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Home3D PrintingTen years of E3D: An interview with co-founder Joshua Rowley

Ten years of E3D: An interview with co-founder Joshua Rowley

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In the running of any business, there are hurdles to overcome and curve balls to deal with. Growing your business is likely to have its peaks and troughs too. But when you reach a landmark, say your tenth anniversary, there is cause to celebrate the successes and reflect on the journey.

For E3D, though, its tenth year was its hardest yet. Founded in 2012 on the Isle of Wight, the company rode the wave of the RepRap movement to become one of the leading providers of 3D printed nozzles, extruders, and essentials. It was founded and directed by three friends who turned a passion project into a business that employs dozens of others. Then in November 2021, three tragically became two.

Sanjay Mortimer, who was instrumental in the company’s product development from the beginning, passed away in his early 30s. In the days after his death, an E3D statement read: “Over the last ten years, [Sanjay] has supported the creation of a world-leading extrusion system engineering team in preparation for E3D’s second decade. Sanjay’s team will deliver on our vision of changing the way humanity manufactures goods.”

Six months on, that spirit is more than evident as Joshua Rowley, one of Mortimer’s fellow co-founders, sits down in the corner of E3D’s TCT 3Sixty stand to ruminate on the first ten years in business, and tease what’s to come next.

“I can’t tell you too much,” Rowley says, “but we will improve our nozzles range and we will improve the ability of users to print fast and print even more aggressive materials, some that aren’t even on the market yet. We will also be making quick changing easier, and we have a few other things that we’re going to be doing to extruders in the future. Sorry, very cryptic. More extruders and more hotends. We are absolutely not done. There’s a long way to go.”

And they’ve come a long way. E3D – so called because the original concept was to sell printers to schools and teach the children how to use them (Education in 3D) – was born when Mortimer and co-founder David Lamb, both teachers, decided to build their own 3D printer. Most of the componentry was easy enough for a handy pair like them to build with workshop equipment, but they were advised to buy the electronics, motors, and the hotend – the component of the printer that extrudes the material through the nozzle.

“Sanjay was like, ‘this hotend thing, why do we need to buy it? I’ll just make one,’” Rowley retells the story. “He created what was then known as an all-metal hot-end. Now, it’s just known as a hotend because no one doesn’t use this technology that was developed back then by Sanjay and Dave.”

Their timing was impeccable. Three years earlier, the expiration of Stratasys’ Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) patents had paved the way for the RepRap movement, which brought about a passionate community of makers and hobbyists utilising desktop 3D printing systems and sharing tips, tricks and 3D printed files online.

Mortimer was part of that community and was posting on online forums about the 3D printer he was manufacturing. He aimed to make some headway in selling the machine, but what he was selling was nearly identical to every other desktop machine being shared on these forums. Except for one component: the V4 HotEnd.

“Sanjay and Dave scratched together some cash, bought the first batch of 100 or so of these hotends, sold them online and they sold out within minutes,” Rowley says. “Everyone wanted to try out this new all-metal hotend design.”

Rowley was another member of the maker community and was, at this time, building his own printer. He had lived with Mortimer at university, where the pair once made a sous vide cooker and their own microbrewery and distilling operation. They have always made things, but upon graduating from university their careers initially took different paths. Mortimer went into teaching, and Rowley ended up at an engineering consultancy. They stayed in touch, however, and when Mortimer and Lamb had started successfully selling hotends in their droves, they asked Rowley to join them in setting up a business.

“I was technically the first person to work for E3D because the other guys couldn’t quit their jobs until they’d finished that term, whereas I had a month’s notice,” Rowley says. “So, I was the first person on the ground and that was in a chicken shed on the Isle of Wight. We signed a one-year lease, and we got down to building a company from this and so there was no idea, there was no concept, there was just engineering. And that engineering turned into a product and a technology that people wanted to buy.”

At the end of that one-year lease, the E3D team moved from one chicken shed to another in the city of Oxford where they soon hired three additional employees. With hotends still in demand, the small outfit was able to take on the chicken shed next door, and then the one at the other end of the business park. Before long, the company had five separate units which they have since consolidated into one building – the only office E3D has ever had that isn’t a chicken shed – on the same business park.

At that time, E3D had begun to expand its product offering and by 2014 the company was also making good sales of its V5 and V6 hotends, the latter of which would later be included on the Prusa i3 MK2 machine as its standard hotend.

