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Chris Elsworthy takes on the Dragons
By now you’ll no doubt have seen the press release from CEL about their machine, the Robox and its subsequent launch on Kickstarter. By now you’re also pretty used to seeing another 3D printer on Kickstarter and you may have become immune to all the “amazing” things these machines claim to do. But you’d be a fool not to look further into the Robox and not to be impressed by the functions this machine WILL have.
We spoke to CEO of Robox, Chris Elsworthy, a refreshing change not to speak to a hyperbole spouting marketing exec. but to a qualified Industrial Designer who has vast experience in bringing a product to market. This is not another company with no experience of production lines, manufacturing costs or tooling this is a company with vast experience of bringing an award winning, mass manufactured power tool to market.
“A lot of people are really enthusiastic about 3D printing and a lot of the printers on the market have come from individuals. They start off as enthusiastic projects and then struggle to become corporate machines. We’ve come at from another angle, we are manufacturers who design and develop mass manufactured products all the time.” Explained Elsworthy.“We have a use and enthusiasm for 3D printing but we also have all the experience in tooling, CNCing, manufacturing and assembly, basically the production line. We don’t have to learn about this as we go along like other projects often do, we are already experts in bringing a product to market.”
So what is it that would draw a firm with a successful power tool and gardening tool lines into the muddy waters that is 3D printing? Well, as a product development company CEL use rapid prototyping in its various guises right through the development stage and a few years ago they dipped their toe in the water to see if they could make their own printer.
“About two years ago we had a crack at building a RepRap machine in the office, just for fun really.” Said the knowledgeable Elsworthy. “We thought it was a bit lego-y and didn’t do the job we wanted it to do properly so we designed and made ourselves a bigger one. On the back of that we got thinking that actually, as a tooling company, we could do a pretty good job of designing and making a 3D printer that could be designed and used by just about anyone as opposed to just techies. Through our own use of 3D printing and finding all the shortfalls of printers on the market at the moment we started thinking about Robox. We are trying to get all the hardware, firmware and software to work together and do all the rubbish jobs that you have to do to get current generation 3D printers to work. The Robox can automate all these jobs, take the bed levelling for instance - which is quite manually intensive – the Robox takes that off the hands of the user and does it automatically. We are taking on this great idea from where it is now to a more polished experience for the user.”
Of the main gripes consumers have about 3D printing, one that comes up repeatedly is how slow machines can be. Robox claims to be up to 300% faster, one of the main reasons the Robox is lightning fast is a brilliantly simple idea that uses a larger nozzle to extrude plastic faster for infill and switching to a smaller nozzle to give the outside of the print a high-resolution, polished finish. This was somewhat of a eureka moment in the design of the Robox, as Elsworthy outlines: “It seems obvious and simple but when you get into the nuts and bolts of it, technically it is difficult because you have to stop the flow of materials through one nozzle and port it to the other one, even this doesn’t sound particularly difficult as there are lots of gates and valves you could use but when you start to consider that you want this hot end to go up to 300+ degrees to melt some of the kind of more rarer plastics then you have to get into more exotic materials for those valves. Luckily we have a lot of technical expertise in that area because we are designing and manufacturing all the time. I think that expertise is what we can add to the 3D printing market, we can take machines that the RepRap guys made and add professional tooling and manufacturing to it."
Chris and the Dragons
Chris is keen to stress they are not a start-up, they know what they are doing but why would they need to use the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter? As Chris explains it isn’t all about the money: “We want to get a beta crew together to help us improve the product, there is no better way to get such a wide audience of the sort of tech savvy people we want than with Kickstarter, the audience are already there. The beta testers are so important to us, without them we can’t make this product what we want it to be. The second reason is, we want to get the story out there, Kickstarter is a really good platform for letting people know what you’re doing, especially for a smaller company like ours who haven’t got the money for marketing and PR. The third reason is of course, money. If we can get the money together now we can churn that right back into the product so when we do launch the product is as great as possible. Cash is important to any business and we are no different.”
Chris Elsworthy is upfront, honest and knowledgeable. He talks without the hype but at the same time doesn’t blind you with science. All these qualities meant Chris was worthy of investment from two of Britain’s most notorious investors, Peter Jones and Duncan Bannatyne. Back in 2010 he appeared on the hit television show Dragon’s Den with his first product the Power8 Workshop.
He was successful then and seeing as the Robox is halfway to its Kickstarter goal with over 90% of funding time remaining, it seems Chris will be successful now too.
The CEO told us: “Dragon’s Den was scary, it is set up to make good television. Standing there in front of the Dragons without any notes, on you own, with cameras pointing at you, it is all set up to make you feel small and the Dragons feel big. With Kickstarter I think it is quite honest, it is policed by its users. If you go on there with a silly idea you are not going to get funding, but if, like us, you have prepared for six months with every detail about your plan covered then it is different. We’ve spent four months populating the page with every single detail, perhaps too much, but we have covered everything. The last two weeks, waiting to for Kickstarter to approve our campaign, has been agony. Dragon’s Den is not promoting your product to real people, this kind of peer-to-peer funding is appealing to exactly the sort of person we want.”
The Robox team is forward thinking too, they’ve not just thought about how to get those people on board now, but how to stop them jumping ship when the next evolution happens in this, such a rapidly progressing industry: “We want it to be multi-functional, so yeah, 3D printing is great today but this is such a quickly developing market that we don’t want somebody to pop up tomorrow and have a much better printing idea and that means our customers have to go out and buy a whole new product. We have made this machine as forwardly compatible as possible; there’s room for another extruder, room for more materials, different support materials etc. We want the customers we get today to still be our customers in ten year’s time."
Great British Ingenuity
Of the Robox’s many USPs there’s one particularly unique characteristic we like, they’re British. Since the expiration of the FDM patent professional looking consumer/desktop 3D printers have popped up across the globe; the US, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and China all have consuemr looking desktop devices but this isle that prides itself on industry has seen relatively few desktop 3D printers. Chris thinks he knows why: “We are based in Bristol and just down the road used to be Bits from Bytes but they were bought out by 3D Systems other than that there aren’t any others we know of. The UK 3D printing community is all about open-source and at Robox, as an enterprise we want people to make and help us improve our product and we are releasing as much information online as possible but at the same time we do need to make our investment back on it. Maybe that is a sticking point in the UK, it all started as open-source but the backlash Makerbot received when they went closed-source has scared people into going underground rather than make a commercial enterprise out of it.”
Chris embodies the very British spirit of the underdog. Robox are bringing their printer to the TCT sponsored 3D Printing TechZone at International CES 2014, where he hopes Robox will be the cat amongst the pigeons: “It (CES) is one of the biggest consumer shows in the world. I’m really excited about going up against some of the bigger boys there as we’re a relatively small company. I get a thrill from sticking it to the man, hopefully we’ll have loads of people crowding around our stand and we can say “look at what we can do with just seven people when you have hundreds of engineers”.