Expert Interview: Graphite Additive Manufacturing’s Jonathan Warbrick on Achieving Success with 3D Printing
19 June 2019
The landscape for AM service bureaus is changing rapidly as the drive towards production continues. More than ever, service bureaus must be agile and be able to adapt to an industry that is under a constant state of flux.
Graphite Additive Manufacturing is a UK-based AM service provider offering industrial 3D printing solutions. With strong ties to the world of UK Formula One and motorsports, Graphite’s solutions include production parts, tooling, concept models and prototypes.
We speak with Graphite’s Business Development Manager, Jonathan Warbrick, to discuss how it manages to keep ahead of the game, the opportunities in AM and what it takes to succeed as a service bureau today.
What is Graphite’s mission?
Our aim at Graphite is to help our clients find the best solutions using additive manufacturing, from prototyping all the way to production. This includes helping them understand which technology and materials will best suit their applications. We differ from a lot of other service bureaus in that we manufacture our own materials as well.
Our Managing Director, Kevin Lambourne, whilst working at Red Bull Racing, found that he couldn’t get the technical knowledge from the UK service bureaus to really support the high-end, top-level projects he was managing.
As a result of this experience, Kevin founded Graphite in 2012 to fill that void and be the additive manufacturing service bureau of choice for designers and engineers and provide best-in-class technical assistance to our clients from prototyping to production.
The UK leads the world in terms of innovation within motorsports, and additive manufacturing has played a key role. So in the early days, our main industry focus was Formula One and Motorsports.
Since then, we’ve taken steps to diversify and take the knowledge we have into the broader market.
Big wins for us in recent years have been applications for industries like automotive, marine, aerospace and defence. We still do a lot of work within the Formula One field and motorsport — it’s our heritage — but we also supply a range of sectors manufacturing low-to-mid volume production runs.
What is it like running a service bureau today?
For us, business has been really positive and we ended last year on a high. We’ve had sustainable growth of about 20% over the last three years and we’ll see this grow by 20-25% again this year.
The challenge as ever at this time of year is to reset, to understand which markets we want to attack, whilst strengthening the relationships we already have with our existing clients.
One of the driving forces behind our recent growth is us moving from prototyping into production — and long may this continue.
Within motorsports, we tend to find that the volumes are fairly low and the lead times are very short.
In terms of building a sustainable business plan and growing going forward, we recognise that we have great solutions for our Formula One and motorsports clients.
The key for us is to get a really good balance between fast turnaround for the urgently needed projects and the steady low to mid-volume production runs. As such we have introduced an Express service and an Economy service.
This transition comes with a number of challenges, such as quality standards, repeatability, inspection, traceability and improving the back office systems.
These have been something that we’ve been actively taking steps to address, from taking on new hires to moving into a larger facility in September last year. So we have some room to grow into, which is great.
Another challenge we’ve faced in recent years is the lack of automation for managing some of our lower value orders. These were taking up lots of time, in terms of scheduling jobs. Workflow automation software has been a huge benefit for our business, enabling us to make our workflow far more streamlined and automated.
For many service bureaus, the temptation is to try and be all things to all people. With so many different materials and technologies out there, it’s more important to specialise in certain areas and deliver.
We have to be very careful to ensure that the growth we enjoy is sustainable. This means we make those investments in line with both the current needs of our clients, as well as the needs that they will have in 6 to 12 months’ time.
How do you weigh up whether or not to invest in a particular technology?
It’s very much about introducing these new technologies and materials to your clients, understanding the limitations and capabilities of a particular technology and being confident that there’s a demand for it.
For us, this means being really data-driven. We try and understand each new technology, and we print test parts to get a sense of what it can and can’t do before making that jump.
So it comes down to being close to your clients, introducing new technologies as they come out and ensuring that before you make any big investment into a machine, whether it be SLS, SLA, MJF or FDM that there’s actually a demand there.
For example, we’ve been introducing HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology to our clients for the last two years, making sure they fully understand the limitations and capabilities of that technology.
How would you describe the current state of the additive manufacturing industry?
The industry still has a long way to go before it provides cost-effective manufacturing solutions. But that’s changing rapidly.
There’s huge scope to provide more production solutions, particularly on the metals and performance plastics side of things.
A good example of that is the UK supercar manufacturers. A lot of the under-bonnet, in-cab parts for these vehicles are now being 3D printed. One of our customers is using additive manufacturing to save weight, improve performance but the quality of the prints is paramount.
Simple parts like air vents and windscreen surrounds would previously never have been printed because the technology was deemed to be more for prototyping. Now they’ve become a frequent application for those really high-end markets.
This is largely because the volumes are right — we’re talking about a few hundred parts of a particular model. If they need several thousand parts, there are cheaper ways to manufacture using traditional technologies like injection moulding. But for low volumes, 3D printing is going to be more cost-effective.
It’s only very recently that additive manufacturing can now offer premium materials that mimic the mechanical properties of injection-moulded alternatives and be a cost-effective solution for these low to mid volume production runs.
There’s also a huge scope to bring down the costs and that will certainly happen in time. SLS and MJF, for example, have proved to be two technologies that ensure you hit the right price points to be able to compete with traditional injection moulding and other forms of manufacturing.
Finally, the industry also needs to improve the post-processing and finishing of parts and make that more automated and cost-effective.
A lot of the post-processing required are very manual operations. We still spend a lot of time in the workshop manually cleaning, sanding and blasting parts. To save time and money, we need to automate as much of that post-processing as possible.
Companies are starting to do more 3D printing in-house. How do you think that will impact the service bureau market?
It’ll be very similar to what happened with technologies like injection moulding and other forms of manufacturing, particularly within industries like automotive. In essence, the automotive OEMs don’t manufacture anything, they assemble parts on big production lines.
