Flux Laser & CNC Studio
Arriving in Flux Laser Studios we remark on the fragrance coming from the machines, "It's walnut that is being cut, nice isn't it?" replies Flux director Alice Jacobs. Founded in 2012 by Jacobs and Philip Longstaff, Flux Laser Studio is a specialist laser cutting, engraving and CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) facility in Glasgow's Whisky Bond. The studio is a hub of activity with Alice overseeing all aspects of the business since Philip Longstaff left the company to pursue other projects. In the past three years, the company has amassed a fleet of machines to complete the Flux family and expand the services they provide. From art school students who pick up their Flux key-rings at fresher's fares to designers, architects, distilleries, and other businesses, Flux takes an initial idea right through to the final product regardless of who you are. We spoke to Alice Jacobs to find out more.
After graduating in Sculpture and Environmental Art from Glasgow School of Art you immediately began the business, what was the key reason for starting Flux Laser & CNC Studio?
"There were two reasons, both of which combine. At Glasgow School of Art there used to be a Deutsche Bank Award which provided £10,000 of funding to a graduate to start a business. We sat down and wrote a business plan but we weren't successful. However, we had spent so much time and had done a lot of much market research, on top of speaking to so many people who really believed it was something that was needed in Glasgow, that we decided to go ahead and do it anyway.
The businesses that existed were more commercial signage companies who were charging in the region of £60 - £75 an hour for the facilities. £70 per hour isn’t going to get you very far, particularly if you've just graduated and have very little money to spare after living. We saw that the machinery was becoming a lot more affordable and there was no need to be charging that high a rate.
We wrote the business plan in our final term at art school and presented it to one of our tutors who was a bit bamboozled and didn’t really understand why we were presenting a sculpture tutor with a business plan. We recognised the need for a laser cutting studio and we both had an interest in it, that we just threw ourselves into it and very quickly tried to work out how to run out a business."
You mentioned that one of the reasons behind starting Flux was noticing a gap in the market for an affordable laser cutting service, in addition to this what would you say sets you apart from other laser cutting businesses and facilities?
“We have a grounding in art practice in which we’ve been taught to think through the process and as a result we are not fazed by people coming in and requesting some strange things. We offer advice and information in regards to the technical side of our facilities: how it should be cut, whether it would be better to have it laser cut or have it in one material over another. There are times where people may not place an order but instead are solely looking for advice and I am more than happy to do that too. If I know something would have a better finish if it were screen printed rather than a laser engraving - I'll be honest and say that because I don’t want someone to end up with a product they don’t want.
Flux has also built up a big variety of suppliers who I know that I can trust and are good value and efficient. We pride ourselves on having a quick turnaround; most projects take 24 - 36 hours. Yesterday morning I had a file that came in mid-day and it was in the post to go down to the South of England by 4.30pm and it will be with them today by 1pm. I can’t always guarantee that I can do that because often we are quite busy but I will try my very best.”
“I know that artists and designers often have really tight deadlines not because of their disorganisation but because of the people they are working for. Things go wrong or they need to change the design. There is no way you can change the opening date of an exhibition and students can’t change their deadlines even if the university or the school’s machines break down. They have to find a way of doing it regardless of things outwith their control. If these facilities had been available when I was at art school I think it would have made things a lot easier, so I’m trying to help people out.
One of the most important things that sets us apart from commercial signage companies, is that you are not coming to a faceless, nameless company - it will be myself that you are talking to in every email or every phone call or even if you drop by the studio. It's a one-to-one service.
Half the people I see in the Glasgow art scene or at an opening, I won't be able to recall their name but I can probably remember the last project they did and what materials they made it out of. If I could start calling you 12mm MDF or 18mm BB Ply then it would be a lot easier, but apologies if I do forget!”
Looking around the studio you notice that every machine has a given name. When speaking about Flux you stated that the machines are part of the Flux family. Do you talk to the machines?
[Laughs] "I haven’t quite gotten to that stage of madness, maybe give it a couple more years and it will be there. The machines are named after tutors and technicians from when we were are at art school.
‘Russell' was the first machine after Russell Lamb, the wood technician in the sculpture department. He was one of the most instrumental people in my degree, not only was he an incredibly talented technician in terms of helping us but he was also a shoulder to cry on. He was there for advice on personal, technical and academic matters.
