“I moved out to China permanently in 2007 after first visiting a friend and immediately falling in love with the country,” begins James Murphy, originally from Leeds and now Co-Founder and Vice General Manager for HLH Prototypes, a company specialising in rapid prototyping and low-volume manufacturing in Shenzhen and Dongguan, China.

“I started working for a manufacturing firm not long after arriving, and helped them identify opportunities and grow their business outside of China. Soon after, a colleague and I decided to start out on our own and HLH Prototypes came into being.”

Over the last decade, the company – which offers services including rapid injection moulding, CNC machining and 3D-printing, and is ISO-accredited for data protection, quality and environmental management – has seen its turnover grow to in excess of £1million a month. This has largely been thanks to work from international clients which include the likes of Audi, Nikon, Tesla and Phillips, as well as a sizeable roster of UK-based companies, such as Oxford Instruments, Watson Marlow and numerous other design and engineering companies. So much so that the company is now looking to open its first facility in the UK in 2021, and another in the US not long after.

James continues: “You can’t shy away from the preconceptions that exist around Chinese manufacturing. However, as with anything, there are always going to be exceptions. We have a burgeoning client base in the UK, specifically around low-volume projects, the types of work that many UK subcontractors and manufacturers don’t want. We’ve noticed that when the batch size is below a certain level, the homegrown competition rapidly diminishes. In short, we’re tapping into a niche manufacturing area that has huge demand but is short of suppliers.”

Speed is the key to HLH’s success. “In many cases we are approached by a potential customer, take the brief, manufacture the parts and ship them back to the UK with a 5-7 day turnaround. We see our role as supporting UK manufacturers further up the supply chains who need reliable subcontract manufacturing services in low volumes.”

It is this appetite for low-volume work, facilitated by production times that can be as little as one day for 3D-printing, three days for CNC-machined parts, and two weeks for injection moulding; which has proved to be a lucrative gap in the market for James and HLH. “I think there is a collective belief among some manufacturers that the low-volume production of functional parts doesn’t generate enough of a margin to be profitable. What we have found is that when you dedicate most of your resource to this market – we typically produce one-off batch sizes of 5000 parts or fewer – the demand coupled with speed of supply proves that it is profitable,” explains James.

He continues: “We know where our market is. We have no interest in going after high-volume, mass production contracts. We would much rather focus on smaller prototype or low-volume work, help a client finalise their concept, and then leave the mass production work to those with the capacity in the country of origin. Ultimately, we like to think that while we might take a comparatively small amount of manufacturing work out of the UK, it is work that there doesn’t appear to be huge homegrown demand for, and it helps to both accelerate and facilitate larger projects for UK-manufacturers in the long term.”

One of HLH’s major growth areas has been in rapid 3D-printing, and this will be the purpose for HLH’s first bricks and mortar site in the UK, which James aims to open in the North of England in 2021. He continues: “We’ve had people visiting the UK for a number of years, putting faces to names and providing reassurance for our customers here. However, by opening up a dedicated production facility, we can take what is already quite a short lead time, and strip out even more time while also creating jobs in the UK.”

Looking to the future, James believes the demand for low-volume production is only set to increase, spurred on by shorter product life-cycles. “Mass production thrived in the 20th century as innovation occurred a slower pace than it does today. It made sense to create a production infrastructure that would see little need for change over a seven to 10-year period, which allowed millions of the same part to be manufactured efficiently, at scale.

“Now, product life-cycles are shorter thanks to heightened demand for customisation and optimisation, and an increase in the frequency of purchasing new products. As such, we are finding that designers are having to be increasingly flexible, which results in more prototyping work to keep ahead of the competition and smaller batch sizes due to shorter life cycles.”

James concludes: “It’s a very exciting time to be involved in this type of manufacturing. While we have honed our offering in China, it has been very much built to service the Western market, with a firm focus on the UK. We hope that by consolidating our position in the UK through the opening of our first facility next year, we can continue to support British OEMs and subcontractors and increase our own contribution to the UK manufacturing industry.”