From Star Trek to Additive Manufacturing in China — A Few Questions For: Star Prototype
Here at 3DPrint.com we do our best to keep an eye on a global perspective in 3D printing. The truly global aspect of the industry is ever more in the forefront, as companies continue to expand their presence in every market. Some include expertise they take across the world — just as Gordon Styles took his vision from the UK over to China, where he established Star Prototype. Styles founded the company in 2005, drawing from a broad base of experience and a strong spirit of business.
I recently heard about Styles’ work, and had A Few Questions For him — and I am thrilled to present his thoughts in this week’s interview feature. Below is a history of the multi-faceted Star Prototype, which takes advantage of additive as well as traditional manufacturing technologies to serve its customers needs, with a keen eye toward quality.
Can you fill us in on your background and what led you to founding Star Prototype in China?
I started off in engineering at the age of 18 as an apprentice precision machinist in England. I joined my father’s ten-man jobbing shop, Styles Precision Components, in 1983. Within a few years, I was the boss and my father retired. By 1993, I had become the owner of the company and had increased the size of the business, but it was never enough to make a reasonable profit. Later that year I decided to buy a 3D printer from 3D Systems, about 20 years before most of the world had even heard of 3D printing. In six months I wrote a business plan and raised £580,000 in venture capital and loans. Styles Rapid Prototyping grew exponentially into a nationwide technology company. In 2000, I sold STYLES to the Japanese company ARRK and invested in an engineering company called Springer Rapid. In fall of 2004, England faced the most unprecedented low-cost competition from a newly emergent nation, China. By April 2005, I unfortunately had to close the company.
In late 2004 I visited China to learn more about what was going on in the country and how it was possible that manufacturers there could do the same machining as my company but for about 85 to 90 percent less than my company’s price offering. What I found was that yes, indeed, manufacturing could be very cheap – especially on labor – but quality was horrendous. I came back to the UK with a fresh perspective and wrote a business plan to start up a new 3D printing company in China. With just a few thousand pounds left to my name I bought a one-way ticket to China and started a new chapter in my life.
When I arrived in China I couldn’t speak the language, had no friends, no contacts, and no idea of where I was going to be located. I took a tiny room in Dongguan City and started to look for suppliers in China and customers in the U.S. and the UK. Eleven years later Star Prototype remains self-funded, has built a reputation based on quality, and has grown organically to more than 200 people with its own 55,000 ft2 factory.
Star Prototype is a global company, what markets do you see the most potential in?
The greatest potential we have as a global company is in the U.S. market. The U.S. is by far the largest single innovator in the world, even today. Although the UK leads the field in published scientific papers, there is little significant investment in science, industry and manufacturing compared to the U.S. Star Prototype is particularly excited about the developments in the field of metal 3D printing. Our service can support customers with a range of projects relating to medical, conformal cooling cores, and many other industries.
When did you first encounter 3D printing?
I first encountered 3D printing in 1991 when I saw an SLA-250 stereolithography machine on the UK technology program “Tomorrow’s World.” British Aerospace was the first company to buy such a machine in the UK and I was utterly astonished at how it could miraculously grow parts in a bath of chemicals using laser beams.
When did Star Prototype first turn to additive manufacturing technologies?
Star Prototype was using additive manufacturing from the moment we set up the company in 2005. My first encounter was using three DTM SLS machines in Dongguan with a partner company. In 2015 Star Prototype received its first metal 3D printing machine in the form of a Renishaw AM250 which prints parts in Aluminum, Titanium and Stainless Steel.
What about 3D scanning technologies?
Star Prototype acquired its first 3D scanning machine in 2010. We bought a FARO arm, which we use on a daily basis, for doing reverse engineering and inspection. Currently, we use it for inspection of complex parts. The Faro laser scanner quickly and accurately scans the surface of the part we machined and creates a digital file. We can then compare the digital file from the scan of our part to the customer’s supplied CAD file to ensure its accuracy.
How do you think 3D printing has impacted the field of low-volume manufacturing?
Metal 3D printing is going to be the single greatest development in the evolution of the low-volume manufacturing of metal parts in the next 50 years. The big challenge with metal 3D printing is that designers have to learn how to design for the process. You simply cannot just take a part design that is suitable for CNC machining and run it through a metal 3D printer. One has to take into consideration that they need to reduce the amount and number of supports in metal 3D printing as it is time consuming, expensive and takes a lot of time and effort to remove. It is not like stereolithography where you just tear off the supports with your hands; nor like SLS where you just brush off the powder. You need serious mechanical equipment to remove parts from the plate and remove supports.
Star Prototype has a reputation for excellence in quality control; can you tell us about the measures you have in place and how these reflect your company’s business values?
The supply base in China continues to be scrutinized. At Star Prototype, we have had to build up huge defenses in that regard. One of the earliest pieces of equipment we purchased in quality control was an Oxford Instruments Optical Emissions Spectrometer (OES) for inspecting incoming metal supplies; it allows us to spark test all incoming metals. When we first got the OES we found that around two-thirds of all stainless steel coming into the factory from suppliers was either non-conforming or fake. For example, instead of receiving 304 stainless steel sheet we would receive 201. The difference is that 304 is nominally 18 percent chromium and 10 percent nickel – which means it rusts – but 201 is chromium manganese.
Star Prototype also found that about one-third of all aluminum arriving from suppliers was again either non-conforming or fake. Even though all of our suppliers know we will be testing their materials, we still find about 10 percent of all incoming metals are non-conforming. You would think that the suppliers would buy their own testing equipment to ensure their materials comply, but they don’t. Many suppliers don’t bother investing in quality control equipment. This year we also purchased a new hand-held PolyMax gun for Positive Material Identification (PMI). The PolyMax uses Ramen scattering for the testing of plastics.
Overall, Star Prototype employs 20 people in quality assurance and quality control and have made a significant investment – approximately $500,000 – on testing equipment including metals and plastics spectrometers.
How did Star Trek influence your career path?
I love Star Trek, particularly the Next Generation. For me it is a study of the human condition. I love the idea of a meritocratic future where the only pay off for being great at your job is to be rewarded with greater responsibility, rather than huge bonuses. I think the human race can be better than we have become now. I am also a huge fan of technology, but one thing to notice about Star Trek is that the technology still needs humans to direct and manage even all those hundreds of years in the future. The reality we face in the next 25 to 35 years is that artificial super intelligence may well replace the need for human direction. Along with combatting global warming, determining the limitations that should be put on AI will be one of the biggest challenges we’ll face as a society.
Styles is certainly not, as we’ve seen, the only maker influenced by Star Trek, and we can safely bet he won’t be the last. As industrious entrepreneurs continue to reap the benefits of inspiration, bringing science fiction to today’s reality, we’re sure to see additive technologies continue their own trek across industries. Styles’ vision for Star Prototype focuses on the realities that sci-fi has suggested, and additionally focuses on keeping high quality a key concern.
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