A container developed with 3D printers.
COURTESY OF MCCONKEY COMPANY

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, the largest being capable of printing an object with a volume of up to 8 cubic feet. This has provided several benefits, including making innovation faster and more affordable. Derek Moeller, president of McConkey, describes how the technology works, how it has changed business and the benefits for growers and retailers.

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

A: 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 a 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.

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. In order 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 are the challenges of the 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 to 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 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.

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, you’d have to build another mold, you could have years and years go by to get to [another] version 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, finding tweaks you want to make to it and going from there.

The 3D printed container showcased at Cultivate’15 that inspired a new hanging basket design.

COURTESY OF MCCONKEY COMPANY

Q: How long does it take to print?

A: It is dependent on size and the amount of detail that is there. 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, and it ended 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. [A grower based in Canada] 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. 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 that item 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, 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, was the process to create the actual product 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 to be done that we had to do that’s different than normal.

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

A: 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. People don’t want to bring in their containers with labels on them, because as a grower, if you bring in all of these pots and tags with UPC information on them, your inventory is really tied down to what you can put in there. Growers have really wanted to just bring in blank product with pots and tags with no UPC info on them so they can then put in a tag with that information on it. In order to get those tags to work with pots and tags 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.

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: How do retailers benefit from this?

A: The advantage for retailers is that they can now in turn have more specificity in the UPC. Previously, you had a UPC across a broad category of plant depending on the store, it might be annuals or perennials. Retailers really want to have that market data so they know more than just sales of annuals. They want to know what marigolds sales are, and do it down to the color.

So retailers get much more data, and ultimately they are going to be able to tell you what inventory they have at retail. They get to put the price point on a tag, and research has shown that consumers prefer to have that pricing information on the product. They also get consistency in the retail display, a nice tag that’s always in the same spot, is very uniform and very attractive.