Andy Harsley – Plastic Fantastic

Andy Harsley – Plastic Fantastic

“The running theme is probably plastics though because what I’ve set up here as a workshop nobody else has really got.”

On a cold March morning Daniel Dytrych and I trek over to Grantham to interview Andy Harsley in what feels like his even colder workshop. Hats and gloves are a necessity, concrete floors in old industrial units do not warm. If you haven’t heard of Andy it’s worth Googling his name. He is inventor of the Rapstrap, a clever plastic tie that won him a considerable investment on Dragons Den back in 2008. Things are possibly not as you would expect them, Andy is approachable and affable, mentally sharp and a little obsessive.

Photography by Daniel Dytrych
Transcribed by Katy Mack

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I’m interested in the Dragon’s Den episode. How did it actually feel when you were there?

From my point of view it was just a day out, because I don’t watch television. So I’d heard about this thing, but it wasn’t something I’d really considered. I was already working with Hitachi Maxell by this point, so I didn’t really need to go on Dragons Den and get anything from it. I just got pressed ganged into it basically. What I really wanted to do, because it was filmed at Pinewood Studios, was go find the stores manager, because they must get through a load of cable doing movies and stuff. I wanted to see the guy who handles all of that on site. Unfortunately, I managed to get the deal and then I was whisked away to do interviews and so on, and then they escort you off the lot because no-one’s allowed to find out what happened. I never did get to see the guy from stores at Pinewood. There was no real pressure in terms of me having to go and pitch to save the business or anything. Some people are at that stage when they go on and it really is last chance saloon for some of the plucky entrepreneurs who go on the show. But I had most of it already in place. It was just an opportunity that came along and that was it. So yes I wasn’t particularly stressed about doing it or anything. I’ve dealt with much bigger business people than that before. I did a bit of research on them. I think I watched 2 pitches on Youtube before I actually went on. That was the sum total of my research. I got there and I thought that these guys were actually relatively sane, I can deal with this. I knew it didn’t really fit in with Deborah Meaden’s business portfolio. Peter Jones was into telecoms, so he might have an angle on this. Theo Paphitis was into retail through Rhymans and so on, so I think he might also have an angle on this. James Caan and Duncan Bannatyne had invested in a previous electrical product, the Choc Box, so I knew they might be interested because it fitted with what they were already doing. Basically they made me an offer earlier on, Peter Jones said your deals at that end of the table because they have better contacts. I actually said to Deborah, this isn’t your cup of tea, and Peter turned to me and said well hang on a minute, she hasn’t said it; she hasn’t said I’m out. They had to re-film that bit afterwards, because I’d blown her out before she had a chance to say ‘I quit’. There’s a lot of editing that goes on. There were some bits actually in the finished footage which weren’t said during the filming. They’d obviously filmed a bit extra, and added it in afterwards.

Without you being present?

Yes. It’s an entertainment show not a business program, so it is very heavily edited. This is why they wear the same clothes everyday, so they can cut and paste between the episodes for continuity. So yes, it went quick. It took about an hour and 45 minutes. They actually had to stop and change the film halfway through because it was going on so long. But it felt like about 20 – 30 minutes.

So I’m just curious, you didn’t seem nervous. You seemed really calm, even when Theo started breaking stuff. That would of thrown some people.

No, not really. I knew what he had a reputation. You have to sort of preempt those things, forewarned is forearmed. So I was tipped off that he is likely to go around vandalising things, so I was aware of that. He told me I had to give him a reason to stop doing this. The other one that cropped up, which I knew it would was that I want x amount for x percentage from which they assume you value your company at a certain amount. All of the stock questions that any investor will ask you really, as long as you’ve got those in your head, it’s not really a problem. To be honest, I didn’t really need the deal that desperately.

But you took it, so it was a good deal?

