Animated discussion

The press coverage that surrounded the launch of the video-projected mannequin ‘Anibod’ put its developer ATOM into the living rooms of millions of households.

The national press coverage that surrounded the launch of the video-projected mannequin ‘Anibod’ put its developer ATOM into the living rooms of millions of households.

While most consumers saw AniBod simply as a new concept in character animation, those in the know recognised the ‘talking head’ mannequin technologies and craft skills that have enabled modelmaker ATOM to build an enviable reputation throughout industry and consumer sectors.

Established in the early 1980s by brothers Nick and Neville Mines, ATOM (All Types Of Models) has over the years combined modelmaking craft skills with manual and CNC machining as well as with processes like stereolithography, vacuum forming and vacuum casting – many of which are represented in AniBod.

The result is that the Sunningdale-based company is a market-leading supplier of models and prototypes to a wide range of industries and, with sister company Thorp Modelmakers, a leading player in architectural modelmaking.

One step ahead

‘Our desire to stay one step ahead of the competition has been the driver for our continual investment and progression,’ Nick Mines says. ‘For instance, we were one of the first modelmakers in the UK to install vacuum casting.

‘In those days, bureaux were offering only one-off unfinished models of acrylic resin. Their customers had to go elsewhere if they wanted pre-production batches of, say, 20. We countered that by introducing a technology that duplicated models, at low cost, in polyurethane – a more usable and realistic material.’

Gradually, he says, the bureaux began investing in vacuum casting, too. ATOM responded with the installation of high-speed machining which, coupled with vacuum casting and vacuum forming, gave the company an end-to-end rapid product development service.

‘There really was no argument about the superior tolerances we were achieving by using 60,000rpm machining centres having 0.5mm diameter cutters with 0.01 mm stepovers direct from design data,’ he says.

The company’s success – today it has 50-plus employees across two sites – is based as much on the skills of its designers and modelmakers as it is on harnessing the latest technology.

In the modelmaking business, however, there is often a need to ‘bridge’ high-technology machining and craft skills.

‘With a very specialised CNC machining department receiving all its programs over a Windows 98 network, there was quite a gap between the machining centre operators and the people who used the manual machines,’ says Mines.

‘Manual operators were au fait with DRO-operated machines like the Bridgeport mill with Anilam Wizard, but they also wanted to gain CNC skills. That is good from both the company’s point of view – it meant they would be able to work across different machines — and for their own personal development.’

The solution was the installation of a Europa Milltech three-axis CNC milling machine fitted with Anilam 3300 MK CNC. With x, y and z axis travels of 720mm by 305mm by 115mm, the Milltech 1500VS was chosen over alternative machines for a number of reasons, says Nick Mines.

‘As well as being the most cost-effective solution and providing the appropriate machining performance on mainly Ureol and a variety of plastics, it was important that the machine’s control technology was intuitive and would integrate with the network.

‘The machine can be easily switched between manual and CNC operation, and because its Anilam control is a powerful, yet easy-to-use CNC it is the perfect bridging control technology,’ says Mines.

‘We have provided our modelmakers with a powerful machine yet one that is so user-friendly and easy to use that some have actually taught themselves how to operate it. One employee was discovered learning the machine in his own time – producing parts for a robot that won him a trip to Japan.’

The machine, Mines adds, is allowing people to progress and develop at a pace that suits them. It is also exposing them to the basics of CAD and the possibility of progressing to the more advanced and demanding CAD/CAM/CNC and stereolithography department.

Network communication

Since all Anilam controls are PC-based, have built-in networking boards and have standard networking auto-sensing at 100Mbit per second for data transmission, Anilam simply installed the appropriate communication protocols to allow easy integration.

The network guarantees program security because it uses files that are write – or password-protected on a central hub. The set-up superseding the traditional arrangement of having PCs with serial port links for each machine is just one example of how ATOM uses technology to stay one step ahead.