I think he was one of the reasons that after we didn’t get the funding that Flux still went ahead because he believed in us more than anyone else. Even now, I still see him and the day that I labelled the machine I took a photo and sent it to him and he said he had a wee tear in his eye.
The machines that followed were named after Allan Currall, who is the vinyl plotter, we’ve got Sue Brind who was our 4th year tutor, Brian Kelly who was our 2nd year tutor, Shauna McMullan and our new machine is named after Justin Carter.”
In the time that we've spoken several people have dropped into the studio to run past ideas and orders, would you say that is one of the benefits of being based in Glasgow's Whisky Bond?
"For sure, there are all these amazing people in one space: you’ve got world class artists in this building, you have technical support and advice which is available to you whether you are a first year graduate or a Turner Prize nominee and it is indiscriminate - no matter who you are those facilities are all available to you. You can go down two studios and have your house designed or walk along the corridor and have your business plan analysed. For people who have something laser cut they can go upstairs and use the 3D printers and see how it would work on a mass production scale and so on.
We were the first people to move in. Initially it was only us, the builders and the owners who had keys and it has been amazing to see the place grow from such a small place to develop into a community, especially for someone who is often in the studio on my own for a week or two when there are smaller jobs to do and I don't have people in helping. It’s great that there are so many other self-employed or small businesses and creatives who are in here - you have someone to have lunch with or a coffee. It's not the alienation that I kind of worried that running my own business would be."
Has there been anything that you've been asked to do that is just out of this world weird that has subsequently taken you aback?
"Yeah, people asking if we can make Ouija boards. You often get requests for PVC jobs that come from very strange email addresses but laser cutting PVC is not possible at all because it has chlorine in it. Some of those requests could have materialised into some very strange products and possibly not ones we would have on our portfolio on the website.
However, since we started laser cutting and laser engraving it has become common knowledge in the same way people know about screen printing. I think companies like us have helped to make it more accessible to people who aren't in the creative or design industries, it is more of a hobby for some people and that can lead to strange requests too. 'Can you CNC me the front of my Land Rover Defender coin tray because I want to put an LED screen in it so that I can check my mile per gallon whilst I'm driving' [laughs], er yeah.. I'll do that!
Social media has made things a lot easier to find these facilities as well. #lasercutting and you can find hundreds of different companies that do it."
For creatives leaving university or simply sitting with a business idea in mind, what advice would you give them when starting up your own company?
"One really, really basic thing: keep your accounts in order. Keep track of literally every penny you spend and spend as little as you can. Try and save money because there are two ways of doing it; you can go out and get business loan or you can do it the way we did. I was very much of the opinion that I wanted to be able to do it off my own back. As money came in it was being saved and saved up to be able to expand and increase machinery and stock.
Don’t assume what you need for the business straightway away; work slowly and build up. Also if it is a stock based business then don’t make 1000 products in the first week and expect to sell them because plans change. We see that with people coming to us and getting laser cut or CNC-ed for production - they put in a massive order to start off with and then they have sitting stock because their designs change quite quickly (as they always do) whether that is a small change or a much larger alteration.
Another key thing is to ask a lot of questions and talk to a lot of people, do your research. I think this is really important because you can have a perfect idea of what your business wants to do in your mind but even within the first couple of weeks of starting up Flux needed to change because it wasn’t feasible and it was more efficient doing it in different ways than how we had initially expected it to work."
Plans for the future?
"World domination is an obvious answer [laughs] but realistically growing the facilities. We've just invested in a 900 x 1200 laser machine which is A0 so it is double the size of what we had previously. Full sheet CNC would be the next step which can't sadly happen inside of the Whisky Bond because of the logistics of the building.
There are exciting projects on the horizon so just carrying on. It's a tricky balance between staying a very personable and approachable company whilst growing, and that is something that I think so far (touch wood) that we've done in the last three years. This business is my life and I love it."
"Going to art school, I think you kind of go there knowing that realistically a large pay-packet isn't something you are going to get, and I'm not saying that it is now, but even being able to derive a living out of doing something creative is beyond my wildest dreams. I love doing what I do and I don't think I would change anything, maybe the weather in Glasgow. If anyone wants to relocate the entire Glasgow art scene to somewhere warmer I'd be up for that, but until that happens I'll stay here."
For more information about Flux Laser & CNC Studio visit their facebook page and website.