It’s only a verbal agreement on the day, so you can change your mind afterwards if necessary. Back then you could say yes on the day, and then say no later on and you will still get the air time. Later on the BBC realised that people were exploiting that and they tightened up. So now if you go on, unless you get the deal and accept, you’re not guaranteed any air time. I was aware of the fact that if I don’t say yes, that was the end of it but if I do say yes there was an opportunity to massage the deal or change the goal posts later on. So that’s what we did and the program actually went out before we had signed the contract. The contract heads of agreement lasted until the end of December. The program was filmed in March and went out in August, but the heads of terms didn’t expire until the 31st December and it was literally just a couple of days before Christmas I had Duncan Banatyne on the phone asking whether I was going to sign this thing or not. I could have pulled out, even after I had all the publicity. But at that point I had also seen the power of the publicity. They don’t warn you but they show the program all over the world. I was getting emails from Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines.

From investors or people wanting to buy them?

People interested in the product, people interested in distributing it in their territories. They were showing it on Abu Dhabi airlines flights for goodness sake! They don’t tell you this in advance, it’s just every so often somewhere will go ballistic and we are wondering why we were getting all these inquiries from Australia. It’s because the program went out in Australia the night before

Was that a big shock to you?

A little bit because I knew it was going to go ballistic when the program went out and we could expect 2 or 3 weeks where it’s insane, but they didn’t tell you about the fact that you can expect that for the next 12 months as well. We didn’t know where it was going to be shown and being a potentially global product it took a bit of catching up. Then there was the follow ups, so I think there were 3 follow up shows as well and endless repeats on Dave. So from a pure publicity point of view, the value you got out of that…I mean I dread to think what it would cost to actually buy that kind of global exposure, plus all the media and books and other things written. Yes, it was quite a sleigh ride by the time all things were done. But it doesn’t take the work out of the work, you’ve still got to actually get your product up and running.

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You are considered one of the more successful Dragon’s Den businesses.

It is an entertainment program, not a business program so it is part game show and reality TV. Basically they are looking for interesting characters. They want the either really good or really bad. I just went in as a business thing. I said to the panel that I don’t desperately need this because I’m working with Hitachi. There are things like that of course, the fact that the product had been developed for the Philippines Telecoms industry. So I had been over to Manila through a contact I found in Japan. The Philippines doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the third largest English speaking country in the world, because pretty much everyone over in the Philippines speaks English to a greater or lesser extent. India is probably number 1, America’s number 2. Philippines is actually bigger than we are in terms of English speaking population. The telecoms industry is just as robust as anywhere else and I’m dealing with the two main telecoms companies over there. So the product was developed for that which is good.

Are you pretty wealthy now?

Oh God no, it’s in one hand and out the other. The bigger you get, the more expensive it becomes. We are paying probably £100,000 a year just on patents, maybe more even. The tooling and machinery, we’ve had new moulds made and got new products coming out. You get by, you pay your bills, you’re doing ok. 

Have you sold rights to Hitachi?

No. They were just contract manufacturers, we just had a friendly agreement. In fact the original contract was literally 2 paragraphs: we’ll do this, you’ll do this, sign here.

So at home you said don’t watch TV, you don’t have internet. Is home somewhere you don’t spend a lot of time?

It’s where I go to sleep basically.

You spend a lot of time here in your workshop? 

Well to give you an idea of this last week. Monday I had a meeting with Monique. She’s a girl I was mentoring a few years ago and she’s doing quite well, so we keep in touch. Tuesday I was at the Silk Mill doing the Art Science Prize, something else that I got roped into a few years ago. I can’t remember exactly how. After I was on Dragon’s Den I got called up by the Young Enterprise and the Educational Business Partnership who are two big national Youth charities going to schools and doing lots of development programs. DBP in Lincolnshire also are the holders for Stemnet. So being a science and technical person, I got enrolled as a Stem Ambassador. I thought if we need more STEM stuff we need a hack space. The closest local hackspace was in Nottingham. So I started going over to the Nottingham hackspace on Wednesday evenings. The guys there used to be in a small art studio opposite the radio station. I started going there when they were a fairly small group. They have moved and expanded enormously since then. I think through them I probably got roped into doing the stuff for the Silk Mill. Through the Silk Mill I got roped into the Art Science prize. So that was Tuesday and Thursday this week. Today I’ve obviously got you here Tonight I’m out with this civic dinner with Gem. That’s sometimes a pretty typical week really. All over the place doing all sorts of things. I like Christmas and New Year because the world tends to leave me alone. I can get work done. I did come in on Christmas day but I didn’t stay.

