GBX Case Study: Coffee Picking Baskets in Puerto Rico

With the development of our Gigabot X pellet printer came our engineers’ need to trial it in different applications and settings. We settled on Sandra Farms – the coffee farm at the center of our latest story about chocolate cigar molds – as a case study to determine the practicality of using recycled plastic to create real-world, functional objects.

“Good coffee is picked by hand.” Israel Gonzalez is a second-generation coffee farmer who started Sandra Farms in the early 90’s. He explains that coffee pickers around the world are historically underpaid, typically placed at the bottom of the coffee farming ladder.

Sandra Farms is trying to break this mold.

“The main focus here is trying to use Sandra Farms as a model. We want to support an agricultural, agrarian way of life in Puerto Rico.” Domenico Celli came to the farm as part of a graduate school project with a focus on implementing sustainability practices, and several years later finds himself still working with them and more attached to their mission of specialty agriculture. “The people that we have in mind are the farm workers and families and communities here in some of the most rural and remote areas of Puerto Rico that have traditionally been dependent on agriculture as their main source of income, and culturally, their way of life.”

Sandra Farms is trying to set an example for other farms, paying their pickers two to three times the average in Puerto Rico. Says Celli, “That is because above all, we are committed to making this a viable way of life for these people and their families.”

The basket opportunity

In working with Gonzalez and Celli on their chocolate cigar mold concept, a potential case study opportunity for Gigabot X presented itself.

“Most agricultural workers in Puerto Rico traditionally are the forgotten people here, and that’s reinforced through what they use to pick coffee with,” explains Celli, “which is mostly just fertilizer bags, or really uncomfortable, five-gallon buckets that are not at all made for coffee picking.”

“The five-gallon plastic bucket…” Gonzalez shows one off that has been strung with a simple rope handle. “It’s functional, it works, cheap – but not ideal, not ergonomic.”

Our local team in Puerto Rico took the opportunity to investigate 3D printed solutions that could provide a superior substitute for the farm’s pickers, with the ultimate goal of using Gigabot X to print a design using recycled plastic.

The choice of an application in Puerto Rico was no accident. Gigabot X has the ability to print from pelletized plastic as well as recycled plastic regrind; our team saw immense potential for a machine that could create a closed-loop system on an island, using waste as input material to create functional objects that may be expensive to import.

“Unfortunately, our recycling systems here in Puerto Rico are very outdated, not very efficient, and in reality, not much – if anything at all – is recycled,” says Celli. “A much better alternative would be able to actually have a way to repurpose and use that waste, and know that it’s going to some sort of practical application.”

The design process

Our San Juan-based designer Alessandra Montaño began the process with a CAD sketch. “The design process was very interactive,” she recounts.

Over the course of the project, she visited the farm four times, working with Gonzalez in person and talking directly with workers trialing the design in the fields. “I did one prototype, sent it to them, they made some changes like widening the design, changing the height of the basket…”

re:3D Mechanical Engineer Helen Little describes the trial and error process of testing, and the balance of modifying the basket design for the specific application while understanding the unique nature of a pellet printer. “We wanted to focus on quick production and cheaper cost-per-unit, so we chose to use a larger nozzle,” Little explains. “But there are many issues that come with that: a lot of oozing, lower quality prints…So we had to do a lot of optimization of print settings to get a higher-quality print.”

Little decided to experiment with printing in vase mode, which involves extruding in a continuous stream rather than a lot of stopping points where the nozzle has the opportunity to ooze plastic. “For that, we had to actually redesign the part itself so that the perimeter was only one layer thick,” she says.

Together, Little and Montaño incorporated user feedback from Sandra Farms into incremental tweaks to the design and new prototypes. They increased the basket depth to allow for a larger haul to be carried at one time, refined the shape to better hug the wearer’s waist, and added a brim to which a picker could attach shoulder straps.

