Episode 37: Ian Wilson, DASIS
Episode 37: Ian Wilson, DASIS
Ian Wilson, CEO, DASIS. Photo Credit: DASIS
This is episode 37 of CW Talks and CW’s guest is Ian Wilson, CEO of Develop and Supply In-Sync, or DASIS, for short. UK-based DASIS is a consortium of small and medium sized enterprises that provide an array of manufacturing services, including composites fabrication. Wilson and two other founders lead and coordinate work for the consortium, providing design, engineering, and project management services, coordinating work through the consortium members. I’ll talk to Wilson about his education, how he founded Formaplex and how his tenure at Formaplex lead to the founding of DASIS.
Transcript of Ian Wilson interview with CW Talks, recorded Feb. 24, 2020
Jeff Sloan (JS): We'll talk about DASIS in a few minutes, but before we do that I'd like to learn a little bit more about how you got here. I know you earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Croydon College in London and the began a career that took you into the CNC world. Tell me a little bit about that.
Ian Wilson (IW): Manufacturing has really been in my blood since a very young age, I know for sure. As a kid, Lego was my go to toy, and I've always loved doing things with my hands. I managed to get into a high school that had a technical center, and I was really good at technical drawing, engineering, woodworking, and anything that involves making stuff in your hands basically. Thankfully school led me on the path to manufacturing. Unfortunately that school is now gone. I think on the manufacturing side they've stopped due to health and safety, but I was lucky enough to be one of the last few that got involved with this type of learning. From there, I went straight into a manufacturing company, a toolmaking company, as an apprentice they released a course in college. I spent 16 years within that business basically learning a very large amount of manufacturing capabilities and technologies. I went through the technical side, the tool making side, and chain inside CNC machining. I learned how to build tools, and it was a very good apprenticeship for me. Building on that manufacturing knowledge through that business has been invaluable to me even to date. We went through that company and decided after about 16 years, and having gone into running that business for the last eight of it, I thought I'd head off to Canada. I just wanted a change. I decided to sell my house, which I did, I applied for a job in Canada which I got, and then just before leaving I was offered a job down in Portsmouth. I thought, let's try that first before I ship out to Canada. I took that job, and that was a sort of smallish company, mainly CNC machining and wire erosion. I went in there as a CNC programmer and project manager as well. They were mainly dealing with Formula One, the motorspors sector, which I really enjoy because this was my first time to start to deal with for Formula One motorsport and that what I love. I love cars and I love motorsports so it was perfect for me. I was there for a couple of years, helped grow that division, brought in more machinery and new technologies. Then I was headhunted by another company, and that was to be a salesman. I don't class myself as a salesman, but I thought I'll give it a go. I move to this company in Waterlooville. I spent another couple of years there really bringing in Formula One work, CNC machining work, and that's kind of where I started to gain on my contacts. During that period within that business, I decided that at some stage I'll break out and start my own business. I was lucky enough to meet my original partner Dave Shuter, who was selling software for CNC machining. He'd come into the toolmaking business and spoke to me, then we kind of decided within a month that we should start our own business, which we did. Roughly three months down the line it was pretty much up and running, and that was back in 2001 and that was Formaplex. That's kind of where I started and where I finished really with Formaplex before starting DASIS as such.
JS: You actually founded Formaplex, in 2001. Is that right?
IW: Correct, the two of us founded Formaplex. The smallish unit to start with, we bought two machines, and it was basically the CNC machining delivering mainly to the Formula One companies is what our main work was doing then
JS: What was it like when you started the company in 2001, and what kind of work were you doing? I imagine when you're starting a company you must have been wearing a lot of hats.
IW: Many hats yeah, I used to call myself the...engineering. It was quite difficult to be honest. The long hours were very tough, you didn't see your family for about three years, but that's what you spent when you started thinking about this. I was doing sales, design, helping manufacturing, toolmaking, and I was doing the deliveries. It was very hard work, but what was offered at the time to these Formula One companies was a very quick turnaround which they hadn't seen before. When I was getting inquiries and I'd quote them in 15 minutes, and then we'd get the order in an hour. Then they'd be on the machine within an hour, and then delivered next day. That was something that was new. So we were winning a lot of work, which helped us grow certainly, right at the front end really quickly.
