In the Making: Designed & Made in London?! Is this an ambition worth pursuing?
When you start making products, you have to reflect on what’s important to you and your business. I’m not incentivised by a big payout one day, I’d much rather gather like-minded individuals, those who appreciate the process of product design and manufacturing and create objects that align with what I think is important in this discipline. If you want to read them in full, check “My five principles within product design”. For the first product, with thousands of unanswered questions about what I’m going to do, when, for who, why anyone should care, I had to resort to some good advice I read a few years back. When Will Smith was a kid, his dad asked him to build a wall in the downstairs shop. Because he was just a kid, he had no idea how to which his Dad told him:
“You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.’ You say ‘I’m gonna lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid,’ and you do that every single day, and soon you have a wall.”
So here it is, my first brick and first product, and it’s a humble bottle opener, each one will be personalised to order. I like the idea of doing limited runs with Parallel Products, this product will be uniquely numbered and engraved with the customer's initials or message of choice depending on the batch that it was made. The question now is where and how do I get this first batch made?
The design intent was to use a black oxide finish on steel, and machine away the edges and logo detailing by hand. Black oxide is a great finish and depending on the type you opt for, can have good abrasion resistance over time. The inspiration behind this design came from the tools that I use every other day. Black oxide mould grips and a set of drop forged adjustable spanners.
So now that I prototyped the shape and functionality of the product itself, it was time to move onto getting some samples made. My career has taken me to China more times than I can count, and in doing so I’ve built up a good network of factories that I like to use when prototyping. My first instinct was to reach out to them to get some quotes for the design to be CNC machined and finished. The supplier I used is based in Dongguan, they are a small factory with some very good machines. They will always give very detailed feedback on the designs and how suitable they are for them, known as DFM (Design for Manufacture) feedback. When you have a good supplier they make you a better designer because they tell you why a design has to change so that you know in the long run. In future this means your designs will be easier for them to work with resulting in cheaper part prices, higher quality parts, generally everyone’s happy.
So I got the first samples back from my supplier after two weeks, and the results were pretty much perfect.
Now, here comes the difficult part. One of my beliefs about product design is that stories can make an object even more appreciated and give a thing character. So armed with this belief, and whilst China was busy machining this first prototype, I called over 20 drop forging, casting, bronze forges, iron casting and knife forge’s around the UK. I sent them designs, videos, images and renders of this prototype, with the intention of visiting them and learning how they would approach a relatively simple object like this. Of all the people I contacted, I got a couple of responses but no real ambition to take the project on. Mainly people were a bit confused, until Luiz from J.Hoyle & Son, based in Hackney, answered my email.
He said he liked the design, and he’s cast the bottle opener from iron, he just needs a model to base it from. The next day I cycled over to Hackney, about 40 minutes away from my place in Brixton, South London, and dropped off the 3D printed part. The casting model was made from SLA printed plastic, courtesy of my incredibly cheap £200 Elegoo Mars Pro I bought on Amazon with next day delivery. About 4 years ago the cheapest SLA printed you could buy was around £3000.
I arrived and talked through the designs and so far so good, really local to me and I’m learning something new about what’s possible to be made in London, let alone the UK. Yesterday I received the first prototype back from them, it has tonnes of character and a great story. It has a way to go to meet the level of production from the CNC version, but with a pattern (a machined piece of wood to create the sand cast) it should be much more consistent.
This needed a bit of cleaning up with some metal files to get to this shape, which will add time and labour to each one that I make. I also need to experiment with iron blackening and engraving. My brand new 30W metal engraving machine is fumbling its way through local Chinese logistics companies on it’s way to my one bed flat in Brixton, so I’m excited for that to arrive to get testing. The trick with sand casting is getting the pattern made up to create consistent results. The ‘pattern’ as I’d learn is like an empty cupboard drawer, which you can fill with sand.
For the sand cast mould to be consistent, you use a symmetrical mould where half of the object and the runners are in the middle. You use two locating pins on either side. The sand is then packed down onto this shape and emptied out. The process is repeated so that you have a perfect cavity of the shape you’re intending to fill with molten iron. The result would be something like this:
Making the Call
Right now the difficult thing is deciding which one to push forward, objectively the CNC version is much higher ‘quality’ but part of me loves the story behind the cast iron version. They both work perfectly well, but which one would you choose now that you know the backstory?
I want to continue the development of the cast iron version, getting quotes for the pattern and complete the sample with blackening and polished edges, just like the CNC’d version. The question is, am I choosing to do the harder route just for the story? If so is that a worthwhile endeavour?