for local interest, getting coverage in the local paper and interest from passers by and neighbours. In addition Hassell says it has also gone down a storm to with the firm’s wider audience on social media.
While the Massivit can print large items, as the elephant measures 3.6m across from ear to ear, it needed to be fabricated in several parts. In all, what is thought to be the biggest 3D printed animal in the world, was assembled from 10 separate parts that were designed to fit together like a jigsaw.
While compared with other methods of fabricating large objects the Massivit is quick, and Andesign is more than happy with the throughput, 3D production is not a quick process.
“It’s the quickest machine out there, but it is not fast,” he says. “For the elephant each ear took a day to print, as did the head, overall it took a week to print.”
And that’s not the end of the process, it also needs further finishing including filling, sanding and decorating and he adds: “From raw output to finished object is a huge task.” And as a new market generating the work itself can take a long time.
“It is not an easy sell, at the moment we’re constantly promoting it, and although we set ourselves a target for the first 12 months it has been slower than we thought.”
That said, the firm puts that down to it being so different to anything else out there and remains confident in the 3D market and happy with what it’s brought to the business.
“It’s so different that it is a slow-burner but we feel it will pick up and we remain fully behind it. There are not many companies that would take it on, but we want to be different.”
Having the 3D capability has also proved to be a useful door opener that has led to more print work and new clients.
“We got thousands of pounds worth of graphics and installation work from a company that came to us because we has 3D printing, but their final job ended up with no 3D in it.”
In another instance it won a job due to having the Massivit but ended up producing it using its cutting table as it was a more cost-effective option for the client.
Hassell doesn’t recommend other printers buy the machine, but that’s out of self interest rather than any problem with it.
“I don’t want people to buy one when they can come to us for the output. It’s a niche and the longer I can keep that the better. In many ways it is like flatbed printers were years ago – a premium product.”
However, he can see a time when he might buy another: “I wouldn’t hesitate to buy another one, but by the time that comes along it would need to be quicker, it doesn’t need to be any bigger or higher quality, just faster.”
Speed 30cm/sec linear speed, 350mm/hr build height (Z axis)
Printing dimensions 1.45x1.11x1.8m
Vertical resolution 1.3mm layer thickness
Printable media Dimengel - UV-cured white plastic
Input file format STL
Printer dimensions 3.1x2.2x2.8m (WxDxH)
Contact CMYUK 0118 989 2929 www.cmyuk.com
Andesign Based in Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, the firm is a graphics, signage and large format printer offering production, fulfilment and installation services to the construction, corporate, events, exhibition and retail sectors. It employs 35 people and has a turnover of £3.5m. It was founded by chairman Andy Williams in 1996. At the helm now are managing director Garry Hassell, finance director Sarah Taylor and client services director Alison Corrall.
Why it was bought…
“As a company we have a can-do attitude,” says Hassell adding that: “There are not many companies that would take it on but we want to be different.”
How it has performed
Large format 3D printing is a new market and it has been a drawn out process to get up and running, however as word spreads about the Massivit work is flowing in and it is also opening doors to more conventional print work too.