Avril Stringer is a serial entrepreneur and inventor and one of leading women in 3D Printing in the UK. As such, she wears many hats: co-founder of 3D Print Works with her brother since 1996, and Sales & Marketing Manager at Safeglass (Europe) Limited, selling their patented material for break-glass devices.
If you need an example of Avril’s achievements, she helped to develop a new polymer material which mimics glass but does not cause injury when broken. It is used in Breakglass. Before they came along, the “break the glass in emergency” was made from real glass…
Avril, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?
You are probably wondering what Safeglass has to do with 3D printing. Our traditional market is a small, stable niche and we needed to diversify. Having an interest in technology, we had been following 3D printing for a few years. It excited us, so why not explore the business opportunities?
What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?
I remember our first practical experience with 3D printing very well. We ordered a Makerbot 2X – in those days, there was a 10 week lead time. We were in the middle of a meeting and noticed that outside there was the UPS man carrying a large box, heading our way!
Within 10 minutes we had it set up and ready to start printing. All work stopped and our staff came to observe. We watched, fascinated, as a nut and bolt emerged, layer by layer, from the Makerbot.
I remember the feeling of awe – we had created something that had not existed 20 minutes earlier.
How did you come to build 3D Print works?
We decided we wanted to be involved in 3D printing to expand the business and looked at various options. Manufacturing 3D printer filament for FDM/FFF 3D Printers was a good fit. The manufacturing process is similar to the process we use to make the Safeglass material. We invested in some machinery and started to manufacture PLA. We have also done some development into new materials and see that developing new materials is the way to grow.
Could you explain furthermore what your company is and the services that you are providing?
We manufacture the raw material which makes our Safeglass. The process is similar to that of making 3D printer filament and we have a lot of knowledge of polymers. It made sense to enter the market as manufacturers of 3D printer filament for FDM/FFF technology.
We make PLA and also have a number of new filaments we are working on. These include Vanish, a water soluble, biodegradable material for printing supports.
Could you describe your work?
I wear many hats and much of my work involves the smooth running of the company. I also develop our market through various marketing activities. Much of this is online and I have 2 content / social media assistants.
How is it different to work in 3D Printing marketing than in another industry marketing?
The principles are the same but as the market is so niche and new, activity is diverse and often we have to wait to see the results. It is a changing industry and not always clear what products will sell.
I do need to understand our material and how it prints – this means doing my own 3D printing. I make models which interest me but also to go along with content for the website or social media.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company or your career to share with us?
In 2005, we were awarded the Queens Award for Enterprise in the innovation category, which is one of the highest business awards available: https://www.gov.uk/queens-awards-for-enterprise. We held a special event and invited friends, family and business associates – everyone who had helped us build the business, as well as local dignitaries such as councillors, the Provost, MP and MSP. There were a few short speeches and the award was received by our MD, Ralph. Just to add some humour to the day, Ralph dropped and smashed the crystal bowl – but it was alright, we had a fake one made to show the properties of Safeglass and the real one was perfectly safe. It was just a joke! We then got to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Avril along with Mushtaq Ahmad, Provost and Andy Kerr, MSP Ralph McNeill, Managing Director and Gilbert Cox MBE.
This is one of the highlights of my career and of the business generally. We have a few good stories to tell but they only come out over a glass of wine!
Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?
We are excited about the imminent launch of our water dissolvable filament.
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
It has to be prosthetics. Incorporating sensors and electronics into hands and arms so they have some motor function is amazing. The way these can be customized, particularly for children, is inspiring. We had a student working for us last year on the technical side of things. We gave him access to the 3D printers and materials so that he could complete his final year project which was to produce a prosthetic hand. He wants to take this forward in his career by developing other limbs. Here is Alex’s story.
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you as a woman?
Search for 3D printed objects and you will get Yoda heads, monsters and warrior figures. What do I make? Shoes! This always makes me laugh. 3D printing is so new that gender issues have not had a chance to embed themselves. 3D printing things that appeal to women can attract women to the industry early on and hopefully, more women will get involved and not be put off by thinking it is ALL yoda heads and warriors.
How is the 3D Printing industry in Scotland today? How do you see 3D printing in 10 years?
We have a few small businesses – designers, 3D print services. More engineering/design companies are purchasing 3D printers for product development – this is a growing sector. In schools, the Government is encouraging 3D printing but there is a long way to go. All further education is embracing the technology. I like that hospitals are using 3D printers in various ways. It is mostly piecemeal.
The investment needed to make the technology more commercially viable will come over the next 10 years – it is not unique to Scotland, but funding and investing in practical uses for 3D printing will develop over time.
If I was a youngster at school just now, I would develop 3D skills. There is already a skill shortage and this will become more evident as time goes on.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
Showing women they can print and design things that appeal to them. For example, we regularly feature fashion related content on the website such as our interview with Danit Peleg. You can have a look here and see what the outfits we made look like.
Anything else you would like to share with us?
We set up a twitter hour, #chat3d / www.chat3d.co.uk where we speak (via tweets) to an expert in the industry. We do a write up on their company on the website as well as a re-cap of the discussion. The “hour” is on the 3rd Thursday of the month at 8pm UK time / 3pm EST.
Thank you for reading and for sharing!