Thesis student Calvin Smith, at Minnesota State University, brings up a topic most 3D printing enthusiasts and users should be interested in as he explores the limits—and endless possibilities— of desktop fabrication in Developing a Commercial Product Using a Consumer Grade 3D Printer.’ Undeniably, 3D printing has changed the face of production on all levels of industry, from home fashion designs to haute couture, small car parts made in the workshop to myriad prototypes and components now used by automotive leaders, and much more, spanning nearly every industry you can think of. But, how do we go from the 3D printing idea towards practical implementation? Can one really start a business with a desktop 3D printer? What are the costings and what is the business case? Calvin Smith’s research looks into these questions and is a valuable resource for anyone wishing to start a business using desktop 3D printers.
Smith points out that with the self-sustainability afforded through 3D printing, entrepreneurs are imbued with new power to create and sell, and even found their own startups. The desktop 3D printing marketplace is vast, and it is not hard to find the hardware, software, and materials to excel in low-volume manufacturing even from the home. As a good example for the purpose of his study, Smith uses the idea of 3D printed pod cases for electronic cigarettes as a business model that would be feasible, to include designing, manufacturing, and distributing.
Standard types of e-cigarettes (CDC, 2019)
At the time of this thesis, Smith was actually smoking the Myle brand of e-cigarettes in an attempt to quit smoking regular cigarettes. In terms of a business development plan, to include the cases, Smith studied the potential with Myle and Juul. Along with pinpointing the best 3D printers for small businesses (Prusa I3 MK3, MakerBot Replicator, and Lulzbot TAZ 6), along with ABS and PLA as the most affordable materials, Smith moved on to breaking down costs (see the table below).
Intellectual property protection was an obvious concern, and Smith was surprised to find out the costs and complications associated with filing a patent—as are many individuals in the US. While it can be critical to protect your inventions, it is often cost-prohibitive too.
“While research was conducted on the patent application, life span and earning potential of the product a temporary provisional patent was filed so the design would have an official timeline attached to it,” stated Smith. “This patent-pending status is easy to file and has a filing fee of $147, patent-pending status is considered active for 1 year from the date the application is filed and can be converted to a complete patent any time during that 1 year. The patent-pending status does not give any protection to the design however it does give an earlier filing date.”
This was a smart move considering the rapid acceleration of the e-cigarette market and the length of time it takes to be approved for a patent (or find out that you have been declined), which can be 18 months to two years in many cases.
They then moved on to creating the cigarette pod cover case for 3D printing in PLA on the Prusa MK3.
“The goal for the size of the case with device and pods was to be 50% smaller than a pack of traditional cigarettes which measures 3.5” tall by 2.125” wide and 0.875” thick,” stated Smith.
The first 3D design was functional and ‘worked as intended,’ but not without some kinks that needed to be worked out as there was not an area to charge the e-cigarette, and it was also difficult to remove the extra cigarette pod from the bottom due to lack of a good grip.
“This case was printed using PLA (Polylactic Acid) plastic which is the standard 3d printing plastic because it is renewable, biodegradable, cheap, has minimal warping, easy to print, and high strength,” stated Smith. “The downfalls to printing with PLA is it is brittle, and due to its glass transition temperature or temperature when the material becomes soft enough to flow, it does not hold shape in hot environments.
The first case took 45 minutes to print and used 6.8 grams of material—at a cost of 17 cents per case.
“ABS is stronger than PLA, less brittle, and still cheap. It has the added benefit that ABS can be vapor polished using acetone, this smooths the part giving it a better visual appearance and makes it stronger by increasing the layer adhesion,” said Smith.
The second 3D case design was refined to solve the previous problems, and they also tried using ABS instead. It took much longer to print at a total of 160 minutes, but with the same cost of 17 cents; however, problems with cracking proved the design to be problematic later.
Their next, and successful, design (Version 2.4) occurred with NinjaFlex, printed in 52 minutes, consuming only 11 grams of material—but at an increased price of $1.22 per case.
“The cases must be printed one at a time to obtain the best surface finish and to minimize material stringing. This design and process allows to produce up to 12 cases per day, with a single printer and operator taking into account for other work, errors, and miss prints 50 cases per week can easily be printed,” stated Smith.
There was also one more iteration ‘reworked for manufacturability’ that could also be made through traditional injection molding processes, and could still show promise for the future.
“Version 2.4 of the Pod Case was the final developmental stage for 3D printing of the Pod Case, this design was approved by the stores interested in carrying the case and the distributer who was interested in the case for wholesale. The cost to produce a Pod Case via 3D printing is estimated at $3.00. The cost to retail outlets of the finished case with packaging was $5.00 per unit with the capacity to deliver 50 units per week and a retail sale price of $10.00. This price point and production capacity makes the case too expensive for wholesale distributers, however there is still research being done to make V2.4 via injection molding and estimates at time of writing this thesis show cases could be manufactured, packaged, and delivered for $1.25 per unit with a wholesale cost of $3.00 per unit. There must be a market to sell 5000 units minimum to continue research into mass production via injection molding,” concluded Smith.
“The possibility to earn extra income from 3D printing is very realistic with minimal labor involved. Overall there was strong profit margin in small scale manufacturing and prototyping as the labor involved only includes basic setup and design time while the printer can run unsupervised for the majority of time involved,” concluded Smith.
Most makers are habitual rule-breakers when it comes to 3D printing. If a material or technique is designated for a particular level or limit, be assured they will soon be using it to innovate far beyond what the developer originally intended—whether showing off with a 3D printed car engine or transmission or even a tiny home.
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[Source / Images: ‘Developing a Commercial Product Using a Consumer Grade 3D Printer’]