In the midst of a truly bizarre spate of British weather the world’s worst traveller, Group Editor, Daniel O’Connor made his way up to Scotland to see CA Models’ brand-spanking-new SLM Solutions SLM 500 HL machine in situ.
An Englishman, a Scotsman and a German in a room… in this current climate the only jokes here are going to veer towards Brexit but there’s no joking when you’re talking about the amount of money Stirling-based, CA Models, invested on becoming the first commercially operated SLM 500 HL machine in the UK. The post-referendum fall in the pound would have meant if Managing Director and founder Clark Campbell was to purchase the machine today it would have set the company back an extra £50,000, fortunately for CA Models that deal was struck at formnext powered by TCT back in November 2015.
We first learnt about the deal brokered in Frankfurt two issues ago when Assistant Editor, Laura Griffiths spoke to Clark about the acquisition of the machine, which was, at that time, just being installed. CA Models have since been creating a state-of-the-art room specifically for the new machine to sit alongside other metal 3D printing technology which is a far cry away from CA Models humble beginnings.
“In 1983 I converted the second bedroom of my flat into my workshop,” reminisces MD, Clark as he describes how the company started on the back of an advance by a man who would go onto receive an OBE for services to life sciences. “I was a model maker and a toolmaker at quite a successful computer company in the Fife area. I was in the workshop canteen one day and got a pat on the back, turned round and this bearded guy says to me ‘are you the model maker?’ I says ‘aye’, he says, ‘I’m Douglas Anderson I own a company called Crombie Anderson we're product designers, I have a model maker but I need a lot of models making and we’re at capacity. Do you have any spare time?”
As a passionate footballer, playing semi seriously at the age of 25, with a stable full-time role spare time wasn’t exactly something Clark had in spades. Nevertheless he took on that work and after the first few pay cheques paid more than his full-time job, it dawned on him that there was an opportunity to go at it alone here and if there’s one thing that is apparent from the visit to CA Models, Clark and his son Gregory know how to seize on an opportunity.
CA Models team.
In those three and a half decades since the approach by Scottish Engineering Hall of Famer, Anderson, CA Models has grown into one of the biggest service bureaux in Europe. Housed in a 60 m2 facility with 34 employees, CNC Machining, the complete range of polymer additive manufacturing technology (SLA, SLS, FDM and PolyJet), bespoke hand-finishing techniques and laser scanning inspection technologies, the leap into metal 3D printing came at a time when the technology was, well, let’s just say having a few teething problems.
“Clark and I went to Euromold about four years ago looking to invest and we were absolutely flying in SLA,” explained Operations Director, Greg Campbell. “I thought we should buy two more 3D Systems iPro SLA machines and Clark wanted to invest in metals so we had this debate, which I lost. On the way home I was saying, 'what have we done?' The first part we built with the machine was crumbling in our hands and I turned round and said, ‘I told you so!’”
Clark picks the story up with a twinkle in his eye, "He says to me, ‘I've got parts lined up to be built but I haven't got the ability to print them because you've bought this metal printer!’ Three months later, we’ve got orders coming out our ears, I kicked in his office door and said, "morning,
how's my investment doing?"
The now converted metal fan Greg laughs and says, “The future of our investments is in metals, we've maximised our plastic investments.”
One of the reasons that metals have become such a popular choice for CA Models’ customers is down to the fact that, like with all of their manufacturing technologies, the team have developed and perfected a process for manufacturing metal parts.
“We first check to see if there are any tight tolerances or dimensioned holes and modify the CAD model to suit,” explains Gregory. “We prepare the support structure for the part, transfer it to the machine, prepare the machine and build. One of the beauties of the SLM 500 is that it has a heated build platform that means we do not need to heat treat parts post build any more. Depending on geometry/build orientation we would either EDM (a post-processing technique that uses spark erosion) parts off the platform or manually break the supports off with the part. Parts are then hand finished/dressed. If the part requires holes drilled or post 5 axis machining it is then passed on to our CNC department. The part is then subjected to a second hand finishing/dressing process and passed onto our inspection dept. Once a part has been inspected (Scanned or CMM) it goes through a final check then is passed to our model shop where it is packed for shipping. Some parts require special finishes like highly polished or Xylan Coated, which we can also do in-house in our specialist finishing facility.”
The SLM Solution
At last year’s formnext CA Models went, armed with serious capital, to invest in a second metals machine. The team including Clark, Greg and Martin Sanchez, Head of Metal Laser Sintering already knew, or at least they thought they did, which machine they wanted. The sheer array of metal additive manufacturing equipment at the inaugural Frankfurt event allowed the team to make a more informed decision.
“The technical specifications of the SLM 500 machine blew us away,” Greg explains. “The SLM 500 was the only machine we saw at the show that was working and when you’re spending this amount of money you want intricacy and high-quality throughout a part no matter how big it is. SLM’s quad laser system allows us to do that.”
CA Models required both a bigger build envelope than their current metal machinery as well as the ability to make intricate internal channels with wall thicknesses of 0.5 mm. The SLM 500 HL provides a build envelope of 500 x 280 x 365 mm³ and CA Models opted for the 4 x 400 W solution with four quad fibre lasers in action simultaneously, this gives that desired accuracy as well as increasing the build-up rate by up to 90% compared with the twin configuration (2x 400 W).
SLM Solutions booth at formnext powered by tct.
Everywhere you turn inside the Stirling HQ you’re reminded that CA Models’ ability to 3D print in metal and finish in-house makes them a top tier parts manufacturer to the F1 industry. With significant changes to the rulebook for the 2017 F1 season there will be added demand placed on CA Models for totally new parts printed in aluminium. The SLM 500 machine, with its bigger build volume and increased speed, was purchased in order to fulfil that demand leaving the company free to experiment with different metal materials on the smaller machine that may entice other sectors to use the CA Models metal service. Should those experiments prove successful the MD says there is scope for a third metals machine.
“I’m a Scotsman at heart,” Says the thoroughly engaging Clark Campbell. “I’ll always be counting the pennies and once this SLM 500 has paid for itself then we can look at bringing in a third machine.”
What manufacturer wins that business remains to be seen but Stefan Ritt of SLM Solutions believes his company’s philosophy of being open towards materials and the ability to retrofit new technology into legacy machinery will see repeat custom.
“In Germany we have a saying,” Ritt rounds off with. “The first car is sold by the salesperson, the second by the service station.”
You can visit SLM Solutions at TCT Show in September on stand number E32, register for the event for FREE.