Exclusive Interview: Unveiling HLH Rapid’s Unique Approach to Rapid Prototyping and High-Mix, Low-Volume Production

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3D Printing Industry recently visited HLH Prototypes to speak with James Murphy, Co-Founder of HLH Prototypes and Director of HLH Rapid, and learn more about the company’s global manufacturing capabilities.

Founded in China in 2008, HLH Prototypes is a manufacturing service bureau specializing in the rapid prototyping and high-mix, low-volume production of parts. The company offers a range of manufacturing technologies, including both metal and polymer 3D printing, CNC machining, injection molding and tooling, die casting, and vacuum casting.

The vast majority of the company’s production is conducted from four facilities in China, the largest of which is based in Guangdong, Shenzhen, and spans 4,000 square-meters. The European arm of the company, HLH Rapid, was founded in 2021 and is headquartered in Leeds, UK.

Connecting Foreign Businesses to Chinese Manufacturing

Despite having a career rooted in journalism and film production, Murphy somehow found his way into the fast-paced world of manufacturing.

He said, “Contrary to what most might believe, I don’t have a background in manufacturing. My fascination with China began during a vacation I took there. I was captivated by the sense of optimism and opportunity that permeates the air there. As a result, I decided to take the leap, quit my job and relocated to China.”

During the initial phase, Murphy acquired experience in the engineering department of a company responsible for producing HDMI and USB cables. This is where he got familiar with the workings of CAD software and design programs and eventually progressed to a prototyping manufacturing company. This stint lasted six months after which there was a change in company ownership, he elaborated.

“My previous employer proposed the idea of establishing a new business together. The prospect was intriguing, hence, the foundation of the company HLH was laid. The concept was to bridge the gap between Western businesses and Chinese manufacturing,” expressed Murphy. “We inaugurated our first factory in 2010 and our growth trajectory has been on the upward trend ever since.”

The company’s workforce now numbers in excess of 300 individuals. Moreover, HLH has expanded its international presence even further with the introduction of HLH Rapid in 2021.

Murphy disclosed that the rationale behind inaugurating a headquarters in the UK was a blend of personal motives and business stimuli. “I resided in China for 15 years and initially it was a whirlwind of excitement. We were on the path to creating a thriving business, everything was moving at a rapid pace. Nonetheless, after becoming a parent, I decided to return to Leeds, my childhood city.”

Murphy explained the rationale behind their decision to open a UK-based subsidiary, citing the strategic advantage it presented. Highlighting the fact that over 80% of their work was carried out for companies in North America and Europe, he stated that having a local presence offered multiple advantages. The convenience of easier visits and increased face-to-face communication underscored their decision to establish this location.

Array of Manufacturing Technologies

HLH offers a wide array of manufacturing technologies. Initially, when the company first started, it focused on prototype production using traditional manufacturing methods. Murphy offered insights into the company’s journey, stating, “Our initial stages were dedicated to the production of low-volume parts via CNC machining and vacuum casting. During those days, additive manufacturing was an expensive affair.”

However, according to Murphy, the price of 3D printers in China began to drop as patents expired, allowing domestic companies to manufacture their own 3D printing equipment and materials. “When we first started, an industrial SLA 3D printer might have cost around £250,000, but now you can get one for £20,000,” stated Murphy. “That drop in cost just opened the whole industry up in China. Between 2012 to 2015, it really started to take off.”

As such, HLH has since adopted a variety of industrial 3D printers, including SLA, SLS, FDM, Multi Jet Fusion (MJF), and metal laser sintering. The company now has around 100 3D printers, with 99.9% of all manufacturing being fulfilled in China. “Here in the UK, we have three desktop 3D printers that we only use for our own personal requirements, or if a customer needs something the next day.”

Besides MJF technology from multinational printing firm HP, the majority of HLH’s 3D printers are Chinese-built. Most of the company’s SLA 3D printers are from UnionTech, whilst the majority of their SLS and metal sintering machines are from Farsoon Technologies.

According to Murphy, despite being significantly more affordable, these 3D printers offer virtually the same 3D print quality as their western-made counterparts. “In terms of the parts coming out, it’s pretty much comparable to what people are using in the west, like 3D Systems’ 3D printers. There’s not really any kind of difference in the quality of the parts,” stated Murphy. “If you can get something that’s almost as good for a third of the price, you might as well do it.”

HLH Rapid CNC machining technology. Photo via HLH Rapid.

Addressing a range of applications under one roof 

Delivering a comprehensive set of both traditional and additive manufacturing technology within the same premises is deemed to have significant benefits. “Every unique technology has its strengths and weaknesses. Every process possesses unique advantages,” Murphy clarified. “We work with a huge variety of clients, projects, and applications. Hence, it is logical for us to incorporate numerous distinct technologies to cater to their various requirements.”  

HLH caters to over 3000 businesses in 50 countries, with prototype and end-use parts. Murphy underscored that these components span a wide swath of ever-evolving applications. “The demand is constantly fluctuating, thus what we produce heavily relies on what the upcoming trend will be,” Murphy expressed. 

The company is presently engaged in the production of numerous components for clean energy, energy storage, and waste reduction applications. It’s bringing in a wealth of new technology, much of which is in the initial research and development (R&D) phase.

In other sectors like robotics, medical and biomedical, autonomous vehicle industries, HLH has observed a surge in demand. Murphy stated that the industry is performing well because we work on anything that’s new and in demand.

Murphy believes that the high-mix, low-volume 3D printing capabilities of HLH add value for their customers. The capacity to adapt and manufacture custom parts with complex geometries is critical for them. He said that there are always applications where additive manufacturing is a beneficial choice. As the technology and materials evolve, the potential use-cases are also expected to grow significantly.

You can find a 3D printed component by HLH Rapid on their website. (Please note that the image has been removed due to formatting requirements).

Differentiating within on-demand manufacturing

Murphy emphasized the presence of major competitors in the industry, namely other manufacturing bureaus such as Protolabs, Xometry, and Hubs. However, Murphy posited that HLH stands out from these competitors. “We provide a somewhat unique service due to our lengthy experience and the organizational structure of our company,” Murphy elaborated.

Indeed, Murphy underscored the direct relationship that HLH maintains with its customers as a key differential factor when compared to Xometry. “Fundamentally, we are the manufacturers. Hence, rather than interacting with an intermediary, the customer can directly communicate with those who actually manufacture the component. I believe that this significantly sets us apart.”

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