“The way that a part is designed and printed has a huge effect on how long it takes to print, how much material it is, and at the end of the day, the bottom line for the cost,” explains Little. “I think it’s really important to get these real-world case studies and get that user feedback so that we can assess how viable of a solution this is for them and how much we can help improve over the current solution they’re using, using Gigabot X, 3D printing, and recycled materials.”

By the culmination of the testing process there had been twelve iterations of the basket, with the final design clocking in at around three and a half hours of print time.

Putting it to the test in the field

The crescent moon design on which they settled curves around the front of the waist, with a wide profile so a picker’s hands don’t have to travel far to drop in coffee cherries. It’s manageable enough to strap over one’s shoulders and carry through the field, yet sturdy enough to haul over fifteen pounds of coffee.

“We had wondered whether they could take the beating on the job, at the farm. ‘Can the bottom hold?’” Gonzalez initially pondered. “Yeah, they do,” he smiles. “Very well.”

Explains Celli, “The way that we designed them with re:3D was so that the opening would be wide so that a picker going through the field on uneven terrain is able to quickly pick coffee and kind of dump it into the bucket without it falling.”

He recounts the difficulties that came with the old-school fertilizer sack picking method. “It’s hard to keep it open with one hand, put coffee into it in the other, and then be efficient in a day where you’re trying to optimize how quickly you can get through the fields.” Seasonal coffee pickers, Celli explains, are paid by the pound. A vessel that allows for faster picking and movement through a field – not to mention fewer coffee cherries dropped – equals more money in a picker’s pocket. 

The comfort of having the basket contour to the hip is an obvious added bonus, Celli continues, allowing workers to pick more comfortably and later into the day.

There were more unforeseen positives of the custom basket design which Gonzalez and Celli didn’t fully comprehend before embarking on the project with re:3D.

“The reaction of such joy and excitement from the coffee pickers seeing these baskets that were actually made for them and thoughtfully designed to be comfortable for them was amazing to see,” recounts Celli.

The impact on the pickers’ morale was an unexpected and uplifting side effect of the project for both Celli and Gonzalez. They seemed unaccustomed and touched to be the focus of a project with a specific goal of creating a product to make their job easier and more comfortable.

The joy in the fields was visibly apparent, with pickers jockeying to get a chance with the new baskets: a promising sign for both the basket project and Sandra Farms’ own internal case study of running a sustainable, ethical farm prioritizing workers’ livelihoods.

In the meantime, both Gigabot X research and Sandra Farms’ exploration into sustainability continues. 

This project was made possible thanks to the support of the Puerto Rico Science, Technology & Research Trust and the National Science Foundation, who helped fund our research into Gigabot X.

Designing Chocolate Molds for a Puerto Rican Farm

Nestled in the green mountains of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico – about a two hour, winding drive from San Juan – is a boutique coffee grower by the name of Sandra Farms.

Owner Israel Gonzalez grew up on a coffee farm in Oriente, Cuba, a childhood that greatly influenced his ambition to carry on the tradition. At 15 years of age he moved to New York City. The next several decades in the States were spent completing undergrad and grad school, meeting his future wife and farm namesake, Sandra, and starting a family. Throughout, the dream of a farm remained, a plan that was ultimately put into action in Puerto Rico in the early ‘90s.

The setting is idyllic. “It is beautiful, I know,” Gonzalez muses. “But you know, some people don’t like living out here. They’d rather have Fifth Avenue – which is wonderful, I love Manhattan – but I’d rather be here, of course.”

It was nearly three years ago that re:3D cofounder Samantha Snabes met Gonzalez on a tour of the farm. The topic of 3D printing arose. Perhaps there was an opportunity to print some tools for use in their line of work?

Sandra Farms would later serve as a test kitchen for proof-of-concept work using recycled plastic to create functional tools on the new pellet printer, Gigabot X. There was also a second opportunity that Gonzalez saw for 3D printing on the farm.

