Sonic Communications, a global supplier of specialist equipment, provides solutions and services for police, military, government, and industrial sectors. Their customers include the UK Ministry of Defence, the Royal Navy, and police forces around the world. Established in 1977, the Birmingham UK-based business has more than 100 members of staff.
Sonic designs products for specialist audio and surveillance equipment made directly to technical specifications. Customisation has always been a part of their design process, allowing Sonic to adapt its customer’s 2D technical specs into 3D designs to manufacture fit-for-purpose products.
They specialise in:
- The design and manufacture of communications accessories for radio and mobile equipment.
- The supply of body-worn mobile and static video surveillance equipment.
- The installation of technical equipment into vehicles.
In 2018, design manager Sean Watson brought in a hobbyist 3D printer from home to explore the value additive manufacturing could bring to the business.
“As a proponent of 3D printing, I knew the best way to prove its worth was to get others involved in the process first-hand,” explained Watson. “It started with me printing a few basic design prototypes in bright orange PLA. I would then send them externally to recreate the products and use them to test new ideas and designs. It escalated from there.”
The basic PLA prints helped lay the groundwork for scaling industrial 3D printing during Sonic’s part and product design process. Before bringing their own printers in-house, the company outsourced 3D print jobs, allowing them to experience the benefits of Markforged technology.
“I’d heard about Markforged through LinkedIn and the internet, but the first time I saw a Markforged Onyx Pro in action, I wanted one,” confessed Watson. “I loved the simplicity of it. I could use Eiger easily to vary the layers and get the shape, look and feel that I wanted, print them in a matter of hours and create parts in a finish I could actually use.”
It would still be some time before Sonic would invest in its own in-house machines, however. They continued to outsource their growing 3D printing requirements. When Kevin McDonald took the helm as Managing Director in 2022, he immediately recognised the value of Sonic investing in their own Markforged 3D printers.
“Between the thousands of pounds we were spending on outsourcing prints — and the week-long lead times on parts we were producing through our machine shop — it made sense to buy our own machines to speed up production, help us to develop new products, and circumvent supply chain shortages and delays.”
“It is all about starting an additive revolution in the business,” said McDonald. “We invested in 3D printing with Markforged to open up what we can do and allow us to be more creative,” McDonald continued. “They are not only saving us time and creating efficiencies, but allowing us to customise designs to create better products.”
No longer limited to the squared edges of parts built by CNC milling or injection moulding, 3D printing has allowed Sonic Communications to — quite literally — think outside the boxes they produce to house audio equipment. Using Markforged, they now develop lighter parts that are more ergonomically and aesthetically pleasing. The Onyx materials also make Bluetooth transmission possible, which is especially advantageous for audio accessories, and impossible to achieve with machined metal.
One example of this is their new EHIU3 application box for law enforcement, which connects a headset to a radio. Printed in Onyx, the new model is lighter and easier to handle than earlier injection moulded versions.
“The curves and texture make it easier to handle and more ergonomic. The customers love them,” said McDonald. “Once they see and feel a 3D printed part, they want a second one.”
“Thanks to Markforged, the product went from design to main production in only three months, where it could have previously taken up to a year,” he said.
In addition to opening doors to new products, Markforged offers flexibility. Sonic can work around supply chain delays by modifying their designs to incorporate available electronic components. For example, due to current chip shortages, it is often easier to source larger than standard circuit boards for audio or surveillance equipment. Instead of waiting for what can be up to a year for the more standard, smaller boards to become available, Sonic can easily modify the casing design to accommodate electronic parts that are immediately available. The functionality of the part remains the same with the benefit of customers being able to receive the final product in weeks.
“Using Markforged we can create the best possible fit because it’s totally customised,” explained McDonald.
The printers also streamline Sonic’s selling process. A potential customer can come into a meeting, discuss what they are looking for, and leave with a physical prototype of the part they want to buy. From there, Sonic can design and print the end-use part based on the technical specifications provided by the customer.
“Markforged is helping us turn ideas into reality for our customers. They come in with an idea of what they want and leave with a realisation of what we can do. Having an actual prototype of the parts we can create for them builds momentum, interest, and a passion for how we can help them.”
Revolutions are never simple and adopting additive throughout the business has been, at times, an uphill battle. Many of Sonic’s employees have been working for the company for over 30 years. While they were willing to listen to new ideas, there was a need to prove 3D printing would be fit for purpose before more of their workforce would adopt the technology.
To help win them over, Sean and Kevin worked with Darren, a new manager in the vehicle bay. As a big user of the machine shop, Darren was looking for newer ways of doing things, hoping to speed up some of their processes. Together they developed products using Markforged printers that the team could immediately use in specialised police and military vehicles.
Darren is now using Markforged as his go-to technology for product development, increasing his team’s productivity by relying less on the machine shop. He is now adapting a box so the holes are where he needs them, rather than having to start from scratch each time to CNC machine it. And, most importantly, he is empowering his team to do the same – saving time and increasing their productivity.
In just six months, Markforged has already helped Sonic create products— like the EHIU3 application box and their new In Line Nexis push-to-talk button, which connects a single or dual radio to a headset. They can now go from design to final product in a quarter of the time it would have taken to create the same product using their machine shop.
Thanks to the speed and agility of 3D printing, Sonic now creates new product families – small variations to existing products that allow customers to tailor their products for the perfect fit.
To keep on top of their increased customer orders and ensure they can fulfill them as they come, Sonic is running their fleet of Markforged printers 24/7.
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