JS: Formula One was, I'm sure even by then was pretty well established as a quick turnaround, manufacturing industry and process. I guess I'm a little surprised that you were one of the first to provide such quick turnaround services, what was so unusual about what you were doing?
IW: It was basically the software that we were using, and the techniques we are using to machine these. For instance, we'd win say 20 patterns for the wind tunnel. What we would do is align all those up on one machine, call it a global model, and then machine the whole lot in one go and overnight. If you went into one of the Formula teams, that one machine in the same things, they would have one pattern that on a massive five axis machine. Doing all tricky five axis work around with one pattern that was just slow, so it was quite simple what we were doing, but then we seem to be doing it. It was a win, win for us to be honest.
JS: Now you were at Formaplex for 18 years and I know that company changed a lot while you were there, talk a little bit about how it grew and how it evolved and what that was like.
IW: It was a very rapid growth when I left in 2019, it was hitting sort of 60 million turnover over a 19-year period. That's a massive amount of growth. We'll start with was just a sort of a machining service, but then we went into supply and product. We bought injection molding machines, started doing injection mold tools, and started to supply prototype parts, and we really grew from that. The injection molding side of it grew massively. We set up a new division down in Portsmouth where we had around 70 molding machines, and then we always put on added value manufacturing services. We added painting to that, somebody is molding the components, painting them, and supplying the assemblies. Later on in my time there we went into composites. It was all around lightweighting and engineering services around composites, and that again grew rapidly over a period of four years. We went from zero to 20 to 30 million turnover in composites. I think it was a full engineering service that we were offering that gave us that growth.
JS: Who or what prompted you to offer composites manufacturing services?
IW: The one supplied to a lot of the OEMs, mainly the smaller OEMs in the country, bespoke high end cars. Because we supplied into those plastics, it was quite an easy sell to supply composites. It was just another add-on service to the customers we already had that just made it a very easy sell for us.
JS: To go from CNC machining of metals, and injection molding of plastic to composites manufacturing is quite a leap. How did you how did you do that?
IW: It's all about getting the right people in. Obviously, we didn't have much composites knowledge. I didn't really know too much about composites and we understood patterns and things like that, but it was a very quick learning curve. It's getting the right people in to support that sort of growth. We managed to get the right people in because the business attracted people in those days. People will see we're a growing software, technology-driven company, and they wanted to come and work for us. It wasn't that difficult to sell to get people in.
JS: That takes us to 2019 when you eventually left Formaplex, what brought you to the point of departing the company?
IW: I got a bit disillusioned really. It was sort of a difficult time for me. I was bringing in a lot of work, but the support from management wasn't there, so I decided that it was time for me to call it a day and move on and do something else. Which is meant to be retirement, but I didn't quite get there.
JS: It must have been difficult to leave a company you started. What was that like?
IW: Heart wrenching, absolutely hearth wrenching. The people around me that were close friends of mine you know. Every morning I would get into work and I'd walk around the facilities and say hello to the people. I believe I got quite a bit of respect from them, it was difficult just to leave them, and thinking that they could be in for a bit of a difficult time if I did leave. It wasn't an easy decision. I had to do it for me, I'm good, it was a decision that I had to go.
JS: It sounds like you're okay with that decision. No regrets?
IW: No, I think when I resigned there was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders to be honest and my life changed overnight having spent 19 years working for that business, and it's not like an eight hour day it's ongoing. You're doing probably 12 to 13 hours a day because you're getting phone calls in evenings, especially the Formula One guys, they’d call at two o'clock in the morning if they got the chance. I was always there to answer the phone and I was there right to the end.
JS: It sounds like you created a very successful company, but you kind of created a monster in some ways, because expectations are very high.
IW: Yeah it's quite busy. It’s got a lot of people in it and I hope it'll be around for a long time. Fingers crossed it will be there and it has 600 employees. It's important that it keeps going.
JS: You noted that you weren't ready to retire, which led you to start, DASIS just describe for me what DASIS is.
