History of the Rapid Tooling Industry

Between 1983 and 1993 China cnc machining and owner of ‘Styles Precision Components Limited’, a 10-person precision machining jobbing shop. You know the kind of place: a few Bridgeport’s and a few Colchester lathes! My little team were great, but the business was stuck in the 1960’s. I had grown the business from £50,000 per annum to about £500,000 per annum, but in 1993 business in the North-East of England was terrible. STYLES faced closure.

I had two options: go bust, or do something spectacular. I chose ‘spectacular’ (in a small way).

In 1980, when I was about 15 years old, I had a vivid dream of a machine that could build up a metal component in an Ultra Violet cabinet. Little particles seemed to collide with a small bead on the end of a vertical stick. As time went by, so the particle grew until there was a component on the end of the stick. It was one of those dreams you don’t forget.

In 1989 I saw a short program on the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World about the first Stereolithography machine to be installed at BAe Systems. I watched as an Ultra Violet laser lased across the surface of a vat of acrylic resin converting liquid plastic into solid. As each layer dipped down, another layer was deposited on top. It wasn’t exactly like my dream, but the UV element and the ‘growing’ of a part caught my imagination like nothing before.

In 1989 I was completely skint: I couldn’t even afford the next box of carbide tips for my shell-mill, so ‘stereolithography’ had to wait.

Again in 1992 Stereolithography caught my imagination when I saw a magazine article by Tim Plunkett, the Managing Director and founder of a company called Formation Limited. Tim’s article seemed to pose more questions than it gave answers and I was amazed that someone, anyone, could possibly be making a business out of this stunning new technology.

In early 1993 I called Tim on my mobile phone posing as a potential customer to try and glean more information. Tim was really helpful and he told me a lot that I didn’t know. Formation was the original leader of the UK rapid prototyping sector and blazed a trail in the quality and finishing of Stereolithography models. At the end of the call I embarrassed myself somewhat: Tim asked me what kind of 3D data I had available to send to him. At that time I didn’t know the difference between a DXF file, an IGES file, or a Nail file. I covered the phone and turned to my brother who was driving and said – “give me the name of a CAD file – quickly!” Dave whispered DXF. I repeated to Tim that my 3D data was in the form of a DXF file (2D Data). Oh, the innocence of youth…

I don’t know if Tim remembers that call, but it has never left me because it was the point at which I decided that I had had enough of dreary old jobbing machining, and that I was going to head for the bright lights of the fledgling rapid prototyping sector.

In April of 1993 I arranged to view an SLA-250 stereolithography machine at the Hemel Hempstead offices of 3D Systems the UK division of the US inventors of the stereolithography process. I turned up there with my girlfriend and her 2 year-old daughter in a pram and viewed that ground breaking rapid prototyping machine. The then Managing Director of 3D Systems UK, Andrew Chantrill, later told me that of all the prospects he had ever had, he never suspected that by 2000 I would be his best UK customer. In fact, he never gave me a second thought after my visit that day.

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