John Cousins is founder and MD of isodo3D, an innovative 3D printing company based at The Science Centre, Chilworth, Southampton. 3D printing is big news because of the potential which it offers as an application. Cousins set it up a year ago, building on a 19-year career in telecoms, sport, print, media and the IT marketplace. His past includes the role of operations director at Peach Telecom, but he is no stranger to founding and growing entrepreneurial companies. isodo3d provides 3D content-to-print solutions including 3D printers, print materials and cloud sourced on-demand custom parts for professionals and consumers alike, with materials including plastics, metals, ceramics and edibles. The company also provides integrated software and hardware tools including scan to CAD and inspection. Product designers, architects, dental laboratories and anyone who uses 3D CAD are discovering the benefits of embracing 3D printing technology.
If you could see into the future, you might predict the rise of 3D – and it’s no longer the stuff of sci-fi. Technology that quickly and economically allows people to print small, detailed parts for casting, prototyping and end-use is far removed from the 2D world in which John Cousins grew up. The son of a bingo caller, he was born in north Yorkshire but spent his early childhood and teenage years in Weston-Super-Mare. Not overly academic, he enjoyed the creative arts, a portent of things to come, and joined the Sea Cadets at 13, before beginning his career in the Royal Navy. Knee injuries put paid to that as a long-term option, which is why he moved into telecoms. Cousins has two sons, an electrician and a singer/songwriter, an interesting mix of his own practical and arts genes. A loyal Saints supporter, keen golfer and outdoors type, Cousins suffered a sciatica-related problem in 1998 which led to six months off work. That led him to think about life-changing ideas, improvements and 3D. He’s been doing so ever since, as he told writer Sue Hughes (a veteran of 2D publishing technology).
What drives your entrepreneurial spirit?
To me, an entrepreneurial spirit is a way of approaching situations where you feel empowered, motivated, and capable of taking things into your own hands. You also need to create a vision that everyone gets behind and empower innovation in pursuit of the vision. I would add that having the right mindset can make the difference between success and failure and being able to feel fear but the courage to ’go for it’ anyway.
What can 3D printing do?
Nearly everything. The only limitation is your mind. One example is shaving hours off operating time, because if a surgeon has a 3D model of a particular patient’s bone, say a broken femur, he knows what he can do and how to approach or adapt surgical procedures. It’s important for patient engagement too, and of course a swifter operation means less chance of infection and overall, quicker recovery. It’s a piece of kit which will become as well known and used as a smartphone.
Why 3D printing after a long time in telecoms?
Well, I’ve been around long enough to see telex evolve into fax, then analogue move to digital and the development of the world wide web. 3D printing is going to be revolutionary and change everything.
What’s the commercial value?
Companies are bringing work back in-house because of the time saving, in many sectors. Hours, not weeks, equates to massive cost savings. The business that embraces 3D has stolen a massive march on its competitors because it makes the route to market much faster. If you look at a ring, a jewellery model, it used to take a week to produce and cost €25; that can be done in 1.5 hours and cost €1. I’m not talking about mass production, but 3D can be used to produce a product and prove it for size, quality, standard and similar factors. It’s reverse engineering, to take an object and create a 3D file, then construct or adapt it in any shape or form. It brings new issues with it, however, such as who owns the IP.
How important has your past experience in the development of new companies and corporate identity – and marketing – been to isodo3D?
When Pure Telecom was sold I knew I wanted to work for myself; it was a bit of a gamble with a young family but I know how to start, develop and market a company. You make mistakes, but you don’t make them twice, and you develop very good contacts. In our opinion a lot of the current 3D print companies are old, traditional print/engineering companies. What I have done is to look at the telecoms model. I thought the response had to be quicker and our ethos is to get out there and let people know what it is about. It’s not a ’project’ being worked upon by men in white coats. It has been crucial to implement the best of telecoms customer service and remains sales focused, rather than stick with an engineering project focus.
How quickly is this business taking off?
Phenomenally – medical applications, educational interest, aviation applications, fashion and retail. There is a drive to include 3D training in further education, because graduates and apprentices need this knowledge.
Are you surprised by its success?
No, I predicted it and the blue-chip take up as well as the High Street has been phenomenal. We’re on our 100th non-disclosure agreement. Printers cost from £3,000 to £1 million. Our main investment is R&D. We sell machines but customers can buy in to the service if they cannot afford what they need in-house.
Will we see it in the High Street?
UPS plans to expand the technology to 100 locations in the USA, having started with a pilot in six stores. Meanwhile, the 3D printing industry has posted rapid gains in 2014. According to a report on trends by Wohlers Associates, the sector grew 21% from last year. Amazon too has entered the 3D printing space by beginning to sell products which online shoppers can design. As it becomes more commonplace, costs will fall.
3D seems the stuff of science fiction, is it out of this world?
Well, yes actually. A 3D printer developed by a small start-up Made in Space has gone to the International Space Station; since 2011, the company has been actively working on development of its printer with NASA, proving that space is no longer the final frontier. The purpose of this printer is to demonstrate 3D printing can work on board the station, overcoming zero gravity. If so, NASA intends to use its printer for experimental purpose with an eye to one day printing parts for the station on demand.
Who have you recruited to build the current team?
Some past telecoms colleagues, such as my co-founder and operations director here, Anna Edmonds.
Who taught you the most important lesson in business, and what is it?
A sales trainer I knew some years ago, who said there are three areas in business – those you can control, those you can influence and those you have no control over. He told me not to worry about the third and focus on the first two.
Who do you admire?
I have personally admired Steve Jobs as being one of the most innovative business leaders of our time – a brilliant man who inspired me to work harder, listen even more closely to what my customers want – and to also think outside the box. The innovations Apple has and is currently undertaking in technology, retail and Internet services represent Jobs’ keen understanding of what ’could be.’ He was truly a marketing genius and an entrepreneur who had an uncanny ability to think ahead in terms of what customers might want – even when they could not articulate the needs specifically. To be this visionary, passionate and successful was, and still is, remarkable.
Where do you go from here?
Southampton Science Park is a great location because we can expand. Many companies are seeing that bringing 3D in-house is a logical step. Because it used to be expensive and complex to carry out, companies formerly outsourced to dedicated bureaux. However, thanks to our technology, it is possible to bring the technology into the design studio.