With new technology like additive manufacturing, companies will take it in-house to make sure that they’re getting the best benefits and cost savings. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they need to make all those parts in-house.
At the moment, there’s a real drive to buy machinery and to upscale. In time, that will dissipate again, just as it does with almost every other technology used in automotive. They will be outsourcing parts and making sure that they get deliveries on time.
Ultimately, there will be a balance. Take Volkswagen as an example. They have a large number of FDM machines printing parts on the workshop floor to support their manufacturing process. But they’re still outsourcing huge volumes of printed parts to other service bureaus.
Now, there’s a temptation to bring all AM production in-house, but that will change as companies realise you need a large number of machines to fulfil production demands going forward, with implications in terms of personnel, workshop space and cost. In the end, you’ll always need the support of a good service bureau.
What has been Graphite’s approach to developing its own materials?
It really stems from our early days, when we mainly served the UK Formula One teams.
The drive to use 3D printing was the possibility to make the strongest, stiffest, most lightweight parts to put on their car that might save a fraction of a second around the lap of a track.
We looked into what was out there on the market and developed our Carbon-filled SLS Nylon.
Essentially, we infill carbon fibre with short strands with a nylon PA12 base. If the strands are too long, you can see the fibre sticking out through the part — you get excellent mechanical properties, but the part looks awful. But if you go too short on those carbon fibre strands, you’re compromising on mechanical properties.
We’ve developed what we think is the absolute optimal length of fibres to infill with our nylon materials to add extra stiffness and strength. Our materials have significantly better mechanical properties than what you’d traditionally expect from a normal PA12 or PA11. There’s much better stiffness, strength and elongation at break.
In the early days, it was just the Carbon filled Nylon SLS that we worked with. The feedback from the market was fantastic, and it became the go-to material within that Formula One and motorsport world.
In addition to stiffness, and strength, customers appreciate the naturally dark grey, black look of the material. It looks like an engineering-grade plastic ready to go. You don’t need to dye the material like you may have to do with traditional SLS nylons.
But then we had some customers who didn’t necessarily need the stiffness, strength and premium mechanical properties. What they wanted was a really lightweight type of Nylon, so we started to develop Graphite filled Nylon SLS. It still has a density of carbon fibre within the material and we infill it with graphite dust to add some mechanical properties and to make the part look naturally dark grey/black straight off the machine.
We now sell three or four times more Graphite SLS than we do carbon SLS. Carbon SLS is still very much the go-to material within the Formula One teams and racing world. But industries like marine and automotive are looking for more cost-effective production solutions. Graphite SLS is probably about 30% more cost-effective than the carbon.
We’ve also worked on a number of lightweight polymers where we’re trying to come up with new and innovative materials to keep us one step ahead of the competition.
We’re currently working on a new ultra-lightweight SLS material, even lighter than our carbon. With such a drive to improve the performance of Hybrid and Electric vehicles, saving weight has become a key consideration for many of the designers and engineers we work with. We want to continue to provide additive manufacturing solutions to meet these challenges.
What about composite materials?
There’s a lot of work within the composite tooling market at the moment. And again, that goes back to what I was saying about the drive to make parts lighter and more efficient.
So many parts that were made with metal are now being considered to be made in carbon fibre. So we’re deliberately running a number of materials and technologies to support that composites industry.
This includes 3D Printing soluble and extraction mandrels, ceramic SLA moulds, high-temperature FDM materials and jigs and fixtures. We see the composites market as a natural fit for Additive Manufacturing and have established a number of technical working partnerships.
How would you describe the landscape for AM service bureaus today?
There’s a wide range of different types of service bureaus out there at the moment. But because the barriers to entry for 3D printing are so low, you can spend a few thousand pounds on a couple of desktop FDM machines, and suddenly you have a service bureau.
But I think overall, that’s a good thing for the industry. Competition is the key to pushing the industry forward, as it drives development and innovation.
There are some very well established, excellent bureaus out there. But there are very few bureaus, if any, that are doing what Graphite AM are doing. We’re unique in the UK in terms of our technical knowledge and producing our own SLS powders.
Going forward, I think there will be a lot of mergers and acquisitions over the next few years. Largely fuelled by the aerospace sector. Locking down an AM process from sourcing the material to production is key for flight-approved parts. This is likely to lead to much movement within the industry over the next few years.
The future looks very bright for those bureaus that can carve a niche and continue to deliver.
Can you share any success stories that you’ve been fortunate to work on?
One recent case study is with Nifco, a large automotive component supplier. With the drive towards electrification and moving away from traditional petrol and diesel combustion engines, the need to save weight and to improve efficiencies for the electric boost systems is very prevalent at the moment.
So we’ve been working with Nifco on a lightweight engine bracket — a part that’s been traditionally machined from aluminium. We’ve worked with the R&D team to produce a more cost-effective, lighter part that can be printed in Graphite SLS. It’s the first 3D-printed engine mount of its kind and the feedback has been very good.
Another is with FT Technologies, a company that produces UAV and environmental sensors to operate in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. They wanted a material that was going to be extremely lightweight and durable as the environmental sensor was aimed at the UAV market.
The process began about a year ago. We started with a few concept designs and produced a number of prototypes. The beauty of 3D printing is that you can tweak a design, develop the parts and bring a product to market so much quicker than with traditional methods.
After a few design meetings and a couple of changes to the original file, the component was launched in September last year. That part has now moved into production and the first 100 units were sent out to gauge the market, the feedback was fantastic and a great example of using 3D printing for prototyping all the way to production.
To learn more about Graphite, visit: https://graphite-am.co.uk/