After witnessing 3D printing in action first hand at a FabLab, Manchester, Croft turned its attention to AM to provide a unique edge to its 28 years’ established filter business with a new manufacturing method that could have significant energy saving benefits.
Speaking with director, Neil Burns, it’s remarkable to learn of the challenges the company still faces when convincing people that AM is the way to go. Despite the hype, a lot of questions remain about trust, reliability and finishing. Customers are often concerned about parts breaking up or the quality of finish, but Neil says this is something the company is very aware of.
“That is a typical reaction to additive. The world’s not ready for it yet,” Neil commented. “We’re very lucky here because we have customers approaching us for a speedy solution to a problem, which is beneficial to us as we can use it as an opportunity to promote the speed and high-quality products that AM technology enables us to offer.”
Despite the move to additive with its in-house Realizer SLM 250 and CAD design team, Croft hasn’t forgotten its subtractive roots. Many projects continue to rely on conventional processes - typically large batches where the cost of traditional mesh wire methods is much less than that of additive.
“It’s not all about replacing conventional manufacturing methods but AM is an additional tool to offer our customers, Neil commented. “We’ve got to inform people that AM is not the same as what you see on television programmes, such as The Big Bang Theory, where a 3D printer (costing $5,000) produces a 25 Cent party whistle in 3 hours. We tell people that there are dirty secrets.”
Some of those secrets include informing customers that AM isn’t always the right solution and focussing on post-processing techniques, an area the company is investing heavily in after recently receiving a grant for £75,000 from Innovate UK.
For SMEs, making the jump to AM can be quite a challenge. Capital costs are huge and the growing competition makes it more challenging to maintain that all-important reputation. However, with the trusted status already in the bag, Croft has been working with the Lancaster University, University of Chester and Liverpool John Moore’s University to access high-end technology, such as ANSYS software, 3D scanning and metrology equipment, which can be out of reach for smaller businesses.
Louise Geekie, project manager at Croft, commented: “Student projects quite often give you an opportunity to get a very different viewpoint on a specific problem or they might have access to software, such as computational fluid dynamics software, which is extremely high-end.”
There’s a modest feel to the company but there’s no denying the impact this value added application is having on a global scale as the Croft name jets off to present all over the world to Singapore and back to more local territory in Nottingham.
Louise added: “When you can introduce 3D printing in a new space, that’s when you’re showing an industry what you can do. It’s very difficult to try and inspire people to change part of their processes.”
Croft is first company to be brought on board STFC CERN business incubation centre.
There’s much more than just filtration going on at the UK-based factory, from automotive solutions to community projects. Looking to the future, there are some exciting ventures on the horizon, including being the first company to be brought on board the STFC Science and Technology Facility Council CERN Business Incubation Centre, where Croft’s 3D printed parts have been submitted for testing out in Switzerland. Through this, Croft plans to push Stainless Steel to the limit and experiment with new alloys.
“I’m very wary about being the teacher to the rest of the world,” Neil concludes. “Being first to market is great but you really have to be careful as to what you do, we’re very lucky we’ve got the filers behind us. Without that, this wouldn’t be happening.”