Established in 2002, Photocentric was a day one exporter, originally making an innovative product for making stamps and selling it around the world as naturally as selling it domestically. In 2010, the company opened a facility in Phoenix, Arizona to meet growing demand for its goods in the USA. It has always exported heavily, with typically two thirds of sales going offshore, the largest export markets being USA, Austria and Germany.
Photocentric’s invention of a new form of 3D printer in 2014 was a pivotal moment, as Paul Holt, Managing Director, explains: “It was an innovation that transformed the business as it encouraged us to invest heavily in research and development to protect our early market leader position.”
We initially thought second quarter sales could be halved. In fact, they bounced back stronger in a matter of weeks and at the end of this year we are on target to triple in size.Paul Holt, Managing Director, Photocentric
Spotting an opportunity to diversify
The business, which had grown every year since its launch, started 2020 with high expectations. “Then the world imploded,” says Paul. “In March, the order book evaporated overnight. We had to take stock and find a new way forward.”
With a national PPE shortage and an absence of domestic manufacturers, everyone with a 3D printer wanted to help. However, they could only make hundreds when the UK needed millions. Paul spotted an opportunity to supply the NHS with face shields. “Our manufacturing process is digital and very agile, a week after starting the project we delivered our first box to a Trust,” he says. “Using our patented 3D print technology meant that parts could be made in minutes, in large numbers, far more quickly than using traditional methods.”
The decision was vital to ensure Photocentric’s financial security. “Early on we’d taken the decision to furlough our research staff, allowing us to focus on production and reduce cash outflow. We initially thought second quarter sales could be halved. In fact, they bounced back stronger in a matter of weeks and at the end of this year we are on target to triple in size.”
Supplying PPE was not without its challenges, however. With demand rapidly increasing, Paul says the business had to scale up very quickly. “To date, we’ve printed over 1 million face shields in a single month. To achieve that, we needed to move into bigger premises, construct 45 printers, design and install equipment and conveyors and write software to control the process. We employed and trained over 50 people working three shifts, seven days a week. We had become experts in a product we knew almost nothing about four months before. Our supply chain was mainly in the UK and they really stepped up to the plate as soon as they heard it was to make PPE, it felt a bit like war time!”
One of the biggest challenges has been learning about volume manufacturing. “Traditionally, 3D printing is about small volumes, from single items to tens of items – now we’ve gone on to manufacture millions,” says Paul.
HSBC’s support has helped us to expand the business, secure new premises and enable the rapid growth we’re now seeing.Paul Holt, Managing Director, Photocentric
Seizing new opportunity
Nevertheless, the challenge has led onto new opportunity. “Learning how to manufacture large volumes is something we can apply to many industries,” he says. “We’ve seen how our process can dovetail into injection moulding to reduce time to market and provide design flexibility.”
HSBC’s support has helped Photocentric to manage the challenges and seize the opportunities that 2020 has presented. “We were initially looking to borrowing to enable us to complete the design of our 3D printers and to buy the necessary stock to manufacture the first of them,” says Paul. “They increased our lending limits and we subsequently took advantage of the CBILS scheme to scale up to construct the PPE manufacturing line. HSBC’s support has helped us to expand the business, secure new premises and facilitate the rapid growth we’re now experiencing.”
Despite the shock of the initial pandemic, Photocentric has managed to turn 2020 around and has found new ways of working that will lead to significant opportunities in the future. “It’s given us an opportunity to do something we would never have imagined,” says Paul. “We’re investing much more in research and a larger factory. The important thing is to keep trying, whether it initially works or not, it will lead onto a new opportunity, increasing your chances of success.”