IW: Develop And Supply In-Sync. I kind of was ready for retirement, that was on my mind to be honest, and I was offered roles within other businesses. This was within 24 hours of resigning, how these guys found out I don't know, but I was offered a few roles. I didn't really want to go work for somebody else so I took some time to mull it over. I thought, how can I give back to some of these guys? What they've given me over the years, only to do something for manufacturing, and sort of help these smaller companies get work from sort of OEMs and get involved with the bigger projects, which they find difficult to do, because they are sort of smaller SMEs. I've come up with Develop And Supply In-Sync. I've got two partners involved in the business at the moment, and we're just going to take on another one, a sales director. It's all about bringing together a family of partners and suppliers who will work together cohesively, and deliver products to our clients. Whether it's one-offs or program work, we can do a lot.
JS: You said you had two partners, you founded DASIS with, who are they?
IW: Ricky South, he used to work with me at Formaplex, and is actually my future son in law. Alex Beim, who comes from Gordon Murray, he's our composite expert and our technical expert around composites and light weighting. He's a perfect fit for us.
JS: DASIS is a consortium of SMEs, as you said, manufacturing companies that you've kind of brought together to help connect with OEMs, or with other companies that are looking to have certain manufacturing needs met. What kind of companies, technologies, and services does DASIS currently offer through this consortium?
IW: You probably should be asking what doesn't it offer. It is a collaboration of a number of companies, there's only 20 at the moment. Where we used to going to a business or potential customers to sell composites and plastics, now I can go in and sell composites, plastics, rubbers, rapid prototyping, 3D printing, castings, tooling, press tooling, injection molding, and jigs and fixtures. It's a plethora of experience and manufacturing capabilities that we have now, and it's an easy sell for us. We've been dealing with these clients for many years, but now we are offering more than what we had before. It's an easy route for them to manufacture. They can come to one person that can do the lot rather than go to five or six, seven, or eight different companies to get the same thing. It's an easy route to manufacturer from.
JS: How does it work? A client comes to you and says, these are our needs, then are you acting as a gatekeeper to decide if the type of work is suitable for the organizations within your consortium. Do you then reach out to the organizations and find out what their capacity is, and if this is work they want to take on? How does that work?
IW: So the companies within our consortium, we try not to overlap. We've got different capabilities and different companies. A client might come to us with a project that's got multiple requirements. It might be a composite bumper, that’s got 3D printed inserts that's painted. We can take that project, send it down to our partners and project manage it for them to bring it all together, and deliver it as a complete assembly. We will do project management, but what we will also do is offer technical advice at the front end. Design for manufacture advice as well, because we've got so many routes to manufacture, the client won’t be beholden to one type of manufacture. We'll offer them the best route for the manufacturer and the most cost effective. That's a massive gain for our clients.
JS: For your clients, is there a fee to access a consortium? If so, what is the value proposition here?
IW: There is a small fee they pay but when you compare it to what their past dedicated sales guy, it’s peanuts. We wanted to put a small fee in there, because we wanted to make sure that the companies that dedicate themselves to this are dedicated to it. They're paying for the service, they're not going to turn work away. You can join anything for free, and if you don't want it, it doesn't matter. Because they're paying for this service they're going to be dedicated to it, and want to grow with it. It's key for us that these guys work together. They are sharing work between themselves as well within the consortium, which helps generate and keep work within the family.
JS: You and I talked earlier in preparation for this about how the consortium is organized, and it's interesting to me that a company that wants to join the consortium must be willing to work with the other companies already in the consortium. On top of that the consortium membership must agree to allow a new member to join, I'm wondering what drove that requirement for you?
IW: If our businesses within the consortium can't work together, then it will fail. It's as simple as that. There's an old saying "All for one, and one for all" and that's what it's all about. We have got to manage the partners cohesively, and the supply chain has got to be as smooth as it possibly can be. We can't have any knockbacks or difficulties with partners not talking to each other, because it just will not work. Everybody that comes into this, they all agree and sign into that they're going to be working with these other guys. Funny enough, we've got a couple of companies in there that were probably almost sworn enemies, but now they're working together, talking together, they'll even quote together. It's a great concept and I'm very proud of what's been achieved in getting these businesses to do this. It's not an easy thing for these guys to do, and it's not an easy thing to get set up, but we've managed to do it which is great.