In addition to acres of coffee, Sandra Farms boasts a collection of other crops, including citrus, turmeric, and cacao. With their chocolatier Bajari in Mayagüez, they created a line of chocolate products – among them, cigar-shaped chocolates. The path to create the lifelike, cylindrical cigars Gonzalez envisioned, however, proved to be more difficult than anticipated.

“We had searched – both myself and the chocolatier – all over online, everywhere, and we never had found a totally cylindrical mold,” says Gonzalez.

Sandra Farms employee Domenico Celli echoes this challenge. “There wasn’t really any solution that we could easily find out there, especially for a relatively small scale production like we have.” Their method in the interim was imperfect: a mold fashioned from a piece of ½” PVC pipe. Says Celli, “It wasn’t very practical, it was a pain to use, you could only do a few at a time.”

The band-aid solution worked in the beginning when they were only making a few pieces at a time for themselves or gifts. Celli continues, “But now that they’re trying to gradually increase their production they weren’t able to scale the way that they had wanted to with that product, because our chocolatier was not able to pump out what we needed with the molds that we had.”

When Gonzalez and Snabes met, a lightbulb went off for him. “I said, ‘Ah, 3D printing might save the day.’ Bingo.”

In conjunction with re:3D designer Alessandra Montaño, they worked on the design of a cylindrical mold into which molten chocolate could be poured, and then snapped apart to remove the chocolate pieces once hardened. Gigabot was used to 3D print prototypes as they refined the features.

“Designing cigar molds are not that complicated – cigars are just a cylinder shape,” explains Montaño. “So, instead of focusing on that aspect of the design, I was focusing on how to make this practical for them.”

As a small, boutique coffee farm, their needs weren’t dramatic – they were just starting out with this idea and interested in producing batch quantities in the dozens or low hundreds, not thousands.

“They aren’t making a million chocolate cigars,” says Montaño. “I wanted to design something that they could use to scale up, if they wanted to. So, the interesting part of the design is that it’s modular, and you can just keep adding more modules as you go.”

The design is simple to use: new rows of the mold simply snap in place next to the previous sections. This will allow the farm to start small and increase their capabilities as demand grows, keeping any initial investment small as they gauge interest.

“As we continue to expand, we can literally just add more units to that and increase production without having to build a whole new way of doing things,” says Celli. “We are very excited to work on this mold with re:3D, and so far we’ve been able to start increasing our production and getting it out there into the market.”

The out-of-the-ordinary setting for such 21st century technology is not lost on the Sandra Farms team. “I think obviously all over the world, 3D printing is really becoming more mainstream, and people are starting to fully realize the potential on all different types of industries,” says Celli. “Here in Puerto Rico, on a coffee and cacao farm, it’s amazing to see how many different applications that there are in such an unlikely place.”

* Disclaimer: The 3D prints used in this application were for prototyping and testing purposes. Experts recommend proper material use and post-processing when creating 3D prints for use in direct food-contact applications. Please see Formlabs’ Essential Guide to Food Safe 3D Printing for guidance: https://formlabs.com/blog/guide-to-food-safe-3d-printing/

Creating Water from Air: WATRIC Energy Resources

Karlos Miranda was in his first year at University Of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus when Hurricane Maria hit.

Bringing with it 150 mile-an-hour winds and several feet of rainfall, the storm devastated Puerto Rico, destroying homes and wiping out power across the island. But it was the destruction of the water system that made the biggest impression on Miranda, spurring him to action.

“I remember the first time I went out looking for water and saw the lines of people waiting for an oasis truck. It was a never-ending line of people desperate to fill their containers with water,” he recounts. “All these people – me included – were lucky to live in a place where water trucks were able to come, because there were others in more isolated areas or places with blocked roads who did not have access to water for a longer time.”

