Until now, prototyping has been the roadblock that derails true custom container design, relegating what should be a fully involved, grower-manufacturer development process to a flat, one-pass approval. But the arrival of 3D (three-dimensional) printing, a cutting-edge prototyping technology, changes everything — streamlining the design process and ensuring a finished product that reflects the customer’s new product vision.
“Previously, new container designs were approved and ordered, based solely on engineering line drawings or a CAD rendering on the computer,” says Derek Moeller, president of McConkey Company, the first horticulture container manufacturer to use 3D printing as part of its custom design process.
“This technology finally makes iterative rapid prototyping possible — you’re printing a physical sample directly from engineering drawings, and that’s a game changer.”
Spec Container Designs To Fit Production Needs
The new capability brings product design to the greenhouse level, allowing adjustments at every step of the process, from conception to production.
“We can create 3D-printed prototypes so growers know exactly how a container will fit into their production system before they ever present it to their retail customer,” Moeller says.
As McConkey’s designers spec a new product, its engineers and customers can make small changes to a part throughout the process, rather than waiting to see the mold.
Particularly useful for custom-designed decorative planters and hanging baskets, 3D printing delivers the capability to easily build multiple prototypes and refine them for demographics, style profiles and more. When designing a new decorative container for approval, container companies traditionally produced 2D (two-dimensional) line drawings and computer renderings, often using Adobe Photoshop to give the appearance of having plants in the pots. But the only way growers could see the finished product was in their imagination. The exorbitant cost of mold production meant little to no changes once a prototype was produced.
“It’s a tough sell to say you can see the finished product after the mold, but you can’t make changes,” Moeller says.
With this technology, growers should be able to spec a decorative container to the design that suits their production, helping them regain control over the process and reposition themselves with their retailer customers. The technology follows the basic concept of building a solid form out of many miniscule layers, like assembling a loaf of bread slice by slice. The printers have the unique ability to make virtually anything in any shape.
Printing Big With 3D
While 3D printing has been on the horizon for some time, until recently, the products growers need have been bigger than 3D printing size capabilities. Because an out-of-box system wouldn’t deliver the sizes needed for custom container production, McConkey sourced its printer from different parts and manufacturers, building and assembling it to suit — much like 3D printing lets it do for its customers.
McConkey’s newest in-house printer creates parts up to 8 cubic feet in build volume.
“Especially for larger products, the physical reality and tangibility are crucial,” Moeller says. “Our customers want to see how these products will work in their automation, fit on their carts and look with their plants.”
3D printing enables a rapid evolution of design that takes place in months or even weeks, instead of years.
“You don’t have to take a leap of faith from the engineering line drawing to reality or from a mold backed by a 10,000-pot order,” Moeller says. “3D printing eliminates the business risk.”
Yet 3D printing is still an emerging field, and limitations exist on speed and resolution. Printable materials are also evolving. While most 3D printers currently use plastic, new materials are quickly being developed to enable printing of stainless steel, aluminum, ceramic and even glass. This new technology is a constant evolution, just like custom container development.
“As the technology advances, we’ll get more flexible with the kind of material we produce,” Moeller says. “You will really start to see the possibilities.”