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Do you consider yourself a workaholic?

No I just consider myself overloaded with work that I’ve got to get done. It’s always a challenge to make it work. There’s a lot of work to do to get to that point… but you’ve got to do it.

“I can go between pure polypropylene which is quite stiff, then add certain materials and soften it down to something that is almost elastic and anywhere in between the two just by blending the ratios.”

So what keeps you motivated?

Knowing whether it’s going to work.

Is there anything beyond the next generation of rapstrap?

There’s a few things. I’ve got some ideas that have been on the back burner for who knows how long, I just haven’t really had time to get around to doing them.

Related things?

Not really. The running theme is probably plastics though because what I’ve set up here as a workshop nobody else has really got. There are places like Loughborough University that have got a small moulding department. They’ve made little key fobs and things. To somebody with no previous experience it’s probably a bit of a challenge, because there’s a lot of steps in the process. That’s the best I’ve seen being done elsewhere. You can see from some of the moulds I work on, it’s head and shoulders beyond what they are doing in academia.

…I haven’t been into loads of maker spaces, hackspaces, maker events. I’ve been to a London hackspace a couple of times. That’s when I got asked to go on the Gadget Geeks program on Sky TV with Tom Scott, Colin Furze. I was at the Nottingham hackspace. The callout went around on the mail shot and they were trying to get loads of people excited about it. They said we should go down to London for the open audition at the London hackspace. I got called and put on the short list. I think they knew who I was at that stage but I think they’d already decided that they wanted Tom and Charles to do it and they were looking for a third support man so it was basically between myself and Colin Furze. Anyway, Colin got the gig and I didn’t, even though I had to go back and audition twice for it. Stuff like that happens all the time.

It takes a lot of your time then? Do you resent it?

It’s different. But going back to what I was saying; even though I’ve been to the London hackspace which is one of the biggest, the Nottingham hackspace and some of the Universities, I still haven’t seen anybody pushing this kind of thing to level that I can. I read forums on the internet that say that you can’t do injection moulding at home. You can. But there’s this mindset that you can’t so nobody is really looking at it.

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Is it because it’s been the remit of large manufacturing?

Everybody knows that you can do CNC work. Everybody knows that you can do casting and things, there’s people who have been doing that. But the idea of banging something out every 30 seconds of saleable quality one after the other. You could 3D print something great, but by the time you’ve done that I’ve got 100 of them done. Who’s going to make money out of this, you or me? I can automate what I’m doing and I’ve just got a bucket of them on the floor. That’s where you want to be. Moulding machines are cheap. There are a few people around the world who are trying to build small hobby level injection moulding machines. I’ve actually got one here that I experimented with a few years ago. So it can be done but they’re not doing it right because they haven’t got the experience of the whole work flow. You’ve got to know about plastics, know about the moulding, know about machining, and all that’s got to come together. So I’ve got the resource and skills I’ve developed over the last few years and I’d like to exploit it.

As a basic process, just to get some understanding, to create a mould you would cut it out of…what kind of metal?

Plates of aluminium. I tend to work on 6mm plates. I buy the aluminium by the sheet and I’ll break it down to size. I don’t worry about nice, neat edges or anything like that. Then I just mark up some reference points which I do with a needle point dental burgh and a magnifying glass. I’m usually hitting a 50 micron accuracy. Once it’s on and set up, I don’t touch anything and set the machine to cut all the bits at different stages.

How many parts are there to the mould?