JS: Does this type of cooperation require that the members of your consortium share intellectual property or proprietary information? If so how does that work?
IW: Yes in some cases, but I will say most of our suppliers and partners within consortium have different manufacturing capabilities. There's not really much crossover between the two. What they will do is, work will go from one business to another. Intellectual property-wise there's not too much there — they really offer different capabilities.
JS: Can you give me any examples of the types of projects or work that DASIS has been involved with so far?
IW: We've honestly only been running seven weeks, so early days, but we have already won a couple of automotive projects. We've also picked up some aerospace work and a good chunk of consultancy work as well. It's mostly around light weighting technology, like composites, we particularly focus on the defense area and automotive sectors. Those are the key areas for us to get into, but we believe sort of the drone, new UAV market is growing now and we've got to be involved in that as well. There's multiple opportunities out there crossing sectors especially around lightweight engineering solutions and EV powertrains. That's the sort of things we will be targeting.
JS: I don't know if you've run across this yet, but my experience is that composites are relatively unusual at least compared to legacy materials. For a company or a potential client who maybe doesn't understand or know composites very well, I wonder if you could be a resource to help them navigate the composites supply chain, and understand how the material can be applied and what its limitations are, what its advantages are? Is that something you've run across yet, or do you have any experience with that?
IW: We are extremely capable of understanding how composites should be manufactured, and see things cross our desk that come from businesses that are composite components designed as a machine component. We can help them on the front end to say, you can't make it like this, you need to do this instead, you'll make it lighter, and you will save cost in tool manufacturing. The front end is what we're all about. We are here to help our clients get the right product in the most cost effective way they can. The knowledge that we hold with years of experience in manufacturing composites, we can offer that service at the front end which helps immensely.
JS: also provides project management services in some cases and I'm wondering. What kind of situation you might offer that?
IW: We are the single point of contact for any engineering, technical project management or manufacturing requirements. Companies can come to us with projects, and we'll take the role of project management from design concepts at the early stage right through to the assembly point. At the end it's a way that these guys don't have to go spend time and money trying to manage multiple suppliers to do the same thing when they can come to us as one point of contact. This is a fairly easy sell for us once our clients understand that we are not just a middleman. We are there to offer the technical advice and program management for the top programs as well. You got to see it as an 80 million pound turnover business with a technical and program management lead at the top, because that is exactly what we are.
JS: That's really interesting. You listed earlier some of the types of technologies and services that are available through DASIS. I'm wondering if there's any expertise or technology you'd like to see added or brought into the consortium that you don't currently have?
IW: We welcome any new technologies that can add value to our partners and our clients? For instance one of our newest partners on board, a company called Advanced Material Development is a nanotechnology business. Having those on board as a group, and not just selling nanotechnology to our clients, but we can also sell the design, the tooling and the components that they require to have that nanotechnology. It's a win, win situation for us, and it's the full service provider option for our top clients.
JS: You're based on the UK, and you mentioned the Formula One. I know that Formula One is a very European oriented sport. Do you expect that you will have clients from outside the UK or outside Europe? What kind of envelope are you working within to attract clients to your service?
IW: At the moment, because we are a new start, we are concentrating solely on the UK. We've got a lot to do and we've got so many UK contacts. We're just working our way through those first and once that side of the business is built within the UK, we'll build it to take it into Europe and expand out outside the UK.
JS: Ian, I want to thank you for joining me on CW Talks. This sounds like a really interesting business that you've launched with DASIS and I wish you much luck with that. I think it will do well, and I think the type of service you're offering, acting as sort of the technical adviser and lead in connecting manufacturers with folks who need manufacturing or services, particularly in composites, I think it's a great service. I wish you luck with it.
IW: Thank you very much. It's exciting times ahead. It's not going to be easy launching a business during a pandemic is probably not the best time to do it, but the feedback we've had so far has been great. A client came to use us, and we got some OEMs to talk to us, which is great. I can see this growing quite quickly. That's the beauty of it. It can grow very quickly, and we just had to see where it goes.
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