“Those have been our flagship products for almost a decade,” Rowley says. “We’ve continued to iterate and evolve and develop new things along the way. Our primary aim in all of this has been to change the way humanity manufactures goods. So, our niche in the world is FDM 3D printing and we want to do everything that we can to push that technology forward and to develop it to improve it for the sake of the whole 3D printing industry and FDM in particular.”

By the end of 2016, four years into the company’s journey, E3D was providing almost 100 product options, owing to the addition of plated copper nozzles and an experimental high-resolution nozzle with a 0.15mm diameter, as well as the various input diameter and voltage & input options for its hotend products.

It then began to step things up. In 2017, E3D introduced the Titan Aero all-in-one extruder + hotend, which was 25mm shorter than a Titan and V6, and had a very short filament path between the hobb and the nozzle tip to make the extruder more responsive, delivering more accurate prints. This also ensured users could print flexible materials, while the all-in-one’s ability to dissipate a similar amount of heat as the V6 enabled the printing of thermoplastic materials. “Combining extruder and hotend together you save weight,” Rowley says of this product. “And optimising that design means you can get it lightweight enough that when the printer is panging it left, right, backwards, forwards, you’ve not got a large flying mass, so that allows you to keep high speeds. That was what that design was about.”

One year later, E3D would win the TCT Polymer Hardware Award for the E3D ToolChanger product. By now, E3D had come to terms with the fact it wasn’t going to be a 3D printer manufacturer, moving past the company’s initial motivation and the brief foray into machinery with the BigBox that launched on Kickstarter in 2015. Between 2018-20, however, E3D engineered, introduced, and commercialised its ToolChanger and Motion system, an advanced research platform that allows up to four multi-material and multi-functional tools to be utilised during a single print. Those tools could be four different hotends for four different materials or could include subtractive tools, inspection tools, pick & place tools, and so on.

Per Rowley, E3D intended to put the solution out into the market so that the rest of the 3D printing sector could then design the software to handle tool changing, for example. “We went out there with an egg,” Rowley explains, “hoping that we’d get some chickens and then more eggs.” E3D believes that strategy has been successful, pointing to the Prusa XL tool changing printer and the Desktop Metal Fiber which, per Rowley, is ‘very much inspired by the E3D ToolChanger.’

The company’s most recent innovation is the RapidChange Revo series of extruders, hotends and nozzles which have been designed to allow quick nozzle changes without tools or hot tightening in as little as 30 seconds. This, E3D believes, will give users increased flexibility to switch from a small nozzle printing in fine detail to a larger nozzle printing a part faster. It will also allow print farm operators to switch out a blocked nozzle and have their fleet of printers back up and running to capacity almost immediately.

“That improves uptime, it improves reliability and that ultimately reduces the cost per part of the end user of the print farm,” Rowley emphasises. “It’s also a modular system, which means that we can use one hotend nozzle technology for endless different printer applications and that gives us an economy of scale and it gives our customers an economy of scale.”

Being able to provide this capability to end users is among the many reasons that Rowley believes FDM is ‘the best’ 3D printing technology. He also notes the limited waste of material, the clean nature of the technology compared to resin and powder technologies, and the economics, both at the point of purchase and in the printing of parts. The company also enjoys, and benefits from, the community around the FDM 3D printing space – both in the maker environment and the professional. As it has expanded from one to the other, the company has sought to maintain its commitment to being open source where it can, pledging to only patent ‘the very specific things we really invented.’

Having moved into the professional 3D printing space, E3D now works with a whole host of partners and collaborators, including both hardware manufacturers and materials developers to evaluate their products against E3D’s tool heads and hotends. The aim, ultimately, is to ensure E3D’s products work on existing machines and materials. But E3D also believes it is in a position to push its collaborators into new areas.

“If we can print hitherto unprintable materials, that’s great for us,” Rowley says. “And if they can produce a material that can’t be printed because someone’s out there developing a mechanism to do so that’s clearly good for them. We want to be at the centre of the technology that’s driving FDM to the next level. All these symbolic relationships work to push it forward.” 

