A short drive from the historic town of Stratford-upon-Avon, with its Shakespearean heritage, leaning timber framed buildings and legions of waddling tourists, MNL operates from its own historic base.
Having been in operation since 1971, beginning with the production of humble milk crates before introducing a technological edge, the company now continually pushes boundaries in the industrial prototyping industry. It services prestige brands and little known designers alike with its knowledge of the processes and materials required for professionally finished models.
“Having the years behind us that nobody else has, we can say ‘Oh, we were doing that years ago’. We’d developed our own processes for that,” enthuses technical sales manager Tracy Nicholls.
This confidence that the company exudes is born from the huge range of skills it has built up in its 38-year history, working on a gargantuan number of projects.
From automotive parts to mens’ shaving equipment the company’s portfolio is certainly diverse, but it’s in the area of surface finish that MNL has recently been getting most attention.
The company has an almost religious zeal for producing the best possible finish to a product, and this has now become another source of income. “We actually do some work for our competitors because they’re not at the level we are,” says Nicholls. “We offer our services on the finishing side. Not many companies work directly with their competitors in this industry.”
Across the board, vast improvements have been made in the speed, cost and quality of what the team can now produce, to the extent that a part can be taken from CAD data to physical model in under two weeks. But most importantly the materials used in these parts are close to production quality, making the process ideal for short batch manufacturing.
“The polyurethanes are 80-90 per cent the chemical properties of production materials,” says Nicholls. “When you make them UV stable as well they’re so close [to the production variant]. To some companies that don’t need multiple thousands or millions a year, and need only a few hundred it’s perfect. They can use our tooling as production.”
For small production runs, or even a handful of pieces, the line between prototype and production is blurred. A perfect example of this occurred last year when the team was approached by a wealthy Saudi Arabian man who wanted lightweight replicas of some very expensive ornaments to adorn his private jet.
MNL sent a team to the customer’s house in Mayfair, London to scan the artworks. This picked up all the minute details, down to the artist’s signature, before being collated in a file for the team to work from.
“We took that data, built them by SLS, hand-finished those and then had them painted with a metalised gold finish for them to go on his plane,” says Nicholls. “He didn’t need the armed guards stood next to these!”
The economic troubles of late have had little effect on the business as sectors such as automotive, defence and medical continue to approach MNL with work. There are fears that this work will begin to slow as budgets continue to be readjusted, but having weathered several recessions previously the company has got through this latest period relatively untroubled, primarily through the continued development of processes and products.
“Obviously medical is an easier sector to get into than defence,” states Nicholls. “But I think our new material for the SLA has really helped because it has a medical classification and grade to it which has made people in that industry sit up and think.”
Expansion into new sectors and new techniques is proving to be a key factor in MNL’s continued success. By making new advancements in technology and processes, coupled with the vast experience the company brings with it should ensure that MNL will be around for some time yet.
The PowerBreathe inspiratory muscle trainer is designed to help exercise and strengthen the muscles used in breathing.
Developed for the benefit of both medical and sports users, the device increases the ability to take deeper and more controlled breaths, and improves strength, endurance and recovery of the respiratory muscles.
Designed by HAB Intl and Coventry-based design consultancy Smallfry, MNL was approached to help with the product development and to produce an accurate prototype.
“It was a bread and butter job for us in terms of the materials and processes used,” explains MNL general manager Ross Nicholls. “We were presented with full 3D data from the outset, but the customer required different finishes on parts of the model.”
Silicone tools were used to produce a production quality model. “We used different polyurethane (PU) materials to represent the materials they required in production, including the ‘water clear’ flexible PU for the mouthpiece,” adds Ross.
“Roughly you would be talking about around a day to have the masters done and three or four days for the finishing. You can’t rush the gloss finishes – and that is what makes us different – that we make sure all the finishes are absolutely spot on. Silicone tooling takes one-to-two days and if we did ten sets of PUs then we’d probably get them done in less than a week too.”
The finished product reaches market this month having been developed on the model built by MNL. The ability to develop and bring a product to market in such a way has speeded up the process and allowed testing and marketing to take place much sooner than originally anticipated. The final result is a breath of fresh air.
A strong heritage gives Malcolm Nicholls a fine finish