Sat, Aug

Entering the third dimension

NES did it, you can too. Director Jon Baker tells how the company developed its 3D print operation and why it makes sense to consider following suit.

Its wednesday afternoon, an email arrives, ping, it’s an enquiry from your ‘favourite’ retailer; he’s got the budget and just needs to place this one with you to get it off his desk. You read on. 700 panels, 5mm Foamex - great, it looks straightforward enough. UV print, one artwork, external use, no lamination - you’re thinking “put it on the old Inca, no problem”.  Delivery seven days – tight, but if you get on to your production manager straight away he should be able to squeeze it through and it will certainly make the month look a lot better than it did this time yesterday.

Then you read on. 300 of the prints need to formed into a pyramid. Pyramid? What’s he going on about? Intersected by a cube. What the...? There must be a mistake  - you open the attachment and see the sketch, ugh…

Welcome to the world of three dimensional print, but trust me, it’s not quite as frightening as it seems. The cardboard engineering guys have been doing it for a very long time; producing fantastic three dimensional POS units to display anything from mobile phones to perfume. I recently saw a three dimensional, full size, Lego drum kit with a Lego drummer - rock on..!

However, moving into such a highly competitive market, even with its continually lowering barrier to entry, is a risky strategy. The design input alone is as complex as it is time consuming and with yields crucial to the profitability of the project, mistakes can be costly. Paradoxically, with the ever decreasing costs of plant and the buoyant secondhand machine market, the cardboard engineers are now moving in on traditional flatbed markets viewed by them as a way of filling up underutilised machinery with easy print projects.
But it’s certainly not all doom and gloom for large-format printers; as demand for innovative large-format print solutions is growing, what was a very small niche is now growing rapidly into a sector. Not too good for companies like NES which seems to have had the marketplace to itself for sometime; still, things move on in 3D, even the telly’s gone 3D!
So how’s it done? The answer is predicatable I suppose - it’s all about the people. You have to have the right people doing the right jobs. But that’s the same for most industries, what’s so different about what we’ve done at NES? Well, we’ve looked at this from the clients’ perspective rather than from our own and found that what they want, from their first briefing, is someone who can understand what they are trying to achieve and then develop that concept with them. Historically this used to be the role of the salesperson, but we gradually started taking along technical guys or designers to these meetings and it became apparent that they were key to winning the work.

That didn’t mean we got rid of the salespeople. It’s all about education and re-education. If your sales people are going to attend these initial client briefings, they need to understand the manufacturing processes. Likewise, the designers need to understand the commercial aspects of the jobs. Once this approach is adopted we’ve found that clients then trust your judgement and you become part of their design team. Being involved at the outset is fundamental to the success of these types of project. We have often found that important product information, or even more important cost information, was missed out when only one of our team went to the meetings. You may not have a design team to call upon, but you have a production team and technicians. They probably have a deep understanding of materials and how to work with them -  they’re often only too keen to point out when a designer gets it wrong; so involve them at the start of the process, you’ll be genuinely glad you did.
OK, so that’s the HR bit done. What’s next? We started in a slightly different way to that which I’m advocating. We had great fabrication and manufacturing capability but no flatbed printing, just a small screen-print department. We were keen to diversify and started to research large-format printing machinery. The principles of diversification are still the same whatever way you approach it. Understand one technology and then add on secondary complimentary technologies. Your typical digital print company would have, say, two flatbeds and perhaps a roll-to-roll printer, but with the addition of a flatbed plotter or a router you’ve not only got the ability to cut out printed vinyl and board but you can also start introducing simple forming techniques. The pyramid intersecting a cube is just round the corner.

But, you need to really know the technology you’re using and to do that you need fantastic operators. They need to really understand how to get the best from these machines and work, not in isolation, but as part of the new 3D team. At NES we started by having our operators understand all aspects of routing and forming sheet materials and then introduced print into the mix. There was a lot of trial and error but we eventually started printing flat sheets, then routing and forming these into large three dimensional displays. So, instead of laminating everything with vinyl we were now producing the products with the image already applied, from in-store features, signage and even bus stops.

If the need for retraining, software, new plotters sounds like another lump off the bottom line just think on. The print industry has always been about reinvestment and large-format is no exception. Standing still is just not an option – your competitors are probably shoe-horning a brand new printer into the factory right now, forcing you to consider an upgrade (again). Instead of going down that route why not consider this diversification path instead.

 You’ve probably got some of the best Mac operators in the industry, with great attention to detail, who know all of the graphic programmes inside out - usually better than the designer who gives them the artwork. Compliment them with a CAD designer who can run something like Autocad 3D – or could you train one of your Mac operators to do that? Get an operator for the plotter and someone to fabricate the stuff. Easy. At NES we now have dedicated industrial and graphic designers and fabricators who specialise in plastics and aluminium for 3D projects… but that is how we started; it really is that simple. 

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