3-D printing is a step toward the future envisioned by our science-fiction-writing forefathers. In television shows such as ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ the distant epochs of our technological timeline are littered with devices that could create any item on command. Want a hot cup of tea, Captain Picard? Boom, there’s your Earl Grey. Need a new communication device? Just request one and it will materialize. But that sci-fi fantasy seemed eons away in the ’90s.
Today, however, much of that instant-construction vision is reality thanks to developments in 3-D printing. And that reality is impacting the far reaches of every industry, including horticulture. McConkey, a Washington state-based supplier of horticultural goods, is utilizing the next-gen tech to improve its design process for containers for growers and garden centers.
McConkey has a long-history of innovation. The company started in 1964 and over its 50-year history lays claim to several breakthrough developments, particularly in the construction of growing containers. Company President Derek Moeller is quick to point out that McConkey was one of the first companies in the nation to employ thermoform polypropylene. In the last few years the company has placed a renewed emphasis on pushing the edge of what is currently possible in the horticulture industry.
For McConkey, that’s meant developing a bevy of new, decorative pots. It meant designing the first growing containers made from recycled water bottles (a program called rEarth). And most recently, it has meant utilizing 3-D printing technology to give growers near unprecedented control over the design and specification process.
In fact, returning control to growers is one of the largest motivating factors for McConkey. Moeller feels that in the current system growers are relegated to the role of commodity product providers, as opposed to consumer good suppliers; a role that he feels is tremendously unhealthy for growers.
“Our view is that growers should have the ability to provide a complete package to their customers, the independent retail centers or national big box stores. They should have the ability to take what plants they want to produce and specify a container to their design and they should be able to propose that as an entire package to their customers,” Moeller says.
3-D printing is just one part of McConkey’s strategy to help achieve the goal of more customizable containers. Growers go through a multipronged process with McConkey that includes a sit-down with one of McConkey’s representatives. Growers are then asked a series of questions, including:
- What are you trying to accomplish? What’s your goal for this container?
- Are you trying to have a more premium product, so that you can pitch that to your customer and maybe get a little additional margin?
- Are you trying to differentiate yourself from your competition?
- Are you trying to hit a price-point that you can’t with the current cost-structure today?
- What is your business goal? What are you trying to accomplish?”
Then, depending on what the goal is (a decorative product for example), McConkey will begin to research who the target demographic is. So they might ask:
- Are we talking about 20-somethings?
- Are we talking about upper-income folks in their 50s and 60s?
- Do they like modern, contemporary design? Do they like a more antique-ish style? Do they want a more chic look?
From that meeting, the team could come back with ideas for a series of designs, which will incorporate things like soil volume and dimensions. Between understanding the end-consumer and the technical specifications, the design team will create a few conceptual renderings. Those are not engineering drawings at that point, but high level concepts. McConkey then gets grower feedback on the designs. The grower will select a direction and then the design team will go back and evolve it a little bit more.
At that point, if the grower likes the conceptual rendering, the team will create a part drawing. Once the part drawing is completed, a 3-D printed sample is made.
“We’ll bring that to the customer so they can take a look at it and that’s a great opportunity to get an understanding of how the design could technically work. They might come back and say they love it but the channel on the water drain needs to be a little bit bigger. Then we modify the part drawing, and print up another sample,” Moeller says.
Creating a printed sample can greatly expedite the evolution of a product. Prior to 3-D printing technology, a grower would have to rely on line drawings or 3-D renderings on a computer screen. Using only that information they would need to commission a mold and mass produce pots. Having a physical pot that you can test allows growers to modify a design before a mold is commissioned. Moeller believes it eliminates a huge business risk for most growers.
“Our customers love it. They love the idea of getting a sample, knowing what it’s going to look like, knowing what it will be before the truckload of products start showing up,” Moeller says. “It’s really changed the dialogue that a lot of our customers have had with their customers. A number of customers come in and propose particular pots to increase volume size and create a premium pot, or pots to accommodate summer sales. It’s a huge deal for our customers.”
3-D printing: the next generation
As much as 3-D printing has advanced the evolution of customizable pots, the technology is still in its fledgling stages. McConkey had been eyeing 3-D printing since the technology debuted in a few years ago. However, until this year, most 3-D printers were consigned to small items. McConkey’s design team had to source parts from several different machines to piece together a printer capable of producing eight cubic feet in build volume.
The sample pots produced by the printer are still lacking in resolution, though. Moeller says that while the resolution is improving every day, most growers would be able to tell that a sample was produced by 3-D printing. The majority of 3-D printers are also creating plastic-based products. Several companies are pushing the boundaries of what materials can be produced using the machines, including: glass and stainless steel.
For McConkey, the end-game is clear. The company’s current machines allow them to print samples. Growers can then examine the samples and sign off on them. Those samples are then turned into a mold, which is subsequently mass produced.
“If we could 3-D print the prototype, have the grower sign off on that, and then 3-D print the mold, it would take a fraction of the time that today’s process does,” Moeller says. He added that he expects technology to allow printed molds within the next five years.