It jolted him that even the people who were seemingly well-equipped for such a natural disaster – homes with solar panels and backup generators – were crippled by the loss of running water. “After Maria, many Puerto Ricans started buying electric generators or moving to renewable energy to decrease the impact of a blackout, but when it comes to water there is not much to do in order to be more resilient.”

The relief effort was also woefully botched: who can forget the image of thousands of water bottle pallets left to expire on a hot runway in Ceiba?

“We saw a need after the hurricane: a need in water transportation, a need of micro-grids, and a gap in home-sustainability products,” Miranda says. “The need for an alternative water source – it was very obvious in that moment.”

 

Finding Solutions to Problems Exposed by Maria

As a student in the mechanical engineering program with a penchant for tinkering, Miranda often attended on-campus workshops for startups. One such event was put on by a local organization, Parallel18, which hosts a five-month program in San Juan that provides grants and mentorship to young companies in an accelerator-like format. Under the Parallel18 umbrella is Pre18, a program for even earlier-stage startups that may still be in the prototype phase.

Miranda pitched his idea and was accepted into Pre18’s second cohort.

That idea is now WATRIC Energy Resources, Miranda’s answer to the lack of off-the-grid systems for use in the event of a natural disaster, or simply to improve one’s carbon footprint. WATRIC’s mission is to develop home solutions, accessible to the average Puerto Rican, to extract potable water from the surroundings so that water security is never a concern.

“[Maria] has been in my mind since, and is what motivated me to start looking for future solutions in water access because…I am aware that this same situation could happen again to Puerto Rico, and any place prone to natural disasters like hurricanes.”

Miranda is working towards this solution through the creation of WALT, a wall-mounted device that condenses naturally-occurring moisture in the air, turning it into liquid water. Using the surrounding air, the technology makes use of the Peltier effect – in conjunction with software to allow the system to adapt in a wide range of environments – to generate one to two gallons of drinkable water a day.

“A technology like WALT could mean relief in a natural disaster that causes a water blackout,” Miranda explains. “We also think about WALT as part of the effort for achieving independence from the grid. We want to bring the same relief that people have when they can generate their own energy at home, but with water, and a future in which total home independence from the grid is a possibility.”

A Growing Startup Community in Puerto Rico

Over the course of about six months, Miranda was able to move rapidly from idea stage to workable prototype thanks to the help of a growing startup community in Puerto Rico, one which has blossomed from the rubble of Maria as local entrepreneurs sprang to action to create solutions to problems left exposed in the wake of the storm.

“Here in the island, this is – I would say – the first time that the startup community is really having growth,” Miranda muses. 

One such entrepreneurial hub fueling this renaissance is Engine-4, which, at 24,000 square feet, is the largest coworking space in Puerto Rico. Housed in an old civil defense base, its mixed-use facilities are home to an array of equipment like soldering tools, oscilloscopes, and 3D printers. Miranda found himself at the space by way of Parallel18, where he met a fellow member – also part of the Engine-4 world – who introduced him.

He was blown away by the facility. “I didn’t know that they had so much resources in there for hardware prototyping and for hardware start-ups,” Miranda recollects. He was more accustomed to seeing young, software-focused companies, both in Puerto Rico and in the news in general. “Hardware start-ups are more difficult and less common in the island…so I was impressed that [Engine-4] had all these resources, 3D printing, everything.”

Both Parallel18 and Engine-4 host Gigabots for their members to use as a prototyping and design resource. Miranda took advantage of the two locations during the creation of WALT, printing full-scale models that dwarved the build volume of his desktop 3D printer at home.

“With these kinds of programs, we not only have the funds, we have an alternative to use resources directly,” he explains. Pre18 provided them with monetary grants, and, equally as beneficial, Engine-4 offered them access to machinery that would have otherwise been prohibitively expensive.

Miranda doesn’t know how WATRIC would have gotten to a final design without 3D printing.

