This 3D printed container displayed at Cultivate’15 inspired a new hanging basket design.
Photos courtesy of McConkey

About four years ago, McConkey Company started using 3D printer technology to develop prototypes for plastic containers and landscape packs. They have three 3D printers now, the largest of which can print an object with a volume of up to 8 cubic feet. This has provided several benefits, including making innovation more affordable and faster. Derek Moeller, president of McConkey, describes how the technology works.

Q: You’ve been using 3D printer technology for about four years. What inspired you to invest in this technology?

A: Really what it came down to is that our customers, growers, were looking for ways to improve their operations. That can [include developing] a material handling tray or pot or a pack that can run through their automation more efficiently. Or in other cases, it was someone trying to design a decorative container that would look better, to differentiate themselves at retail and to propose to their retail customers another reason to buy their product.

It became a challenge because the conventional way of doing things was to show people a 2D line drawing. That is very useful when you’re designing something when you already know what dimensions it has to be and you already know the functional aspect of it. But it doesn’t tell you much about how it’s going to work in your operation, how it’s going to look with a plant in it, if it will look attractive, and if it has a nice geometry and shape to it. To figure that out, we had to have a way of representing these objects, in a way that you could touch and feel and run through a machine without building a whole mold.

Q: What were the challenges with going through a mold process?

A: What was happening is customers were saying, “I want to see and feel this thing, but you’re telling me that I have to commit 200,000 units?” or 500,000 units or some large number of product. They’ll buy it, then you’ll go out and build a mold, then 8 or 12 weeks later after you build the mold, you put it in your production equipment, and then you’ll give them that final product, and then at that point, they’re stuck with it. So, they’ve spent a ton of money, they have to bring in this truckload of material, and they don’t even really know what they’re going to get. They could be really unhappy with it and not be able to do anything at that point because it is technically what was shown on a piece of paper. A lot of this opportunity for innovation just dies immediately because if you’re a grower and you’re trying to differentiate yourself but you have to commit two truck loads without actually seeing these things, because you have to build a mold to actually produce something for me to be able to see, [they may say,] “Well, I’m just not going to do it. I’m just going to go out there and buy the same thing that has been out on the market for a long time because it’s just a lot less risky.”

So, really the driver behind the 3D printing is all about risk mitigation and innovation, and it dramatically lowers the risk of innovation, accelerating the rate of innovation.

Editor's note: Watch one of McConkey's prototypes being built in this video.

Q: How does 3D printing solve those challenges?

A: It allows you to do iterations. You get the first prototype, and you can get some feedback about how you’d like it to be different and what changes can be done. Previously, because you’d have to build a mold, and then when you’d want to change and build another mold, you could have years and years go by to get to version four of something. Whereas now we can do version one, two, three and four within 30 days and not have it be that expensive. A lot of innovation anywhere, including the greenhouse business, is iterative. It’s trying something, seeing how it works, and finding tweaks you want to make to it, and going from there.

Q: How long does it take to print?

A: It is dependent on size and the amount of detail. Generally, within a number of hours. You go from two to three months to build a mold and have the first sample down to three to four hours to see the first sample.

Q: You showcased a fun, 3D printed container design at Cultivate a few years ago. How did it end up becoming a product?

A: That particular one was kind of interesting because that design was never something that we really intended to make a pot out of. They saw the prototype at Cultivate’15. It was something kind of crazy that our design team came up with and decided to 3D print because it looks fun. We didn’t look at how we’d actually be able to make it at all. One of our customers saw it [at the show] and said, “I love it. I want this for my hanging basket.” We told him, “You don’t understand, we wouldn’t design this. It’s not manufacturable. This is just an object of fun, really.” But he said he really liked it, so I was like alright, maybe something is here. We went through the manufacturability process and engineering and came up with a product that had a lot of characteristics of that product but as a big 12-inch hanging basket that would be able to be made with standard industrial equipment. It’s one of the most innovative and interesting hanging baskets that I’ve seen on the market. It’s just a gorgeous design, and I can say with certainty that it would have never come to market without the ability to play around with the 3D printer and then have one of our customers see it, and [ask us] to turn that into a real product and buy it. It went to market in 2017. It was a Canadian grower, and we’ve provided regional exclusivity to that customer for that area for the duration of the program.

Q: Because it was a unique shape, I understand the process to create the actual product was challenging.

A: We had to change how the mold would be ejected out of the ejection mold, there was a lot of geometry we had to tweak. Our designer was working on that for weeks in coordination with the engineering team to turn that into a product that could actually be injection molded and would actually stack on itself, because you have to ship it a fair distance. It took a fair amount of work but it retained a lot of the core essence of what the design was. Also, every hanging basket you see has a rim, and it has no rim, so we had to make sure it was strong enough so it wouldn’t squeeze in on the side. We had to create a new style of hanger to be able to attach to it. There were a number of things that we had to do that’s different than normal.

Q: What else have you developed using 3D printing technology?

A: We’ve had a number of customers who created families of products, whether it be a combo color bowl, planter or hanging basket, all with a similar theme to it. During the design process, those would all be 3D printed.

The other interesting area is more on the functional side. We’ve been experimenting a lot with enhanced retail solutions for tags. The idea here is to be able to marry a landscaping pack with a tag with UPC information on it. This is a really big trend going on in retail right now. Growers have really wanted to just bring in blank product with pots and tags with no UPC info on it so they can then put in a tag with that information on it. To get those tags to work with pots correctly, you have to get the mechanical interface just right. They have to be nice and visible at retail, they have to hang just right and be hard to take out. It’s really hard to get that right.

Q: Are these pots and landscape packs being used now or are they still in development?

A: People are taking test quantities this spring for a full launch in 2019. One customer is doing a full-scale launch, and they are moving along with production.

Q: Is an eventual goal to use this technology and these designs to help automate tag insertion?

A: Right now tag insertion is not generally automated among American growers. The problem has been when there’s no tag spot [within the container] and you’re trying to put the tag in the soil, there is so much that is unpredictable about that soil. It’s been too variable and really difficult to automate. If you can present a very consistent tag in the plastic, (plastic is relatively consistent as opposed to the organic matter,) I think this is an opportunity to make it more automated. We talked with a few different growers about it, they are interested in automation, but they deal with so many different configurations, different size tags, different pots and it’s hard to have a single machine that can work with all of them.

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Michelle Simakis is editor of Garden Center Magazine, a sister publication.