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Snow machines benefit from Plastic AM

Chronicles of Narnia snow scene  Coronation Street snow scene

The Brief:
Snow Business has been making snow and winter effects for films, TV programmes, advertising, corporate and live events worldwide since 1983, creating anything from a light flurry to a severe Arctic blizzard, a blanket of untouched snow, wintry landscapes, a frozen pond or melting icicles.  Their portfolio includes many household names including Blue Peter, Coronation Street, Midsomer Murders and One Foot in the Grave, and movie blockbusters such as Les Miserables, Pirates of the Caribbean, many of the James Bond and Harry Potter films, and of course, Chronicles of Narnia.

Until recently, Snow Business bought in all their falling snow machines from other suppliers. However, wishing to keep a better control over quality and design they decided to start producing the machines themselves.  The immediate problem they faced was how to produce fairly low volume machines in a cost effective way given that they’re not really a manufacturing company.

The obvious answer was to make full use of their in-house CAD design capability, outsource the manufacture of all the parts and do the final assembly back in-house.  One of the technologies they were keen to exploit for the more complex plastic parts was Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM).  Just such an item suited to the process was the nozzle of their SB100 and SB200 dry foam falling snow machines, a critical part for the formation of the snow effect.

Previously the nozzles had been handmade on a lathe and milling machine from solid plastic bar stock, but this was slow, laborious and very expensive, and injection moulding wasn’t a solution either.  The part was complex and so a mould tool would have been very expensive and given the low volumes involved, it would have had a serious impact on the profitability of the whole project.

The Solution:
Snow Business has their own CAD station running Solid Works and Paul Denney, Head of Research & Development does all the design himself.  Having discussed their requirements with 3T, they simply emailed their 3D CAD files over and the parts were built on some of the world’s largest Selective Laser Sintering machines at 3T’s manufacturing facility in Newbury, Berkshire.  Once built, 3T’s team of finishers coloured the parts using their in-house post-process, so no need for any additional painting or finishing by Snow Business when assembling the machines.  Leadtimes are no more than a week to ten days, and changes can be made to the design at the click of a mouse, thereby negating expensive and time-consuming modifications to mould tooling.  Plastic AM parts are extremely functional and offer a high level of strength – the nozzles are not subjected to great forces so AM was the ideal solution.

The Result:
The plastic AM nozzles have given Snow Business an overall cost saving given their low volume requirements, as well as improving the aerodynamic performance of the nozzle (they can put in blends and fillets which would be impossible with standard machining).

Paul Denney says “The use of 3T’s plastic AM process has reduced our costs and improved machine performance, giving us a competitive edge.  The ability to quickly change a design and test it enables us to modify the part in just a matter of days, rather than weeks or months, thereby saving us valuable time.  As costs of AM fall and finish improves, I can see a time when we may well be able to create entire products using purely AM.”

Extra bits:
You can view a video of the snow machine with the plastic AM nozzle here.

The SB100 is an electrically powered falling snow machine that can be positioned on a shelf, mounted on a stand or hung by its bracket, delivering realistic ‘dry foam’, litter free, falling snow.  Further information available here.

Related links:
Snow Business

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