Some of them are 4, I think that’s the biggest I’ve gone so far. There’s this one that I’m doing at the moment which is just a hook. These are actually for exhibition displays. If you’ve got a shelf scheme at an exhibition and if you want to put lights up, you will need some way of putting fluorescent lights in securely, quickly and easily. So basically they want 500 of these by the end of next week.

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And you can deliver?

If the plates are are done by the time I go home then I’ll probably have the first mouldings of these on Monday.

So something like this would that take two components, two parts to the mould?

Yes. This is a two part mould. That’s the base and then I’ll mirror it over. There are a couple of magnets that hold it together so it doesn’t bounce out when you close the mould. That’s pretty much it. You’ve got a feed point for the plastic injection, the small gate that goes into the actual mould.

Are you going online to do research or are you literally experimenting?

The thing is when you are doing a project, you don’t know what materials are going to work best. So you have a range of materials that might work and you try one, and then another. But during the transitions you get some mixing of materials because there’s still some of the previous material in the machine. As the new stuff comes through, they might mix. Every so often they do mix, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they do and you think that’s interesting because that gives this material certain properties. Once you’ve got at least two that mix, you can go anywhere between the two. So I can go between pure polypropylene which is quite stiff, then add certain materials and soften it down to something that is almost elastic and anywhere in between the two just by blending the ratios. On a small machine like I’m using, you only need to put in 50 – 100g at a time to get an idea of whether it’s working. So it’s very rapid trying different combinations and also different colours. I generally start with white and then I’ll go to yellow, then orange, then to red, purple, blue down into the greens then light green and back into yellow. So if I’m going through a colour cycle, you don’t get awful colours coming out. Going from black to white is an absolute nightmare because you will give it half an hour and there will still be bits of black coming through and it will just look mucky. You have to scrap all that. Things like that you can do on small machines but you can’t do on industrial scale machines.

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So it’s provided you with a lot of agility really.

Yes. I only need to get enough to prove the point. If it’s going well then you can start looking at taking it to the next stage of mass production – designing a proper tool that just runs 24/7. It’s a big investment but it’s worth making that investment at the right point. That’s really the market area I’m in. You can do your 3D print to get an idea of what it’s going to be, but you haven’t got something you can sell. It’s not the right material, it’s not cosmetically correct and takes forever to make them. You are never going to make any money out of it. 3D printing to me is just an extension of computer modelling. It’s improving all the time and people are finding niches, but the idea that 3D printing is going to revolutionise the world and take over from injection moulds…there’s no chance. Absolutely no chance. Bearing in mind that injection moulding you run from just plastic granules. In 3D printing, you’ve got to turn it into a really precise filament first, it’s an extra stage. You are never going to compete if you’ve got that secondary stage. People come to me all the time with little printed 3D mock ups. But with a bit of reworking you can come up with some really clever things.

 

You are in a position where you work with a variety of different people. Do you think that’s key to keeping you interested?

In one sense. The other thing is that I’m making something I’ve been trying to perfect. I guess I’m a bit obsessive about getting it just right. The follow on to the Rapstrap, the new Barracuda design, I want to push it to the absolute limits so there’s no way for anyone to come in and do it better. One thing that winds me up about a lot of design is that it’s just crap. I’ve always said half jokingly that it ought to be the law that if you design a product then you damn well have to live with it. All this crap will go because nobody in their right mind would suffer it because they have to live with it for the next 10 years. That’s the attitude I take. If I’m going to make something, then I’m going to make it to my satisfaction. I’m going to make something that I would be happy to use. Long term, no cutting corners. I will just keep going until I’ve reached that point.

What’s the latest thing you’ve actually been involved in? Was it the robot dinosaur or something else?

Well…I thought it would work and I could show it to the kids. Then when I switched it on I realised this isn’t going to be that simple. Another project that I did recently was this ride on swegway thing. One of these hoverboard things that keeps exploding. That’s why there’s a fire extinguisher standing by just to be on the safe side.

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End.

Rachel Emmerson – Jewellery maker

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