Exclusive Interview with Steve CoxFollow article
In normal times, Steve Cox has a very full and busy schedule. The well-known independent 3D printing technologies consultant helps businesses and people across the country to explore the opportunities that are emerging from this exciting technology.
Specialising in 3D printing, design, scanning and additive manufacturing, Steve’s projects range from helping YouTubers to supersize their favourite snacks to transforming the lives of those with severe disabilities. He also plays an active role in delivering education content for both Ultimaker and AutoDesk. No two days are ever the same.
With the current lockdown in place across the UK, we were very pleased that Steve was able to take some time out from a number of initiatives that he is currently working on from home, to catch up with Robbie from DesignSpark.
DesignSpark: Hi Steve, firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to us. 3D Printing as a technology is still relatively young. What did you originally study and how has your career path taking you to where you are now?
Steve: That's a great question, I'm a mechanical engineer by passion and training. That's what I studied at university and I was lucky enough to go on to be mechanical engineer at Jaguar Land Rover, or Jaguar cars as it was at the time back in 1983 when I graduated as an apprentice.
That was a fantastically rewarding career. I got to do many things that lots of people don't get the opportunity to do. I have led teams of up to 25 people in bringing vehicles from the stylist’s pen and early concept stage right the way through to volume production. I developed some great products and got to test them in places like the Outback of Australia and the frozen wastes of Canada. They were fantastic opportunities and I had a fantastic career, but in 2013 something clicked inside me and I decided to make a career change.
Maybe I had launched too many cars over the years, but things didn't quite seem to have the same excitement anymore, so I took a gap year probably 30 years later than most people would. It gave me the opportunity to go and do some things that I had always wanted to do. And although I left JLR with no particular career path in mind, the one thing that I was really excited about was 3D printing.
We had been using 3D printing for rapid prototyping at Jaguar Land Rover on machines that cost between £200k-£300k. To suddenly realise that you can get a machine for a couple of thousand pounds that could sit alongside your laptop and do something similar was enormously exciting for me. So the one guiding light I had was my thirst to find out more about 3D printing, to buy a printer and to teach myself how to use it.
At the end of the day, I'm an engineer and as good as 3D printing is as a technology, it's not the technology that excites me. It is the applications and what people can use it for that really interests me. I know a lot of people really get hung up about the actual technology of the whole thing and that's what excites them, but for me it's another tool and the most important thing is what you do with that tool.
DesignSpark: Are there any particularly strange or different applications that you have assisted people in using 3D Printing for that you never would have expected?
Steve: Late last year I was contacted by a food blogger, who has over 900k followers on YouTube. He supersizes different food and for Christmas he wanted to create a giant chocolate orange. His name is Barry Lewis.
He was put in touch with me by Dr Lucy Rogers (host of The DesignSpark Podcast) and I helped him to create what he needed using 3D scanning and printing. When I created the giant segments in Fusion 360, I even branded them "Barry's" instead of "Terry's" in a similar font and then used the 3D printed segments to vacuum form some moulds that he could fill with chocolate. It was great seeing that project coming together. I think he wants to create a giant Custard Cream or Bourbon biscuit next. (Editors note: a giant 3D printed mug could also be needed for some tea then!)
DesignSpark: And which projects have been the most rewarding for you?
Steve: I see 3D printing as being an enormously powerful tool for helping people with disabilities. Mass manufacturing doesn't often satisfy the needs of people with disabilities, because very often their problems are unique to each person. Disability really plays perfectly into the hands of 3D printing, because it's really powerful to be able to create something quickly and specific. You can then give it to somebody and they're gonna go "wow, that's so helpful". It may be a complete one off and you may never make anything like it again, but that's the power of 3D printing.
In fact there's a story around that, when I attended a disability conference in 2016, I was approached by a lady in a motorised wheelchair. She said "Can you help me. There's nowhere on the chair that I can put my water bottle, so I have to drive around with it between my knees."
I recognised that it should be a fairly easy problem to solve, using a clip which could attach to the armrest. It took me about 15 minutes of design work and 45 minutes of printing. She came back an hour later, I popped the clip onto the arm of the chair and she hung her water bottle on it. She turned to me and said "wow, you've just transformed my life". It didn't feel like anything huge, but if it felt like that to her then that really made my day.
I also went on to work on a bigger disability project. It was with an organisation called "Disrupt Disability" where we set out to create a modular wheelchair, because generally they aren't able to be customised usually and those that can be are very expensive. As an example, most of us have multiple pairs of footwear. We put the most appropriate pair on for whatever activity we will be doing that day. By contrast most people in a wheelchair, have one single chair and they have to use it for every activity that they're doing.
The idea was to create a more customised wheelchair, where you could swap in and out elements to make it more suitable for whatever you would be doing during the day. They could put some different wheels on to go to the beach. You could change the backrest or all kinds of other things.
That was a great project to work on. Some of that culminated in 2018, just as generative design was about to emerge. I got the opportunity to to trial generative just before it got released by Autodesk formally and created a wheelchair around generative design. It was by no means a final product, but it was more about throwing out another question out there saying "if we can design lightweight, very efficient structures could that benefit people in wheelchairs just as much as it could benefit Aerospace or the automotive industry?"
Just like those industries where lightweight is important, it's just as important for people in wheelchairs to have a lightweight wheelchair. If it's manual then it will take less effort and if its powered then it's gonna go further on a single charge of electricity. That was a feel good project because it brought together a lot of things that I'd been working on and thinking about.
DesignSpark: We've seen 3D Printing technology hit the headlines again recently, during the COVID-19 crisis. There are a lot of distributed manufacturing projects taking place around the world producing PPE equipment for healthcare workers. You must feel a bit like a proud father?
Steve: It is fantastic to see so many people out there with 3D printers, showcasing what it what it can do. It's the first time that we've really seen distributed manufacturing at scale and that's thrown up some interesting questions. I was reading an article today about some of the things that we've learnt about distributed manufacturing worldwide, which is the first time it's ever really happened in the current crisis.
While I'm proud of what 3D printing has done, I'm also a little bit frustrated at where we are now. My view is that, at the current state of development, 3D printing is still not really a mass production methodology and it's benefit is actually in something called Bridge manufacturing, which is basically spelling a gap between when you can actually get into a more sustainable method of manufacture and it can help you across that gap in terms of time and cost and getting all of those facilities in place. So, it should really have been used for the first two or three weeks of this particular problem but then we should have been moving away from 3D printing into different manufacturing technologies.
So yes, I'm certainly proud of the way 3D printing is showcasing what it can do during this crisis, but we also need to look beyond it.
DesignSpark: And you have actually been looking at that next step, in terms of how it can evolve into another method of manufacturing?
Yes. I've been getting frustrated that people are still reliant on this 3D printing way of overcoming the PPE issue. So, as a way of trying to do something about that, I decided to take one of the designs and adapted it because the original design for 3D printing didn't meet the British Standard for this kind of device.
First I had to look at some modifications and having done that I then went forward and showed how that could be injection moulded. I then passed it on to someone that I have been in touch with and they ran it through some mould flow analysis. They have now completed a die set, so we have an open-source injection moulding tool for this particular type of protective device. It's now available for anybody who is interested in picking this up.
You can listen to the audio interview with Steve in Episode 3 of our 'Geeks We Are Your Fathers' podcast below.
You can see a portfolio of Steve’s 3D printing work here