The Sharp End: Instant objects of desire

Dave Waller enters into the weird and clandestine world of high-speed manufacture.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I'm off to High Wycombe to catch a glimpse of high-speed manufacturing, the business of cranking out industrial products faster than you can say: 'Shouldn't you be in China?'

I arrive at CRDM's office and meet Dan Kirk of the company's metal sintering operation. He whisks me straight into one of his 'comfort breaks' - rapid-speak for topping up your tea mug with cold water so you can slurp it down before you sit.

Turnaround here is so tight you have to be on it all the time. A designer sends in a CAD file for a specific component and CRDM builds it. Dan throws me a facemask (the metallic dust can play havoc with your lungs) and takes me down to the workshop to see a job that's just finishing. The machine looks like a large microwave wired up to a PC. Inside, a shining sculpture of interlocking fins is half buried in a load of cobalt chrome powder. This top-secret gizmo has, I'm told, just been 'grown'. The future must have arrived a while ago but nobody thought to tell me.

The team calls the technology 'active manufacture'. It's like 3D printing: a device spreads an ultra-thin layer of powder, and a 200-watt laser then runs round the contours of the design, melting it into solid lumps. The object is built layer by layer, like a printer creating letter shapes in 2D using only straight lines of ink.

So Gutenberg has finally grown up. But what has me struggling with my place in the universe is that the machine has generated a functioning part for a Formula 1 car. The CAD was sent in two days ago and the part grown today will feature in the Grand Prix at the weekend. This is the most modern of industries, all instant gratification. 'Everybody wants stuff yesterday,' Dan explains as he buzzes about. 'Technology's evolving so fast that manufacturers can't wait for weeks to see if things work.' Not that everyone has caught on. 'F1's attitude is "yep, we want this now", while the automotive industry's still moaning about how much the post costs.'

Dan gets an enquiry about a new job at 9.30am. By 11.30 it's confirmed - and included in the afternoon's build.

CRDM's founder, Graham Bennett, tells me they crank out 40,000 objects every year, in jobs costing from £25 to tens of thousands. Some are prototypes - for everyone from Dragons' Den contestants to Black & Decker - but they increasingly roll out short runs of production parts too.

There's the freaky stuff: bionic hands (booming, thanks to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan) and, once, a false leg for a cat; and the team has grown tons of sex toys. I'm reminded of Weird Science, the 1985 film where two geeks develop a computer that can make anything. They end up with a cruise missile and Kelly LeBrock. Dan says he may be making a metal reconstruction of Naomi Campbell.

Up in the office, we're surrounded by 3D CAD images of things I don't understand. It seems they don't either. 'It's got a turny thing,' says Dan of one. Clients like to keep things confidential, even if it's an air-freshener. Dan tells me parts are sometimes handed over in an airport rendezvous.

Downstairs, I join John to prep a job in stainless steel. It's just like playing with sand at the beach, quite a change for John, who spent seven years working sheet metal with hammers and welders.

The skill here is in setting up to yield consistent results. Failing to add support structures to a given design, for example, might leave you with an expensive lump of molten metal. The supporting wires are clipped off with pliers, requiring a strong wrist, which Dan has and I lack. You can earn around £18k a year doing this, but I'd surely fail the job interview - an entire day spent twisting bits off a bionic hand.

Now, I may be a bit of a Luddite, but it doesn't take much to grasp the potential of all this. You could get this machine to build itself, I say, half in jest. Graham tells me that Nasa has been looking into sending one to the moon to build everything you'd need to set up there.

'Instead of buying an Airfix kit, my son will simply download the design and print the kit out on the machine by his bed,' he adds. Which will be fun - until he sees his mate has grown his own F1 car, complete with supermodel draped over the front...

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