Two years ago Mike Hartley faced a dilemma. Amsys, the rapid prototyping bureau he and his colleagues had set up at the University of Sunderland, was beginning to outgrow the university’s ability to nurture it. The loss of two key members of staff seemed an ominous sign for the future.
‘We could roll over and play dead or we could get up and do something about it,’ says Hartley. His team chose to do something about it and last year, Amsys entered a new independent phase following a management buyout.
Six months later managing director Hartley is optimistic about the future: the potential of selective laser sintering, the process Amsys specialises in, is only just beginning to be exploited; in the next year he expects the market for rapid tooling to grow apace. And in the medium term he predicts Amsys will become one of a handful of rapid prototyping bureaux dominating an increasingly sophisticated market.
All this is a long way from the roots of Amsys when it was set up as a consultancy by the university seven years ago. Amsys was seen as part of an industrial regeneration strategy across the North East of England. Initially it planned to advise small companies on automation and computer integrated manufacture; realising this was aiming ‘a little high’ it soon refocused on business management systems, and IT systems such as basic shopfloor scheduling packages, simple MRP systems and the like.
But he and his colleagues realised that this wasn’t going to make a company that would be there in 10 or 15 years.
So Hartley, who with sales director Dion Griffith and production director Bryan Hurst has been with the company from the start, looked for other areas of expertise in the context of the original aims: to help manufacturing companies develop and improve using new technology in ways that were fundamental to the business. They came up with rapid prototyping: ‘a state of the art technology doing something absolutely fundamental, that is helping companies develop new products’.
This was in 1993, when the market leading system, as now, was stereolithography. Hartley and his colleagues tried to take a far-sighted view rather than following on from everybody else.
‘We saw that selective laser sintering wasn’t really getting much of a following in the UK at the time. While it wasn’t as advanced as we would have liked, we felt that it had a great deal more potential to go forward.’
This was for two reasons: the standard SLS material, glass-filled nylon, is stronger than most RP materials and allows function as well as form and fit to be checked. This could be exploited to give the company its own niche. Second, SLS can use a potentially wider range of materials. ‘We convinced the university and got the second SLS machine in the UK,’ he says. The only other one was being used in academic research.
With the SLS machine Amsys became self-financing ‘but we were becoming more maverick as an organisation within the university’. The need to get access to the building late at night or at weekends, or to bring in specialist help on a short-term basis, and the need to pay for scarce skills, did not fit well with the university’s admin systems.
Hartley and his colleagues took a long hard look at the business. They concluded: ‘If we carry on as we are we feel that within 18 months the company would start to falter and that it would be left behind. Technology would move forward and other companies would overtake.’ Not only the university but also the region ‘would start to suffer from having lost an asset which was bringing business in’.
The alternative was substantial investment in equipment, people and resources. The university and in particular, Professor Dennis Willcock, head of the engineering school, was sympathetic. It carried out its own evaluation and agreed with Amsys’s conclusions. ‘But it also concluded that it wasn’t the role of the university to get involved in the further investment that was needed.’
The solution was a management buyout/buy-in in June 1997 following a year of negotiation and preparation. The main shareholder is 3i, with the university retaining a stake along with Hartley, Griffith and Hurst, plus Peter Dawson, non-executive director and chairman, in a £1m deal.
This bought two additional Sinterstation machines, moulding and workshop equipment for the new RapidTool process, working capital, a tool designer, a toolmaker, a technician and two full-time salesmen allowing the whole country to be covered. Staff now total 14, up from eight before the buyout.
Hartley has high hopes of RapidTool, by which mould tools of hardness ‘close to P20 tool steel’ can be made from 3D CAD files in four weeks. ‘RapidTool will get high volume products into production earlier, covering the 26 week gap while a conventional toolmaker makes a conventional fully hardened tool. It will enable companies to get products to market quicker than ever before. Companies will also be able to bring out products which wouldn’t otherwise make it to the market because the volume is too low.’
Based on six months’ experience, he says, ‘the market is extremely enthusiastic for rapid tooling’. RapidTool represents 10-15% of turnover and rising.
In the near future, Hartley sees Amsys as one of a small group of RP bureaux accelerating away: among this group he includes Formation, Styles, and ARRK. He is unfazed by the news that Formation, previously sceptical, is evaluating a Sinterstation: ‘People will begin to realise that what we’re doing is mainstream. There’s a hell of a market out there for rapid tooling – there’s room for Amsys, Formation, Styles, ARRK and one or two others several times over.’
Mike Hartley: at a glance
Born: London, 31 October 1962
Education: BSc in electronics with first class honours, UMIST on MoD sponsorship scheme; Diploma in Manufacturing Management, Coventry Polytechnic/Dunchurch Management Centre
First job: 1986, project engineer, factory capacity improvement projects, Philips Components, Durham
Current job: managing director, Amsys Rapid Prototyping, Sunderland
Interests: sailing (when time), family, work