CamdenBoss to catch-up with Managing Director Nicola Kay and Technical Sales Project Manager Dan Smalley to find out how little-known flat sheet plastic technology (FSPT) can change the face of the enclosure industry.
Turning the clock back to the dark days of the recession, Camden was at an impasse in an industry which had ground to a halt. January 2009 saw the pound crash against the dollar and the euro, and because the company made very few products in-house (and instead were brought in under either the euro or dollar), its margins were hit hard. Decisions had to be made. Selling the company was not an option as it was only acquired three years previously, and in any case, finding a buyer in an industry in turmoil would have been difficult. In addition, shrinking the company would have had a negative impact on customer service levels.
The only other alternative, albeit a bold one, was an acquisition, as Managing Director Nicola Kay explained: “Our only option was to go and buy another business - and we looked at enclosures specialist, Boss, as it had a very strong reputation with a good family name. It was the best thing we could have done as the market was shrinking, going bust and panicking, and yet here we were investing in another business - and it worked wonders.”
The acquisition of Boss, turning the company into CamdenBoss, also sat well with the two entities’ customer base, the distributors, as they now had one company to deal with and were able to receive a much more service oriented approach. In addition, as all of Camden’s terminal block and fuse customers also needed enclosures, the amalgamation of the two companies was a perfect synergy.
Now, enclosures make-up around 60% of the business, as Kay added: “Focusing on enclosures is definitely the way for us to go because every enclosure is unique and once it is designed-in it is usually in place for the lifecycle of the product – so if you can get your enclosure design in ahead of the competition you’ve usually got that product for the whole of its lifecycle.”
A well kept secret
A unique side of the business is that, as part of the acquisition, Boss brought with them manufacturing expertise – and with that included a technique called flat sheet plastic technology (FSPT), which has the potential to replace more traditional methods of enclosure manufacture - making significant savings in terms of time and cost. The only issue is that it’s a technology that is still relatively unknown, as Kay highlighted: “Boss had FSPT technology for a while, and what was frustrating was that I’d spent years manufacturing electronic printed circuit board assemblies in a previous business - if I had known about FSPT, my design development cycle would have been so much better and easier. We are still seeing that with customers today - they just can’t believe what we can do with plastic to create a finished enclosure and every exhibition I visit, 99 out of 100 people have never seen the technology.”
The company’s Technical Project Manager Dan Smalley picked up the story: “The process of FSPT, which we can do in-house, involves taking metre square sheets of plastic, usually 3mm thick. We have a flatbed CNC milling machine with a milling bit router, we set the tool path and profiles are then machined out. We then heat and fold them, and then turn them into enclosures.”
Kay continued: “The one thing with FSPT is it can be made production-ready which creates a huge opportunity. There’s no real need for samples or 3D models - once the enclosure is made it is production-ready. We make thousands of enclosures for Raspberry Pi for example, and to have a technology that can give the customer something totally unique with incredibly fast turnaround times, and that’s production-ready is a huge advantage. If you talk to engineers who have designed a printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) which they have to show to their boss, that PCBA is all they see. However, for not a lot of extra money you can have that board placed within your very own individual enclosure which you can take to your boss instead.”
Smalley continued: “There’s various ways we use the technology. For example, we had a customer who had a product for a medical application (left) that they only expected to sell in small numbers per year. To make those sort of products using traditional methods i.e. injection moulding (using different moulding tools and different materials), would have cost vastly more money. The customer couldn’t justify that cost on a new product so they came to us for help. I don’t think they expected us to do what we did at a fraction of the cost of an injection moulded process, but it allowed them to get their product to market.”
In another project a design engineer approached the company with an idea and a minimal amount of capital to develop a product for the iPhone market. CamdenBoss took the product (which is basically a heart rate monitor called iThlete - right), and created a FSPT enclosure and matrix for the electronic components. The first batch of enclosures was made within four days of design sign-off and 250 units were delivered later for approval by Apple for the iStore.
“He came to us with a clever idea and around £250 and that’s it,” said Smalley. “He basically needed his electronics put in a widget that could then be connected to an iPhone. So we developed a matrix for the electronics and stuck them into an FSPT enclosure with a little jack plug that went into the iPhone. He would never have been able to get it to market if it wasn’t for our process because a 3D printed prototype would not have survived the Apple tests – it needed to be a finished product.
“Feedback from the first customers then showed that the device took up the jack for the headphones so they couldn’t listen to music while they were exercising – so the product needed an update. Had he bitten the bullet and got a loan to spend £2,000-3,000 on an injection moulding tool and just taken the product to market, he would have had to pay for another tool to redesign the product. So the fact that he was able to get to market and receive some feedback, he could cost effectively add a version with a second jack (above right). So you can learn valuable things about your product using the FSTP process as a stepping stone to the end result.”
Speed is a key factor with FSPT. An injection mould tool will usually take a minimum of eight weeks and usually some time consuming finishing and tweaking will be required. With FSPT a prototype can be produced in two weeks and can be production-ready three weeks after that. “If we were to race a 3D printed enclosure with FSPT we’d beat it easily,” added Smalley. In terms of cost, quite often the only way to get a cost effective tool is to go to Asia, so you also have issues of lead time and language barriers to factor-in, whereas FSPT takes away the lead time and the need for heavy investment.
There can also be cost savings for the end customer. For example, CamdenBoss replaced a range of sheet metal enclosures at a factory line in Liverpool with FSPT. As well as making considerable savings in assembly time, the customer soon realised a weight saving in the enclosure of 30%, which drastically reduced the company’s shipping costs – as they were shipping as far as Australia.
Commenting further on the cost savings of FSPT, Kay added: “With traditional methods, if you wanted to relocate a hole for example on the enclosure, with some tools, depending on what change you need to make, and regardless of how small it looks on the finished product, it could result in the high cost of modifying the tool or remaking it altogether. However, with FSPT you don’t have that.
“With FSPT you’ve minimised your outlay and risk of going to market with a new product. You can have exactly the quantity you need, and you have a dynamically manufactured product where tweaks can be made quickly and cost effectively - and you’re only billed for what you need. Plus it’s robust.
“The technology also allows us to manufacture in the UK. If you have to ship a product made in China you have to factor-in all the costs that come with that plus the time delay. We’re able to manufacture in the UK which I’m passionate about. And, with enclosures, the advantage of moulding our enclosures in the UK is that, if you’re shipping from Asia for example, you’re essentially shipping air. We won’t for some years be able to match the cost effectiveness of Chinese manufacturing with labour rates etc, so we have to look for other advantages – and that cost of transport enables us to manufacture in the UK.”
Spreading the word
CamdenBoss explained that there are still many companies out there who don’t know that FSPT exists, and sheet metal is the automatic go-to material when an enclosure is required as that’s all they know. Therefore, in an effort to increase the technology’s presence in the market, CamdenBoss are in the process of developing a specific FSPT website and are also trying to get the technology taught in schools. Most colleges won’t have design tutors teaching FSPT, whereas they will be teaching fact forming, sheet metal and injection moulding.
Smalley concluded: “We really want to attack the market and show the world how amazing this process is and that we’re the ones doing it. We want to show the world this is how to make enclosures because at the moment they just don’t know it’s there.”