Prototal UK is Britain’s largest provider of polymer additive manufacturing (AM) services. As part of the Prototal Group, their European facilities offer rapid prototyping & serial production of polymer components through 3D printing, vacuum casting & injection moulding. 

Interview with Aaron Hadfield, Account Manager at Prototal UK.

Easy Engineering: What are the main areas of activity of the company?

Aaron Hadfield: Our company specialises in polymer additive manufacturing for larger-scale industrial projects for products’ entire life cycles. Our typical customer journey starts with rapid prototyping a first iteration via SLS 3D printing in durable nylon (PA2200). 

Then once designs are finalised after testing several prototypes, we will move to serial production. Depending on the project’s size, this can be done with SLS 3D printing or introduce tooling with vacuum casting (silicone tooling) or injection moulding (steel tooling). 

From here, hundreds or even thousands of the same component will be manufactured & then once production dwindles to prepare for the newer iterations, we can support the customer with on-demand spare components through SLS 3D printing once again. 

We mainly work with companies in the motorsport, medical, automation, automotive and energy sectors but our services are applicable to a wide range of sectors due to additive manufacturing’s low barrier for entry and high ceiling of possibilities as a customer. 

E.E: What’s the news about new products?

A.H: For us, we have recently added the ability to manufacture using super polymers like PEEK & Carbon PEEK. Through our partnership with Roboze, we can now penetrate markets that were previously inaccessible thanks to materials higher temperature & chemical resistance backed with increased tensile strength. 

The other big innovation is the introduction of vapour smoothing through our partnership with AMT. This post process allows our 3D printed parts to have new applications and properties for customers.

For example, the smooth finish offers prototypes an injection moulded like finish without committing to tooling costs. Also, if customers wish to paint parts; we now help reduce sanding or finishing time thanks to a smooth surface finish being achieved quicker. 

For non-aesthetic applications, vapour smoothing allows parts to be water resistant and the lack of a powdery finish means these components can now be applied to more sensitive areas of product assemblies. 

E.E: What are the ranges of products?

A.H: Here at Prototal UK we can offer the following services: 

  • Polymer 3D Printing – SLS, SLA, High-Performance FDM, Polyjet, FDR & SAF
  • Low-Mid volume production – Vacuum Casting
  • Mid-High volume production – Injection Moulding

Based on customer requirements, we then offer post processing with the following services: 

  • Dyeing
  • Vapour smoothing
  • Vibro polishing
  • Metal insert application
  • Reassembly of larger components 
  • Spray painting to specific RAL colours

E.E: What is the state of the market where you are currently active?

A.H: The market is very exciting for us both on a branch and group level, especially in the UK due to it being a manufacturing hub for Europe. We find that processes like 3D printing are being integrated into company supply chains more than ever before.

As machines are now printing faster and more efficiently than ever, it’s a win-win situation for customers and service providers like us. 

For AM, the biggest change is its increasing presence at production levels as a proven method of manufacture. We see that in an economic environment of increasing warehouse costs, the ability to manufacture on-demand without commitments to tooling or storage is very appealing for companies when choosing production methods. 

E.E: What can you tell us about market trends?

A.H: The market for 3D printing in the UK is more competitive than ever in all aspects. There are an increasing number of machines entering the UK which means the technology is more accessible for companies to trial and implement such methods. 

As more companies can access more diverse manufacturing options, rapid innovation is required to maintain a competitive edge. This can be through having products go to market quicker than competitors in the case of consumer goods or bringing upgrades quicker to the racetrack in motorsport. 

Additive manufacturing is often a driving force for these growth opportunities and as more spotlight is given through technological innovation and marketing campaigns, we will see the use of 3D printing evolve and increase. 

The other notable trend we notice is companies placing high importance on the use of sustainable materials. The emergence of popularity in components required in more sustainable materials like PA11 is not to be ignored. 

With such a demand developing, there is now a race to provide a scalable sustainable solution to market as it will open growth opportunities in the face of a collective drive to a more sustainable world. 

E.E: What are the most innovative products marketed?

A.H: There are three categories for where the most innovation is taking place which are the materials used, the machinery for manufacture and software that optimises the design and manufacturing processes. 

If I were to name one specific innovation, the work that Roboze is doing to bridge the gap between polymers & metal is very influential on the market. For decades the groups have been very far apart from one another with very few alternatives being presented to customers. 

As it stands, Roboze is successfully rolling out their machines across the MotoGP series, on remote locations like oil rigs and to companies like us on all continents around the world. This innovation is showing no signs of slowing down as the Italian company are onboarding clients at an increasing rate, allowing companies to print strong like metal. 

Finally, software like nTop is allowing for the most efficient design of components possible. Lattice structures and topology optimisation are not new to the AM world, but the ease of use and other simulation features in the software are making it a necessity for engineering teams’ tech stack going forward.

E.E: What estimations do you have for the beginning of 2024?

A.H: The beginning of 2024 always proves to be an exciting time in our sector as companies always have a fresh reset on projects or the budgets to carry out existing ones in this period. 

This effect is amplified by the global economic recovery driving companies to proceed with projects in a more stable environment. 

I expect to see more companies exploring the idea of digital warehousing and on-demand production if warehouse property prices remain the same. 

Finally, I expect industries like the EV sector to increase use of polymer additive manufacturing due to increased charging infrastructure and more electric cars on the road. 

For polymers, materials like PEEK will be of high interest for battery centric components while polycarbonate ABS housings will be instrumental in the rollout of cost-effective home EV chargers.