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IPF Three in a Row
New Kids on The Block: You won't see this anywhere else in the UK — Eden350V, Connex500 and Connex500 side-by-side.
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3D Printing the Objet Connex Box
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IPF (Another) Three in a RowIPF's Perfactory system is used to create very fine details in a range of resins, including filled resins, high-temperature resins and materials for medical, jewellery and dental applications.
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IPF's Gary with Fortus
Come on, we've all done it. Right? Gary get's to know the Fortus400mc.
Like so many manufacturing businesses in the UK, IPF’s headquarters is located on the sort of industrial estate on the outskirts of a small town that one passes daily. Driving past the rows identikit pre-fab units and dimly lit offices, it’s almost impossible to tell what happens behind these closed doors. I’ve visited (and worked on) enough of these estates to know that you should never judge a book by its cover — these places are a hotbed of technological innovation and slightly embarrassed entrepreneurial spirit that defines modern British industry.
IPF fits this mould perfectly — innocuous looking units on an unremarkable looking industrial estate mask the cutting-edge technology, skilled workmanship and business success contained within.
IPF was established in 1969 by Bill Bloomfield senior, who, at 83 is still active within the company. He has semi-retired now though — down to five days per week. Sometimes six…
Initially the company offered traditional (although some of it was pretty cutting-edge back then) plastic processing operations, such as machining and fabrication, for all kinds of plastic components. Over the years, the technology has kept up-to-date with the addition of CNC machining, laser cutting, engraving and computer-managed workflows. Combined with the growing expertise of the company, this development fuelled growth and expansion into larger premises, incorporating more processes.
In late 2003 the company took the plunge into 3D printing, picking up a second-hand Quadra Tempo Objet 3D printer, with little knowledge of exactly what the machine would do for them, but wanting to experiment with the technology and see what they could do.
Enter stage left Gary Miller, then CNC programmer and now head of Additive Rapid Prototyping, and confirmed 3D printing addict. Under Gary’s stewardship, IPF has grown its stable of 3D printers to include solutions from three providers — Objet, EnvisionTEC and Stratasys.
The 3D printing side of the business quickly grew to become 20% of the company’s business in 2004, rising to 25% in 2007 and now stands at around 45%. This rapid expansion soon began to overload the company’s 3D printing capacity, especially work on the Objet multi-material Connex500. Continuing material development from the Israel-based Objet (such as the popular ABS-like material) had the machine running at full capacity for clients across a huge breadth of specialities.
Not wanting to turn work away, and spotting an opportunity to run more efficiently, the company recently invested in a second Connex500 machine. As Gary explained, the changing of the cartridges on the largest machines is fairly wasteful in terms of time and material, it is more efficient to run without changing the type of material cartridge you load. IPF now has one Connex500 running the ABS-like material which is itself created from resins in two separate cartridges, combined to form a ‘Digital material’ the other machine runs the mix of soft and rigid materials that have become one of the hallmarks of Objet’s technology.
Alongside the Connex500 duo sits an Objet Eden350V and, dwarfed by the larger Objet machines, an EnvisionTEC Perfactory that the company uses for small, highly detailed parts work.
With the expansion of workload, comes an expansion in staff and equipment, and subsequently a need for more room. IPF has already combined two adjacent units to create more room, but throw in another machine — the behemoth Stratasys Fortus 400mc and it soon became obvious that the company needed even more room. Luckily an adjacent unit became available at the right time, and IPF snapped it up.
As Gary explained: “In the first 20 plus years of operation not only did we have less customers visit us but those that did wanted some sign of productivity — swarf, chips and noise — as you’d get in any manufacturing facility running traditional subtractive technology. With the 3D printers came a new kind of customer like F1 teams used to a different way of working. Barring the smell of the resin or hot ABS, there’s not much mess when you’re working with 3D printers at this level. The machines themselves are fully contained, the materials are easily and neatly stored, and the operation is very quiet.
“The new facility will house all our 3D printing technologies in a more… sophisticated setting, more befitting to their status!”
As Gary readily acknowledges, even the spread of 3D printing technologies that IPF has at its disposal cannot hope to replace the traditional technologies on which the company was founded:
There are many things that a skilled craftsman can achieve with machines and hand tools, that 3D printers simply couldn’t replicate. But by combining the new and the old, together with experience and a deep understanding of how to achieve the best results for our customers, we are able to take on virtually any project safe in the knowledge that we have the technology here to make it happen.”