With award-winning products and partnerships with some of the leading brands in the extrusion 3D printing space, E3D can feel confident that it is assuming such a pivotal role. Today, the company is a professional outfit with an extensive product range that spans extruders, hotends, nozzles, toolchangers and essential componentry like motors, sensors, bearings, and belts. But it wasn’t too long ago that Mortimer, Lamb, and Rowley were couped up in a chicken shed, busting a gut to supply the rising demand for their products and trying to muster enough conviction to scale manufacturing volumes.

“Our biggest problem was always making enough,” Rowley says of the early challenges E3D faced. “We always ordered about three or four times as many as we thought we needed and then they were gone, and we’d be ordering more. It was just a case of keeping up with demand. I think, potentially, even having confidence in what we had developed [was another challenge] because being so cocksure that we would order ten times the number that we ordered last time was like, ‘that’s just ridiculous. We’ll order three or four times what we ordered last time – that seems sensible.’ And the volumes were just flying off the shelves, so it was keeping up with demand.”

With those challenges came learnings for Rowley and the team. As products continued to be well received, E3D’s confidence heightened. The company grew steadily, only taking on more staff, more chicken sheds, and a golf buggy to transport products across the business park when it knew it could sustain such an outlay. After five years, E3D was able to move into a conventional office space because, by now, it wasn’t only the consumer market that was buying into its offering, but machine manufacturers too.

“People buy good technology,” Rowley says. “If you’re selling a product that solves a problem and makes life easier for the customer or the manufacturer of a printer, then people are going to be interested in it. This industry, the people are very connected, they know what they want, they know what good looks like. And they’re driven by progress, they want to push things forward and if there’s someone out there that solves a problem, they will take it and they will run with it.”

Run with it the industry has. E3D is now ten years into a mission that is focused on elevating the capabilities of extrusion-based 3D printing technology. It has acquired nozzle and aftermarket FDM firm ZODIAC recently to bolster the supply chain of all its product lines, while the company also expects to be ISO 9001 accredited this year.

“We’ve had to grow up and professionalise immensely,” Rowley says. “We’ve moved from being a start-up to being an ISO 9001 company with 80 or so employees. Everything we make, we make in the UK, we have sub con all over the world, and I’m immensely proud of what we’ve achieved, and I’m really excited about our next step. As we get REVO out there into more and more printers, it will produce an ecosystem that will produce a mindset where people use the right tool for the right job and FDM will take a step forwards.”

That would be as good a place as any to finish. After all, Rowley has a busy booth to get back to on the first day of TCT 3Sixty. But he also has the first fundraising event for the Sanjay Mortimer Foundation – an initiative set up in his friend and co-founder’s memory – to attend that weekend.

The foundation has been launched to support children and young adults (14-21 years) who are gifted but lack the finances or practical resources to fulfil their potential or who have a statemented Special Education Need, focusing on ADHD – a condition Mortimer lived with – and are struggling within mainstream education. This support will manifest in access to funding, equipment, and opportunities, with E3D to gradually increase partnerships and expand geographically as the foundation becomes more established.

“Sanjay, Dave and myself all have various learning difficulties,” Rowley says. “Dave and I are both quite dyslexic and Sanjay had ADHD. That’s something he was very open about and, for all of us, being involved in the act of making something, building 3D printers, being in a workshop, and creating and engaging with a community online that are equally enthusiastic about the technology, it has shown us that we have a different kind of intelligence and capability. That built up our confidence and it helped us become better academically.

“The foundation is to help people who have some kind of learning difficulty or some special needs use 3D printing as a way of getting their hands onto something, getting their hands around something and building their confidence and getting connected to making in the community that is associated with that. It has been tremendously valuable for us, and I think there’s a good opportunity for 3D printing to be a force for good in the world. It’s something that would have been very close to Sanjay’s heart, so it’s something that we’re setting up in his name.”

Over the course of their friendship, Rowley, Lamb, and Mortimer went from making ‘stupid stuff’ in their university flat to a business that employs 80 people, serves international markets and works with some of the biggest names in the 3D printing industry. Somewhere in between, the latter two had become teachers and Rowley an engineering consultant, though their penchant for making things remained. A trip to a teaching trade show introduced two of the trio to 3D printing, with a friendly recommendation to the third putting them on a new, exciting course.

“Sanjay was like, ‘hey, I’ve got into this 3D printing thing. Dave and I went to a teaching trade show, and you can pick up a Huxley for a couple of hundred quid. You should try it, it’s really interesting.’ And the rest is history.”


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