He describes the early design stages, modeling the unit using CAD. “We thought that it was functional in that moment,” he recounts, “but it wasn’t until we had the physical prototype actually printed that we were able to improve it and to see what needed to be changed.” The phenomenon is all too common for product designers. A 3D design that seems watertight on a screen immediately gives up its flaws once its form enters the physical realm.

“Prototyping is our daily activity,” Miranda says. “3D printing is helping us to iterate. When we make our prototype, we see where we need to improve.”

The model they printed at Engine-4 clocked in at around 26 hours, designed specifically to allow them to move seamlessly from 3D printing into injection molding.

While WATRIC Energy Resources finishes the development and scaling of their drinking water product, they have created a smaller, spinoff version to get people a taste of their technology’s capabilities: a smart indoor plant watering system called WALTY. They will be launching a Kickstarter for this product, using funds raised to move forward with their larger mission of potable water-producing systems.

Follow WATRIC’s progress and get notified when their Kickstarter launches, at https://watricer.com/support-us

Pamton 3D: Advice from a Contract 3D Print Business Veteran

“If the house catches fire, screw the diamonds – I gotta bring my steps.”

The stairs leading to the basement of Pamela Szmara’s house are what she’s referring to, and it’s what’s on them that’s so valuable. The treasure trove is visible only once you reach the bottom and look up. Covering the exposed wooden portions of the staircase are pen marks: WiFi networks and passwords, login information to unnamed accounts. It’s a physical password manager.

It may seem like an odd solution, but it fits neatly into the package that is Pam, owner of 3D printing service bureau Pamton 3D.

The basement is home to an ensemble of 3D printers, among them two Gigabot XLT’s, to whom Pam affectionately refers as “the girls.”

“Our Gigabots are named,” she explains. “They’re Gigi One and Gigi Two.” Spelled G-i-g-i, she clarifies, but pronounced GG.

“And when the third one gets here,” she continues, “she’ll be Gigi Three.”

The Start

Pam and her husband Tony got their start in 3D printing roughly two decades ago by way of teeth.

“I’m a Certified Dental Technician,” explains Pam. “And dentistry embraced additive manufacturing.”

The introduction happened early in Pam’s career, working with Great Lakes Orthodontics, which paved the path of additive manufacturing in her life. She learned the ropes on PolyJet printers; dentistry requires ultra-high resolution that is not doable on most filament-fed, or FFF, machines. After working with Great Lakes Orthodontics for nearly 30 years, Pam ended up forging her own path, starting Pamton 3D almost ten years ago. She credits her first non-dental 3D printing job to JollyPets, a name that remains special to her in the company’s history.

As business grew while the Pamton production capacity remained the same, Pam realized something needed to change. “With the PolyJet printers, we were limited in size and materials,” she explains. “That was the big push for us to branch out into other areas of additive manufacturing.”

The Pamton production bunker lies beneath a house on a quiet residential street in Youngstown, Ohio. Pam talks of the struggles of the Rust Belt city, and praises the revitalization that Youngstown-based America Makes, a national accelerator for additive manufacturing, has brought to the landscape.

It was at an America Makes convention that Pam crossed paths with re:3D cofounder Matthew Fiedler. She bought Gigi One on the spot.

The build volume of Gigabot allowed them to better keep up with the demand of their growing contract print business by offering not only options for people looking to do larger prints, but also by doing small production batches for clients. It wasn’t long before they again found themselves pushed to their limits of production capacity, and Gigi Two entered the picture.

“We needed it. The workload…” Pam pauses. “It was amazing. You never turn down an opportunity to be involved in a project. And what was happening is that the deadlines were coming too close. And that’s a great problem to have.”

Having two Gigabots has taken a lot of stress off their plate: they’re able to run multiple projects at one time, break batches between the printers, and offer large-scale capabilities to their clients. “The advantage of the Gigabot has always been size. The companies are able to come to us with these large parts,” she says. Their longest print clocks in at over three weeks.

“The size is the thing that really sells a lot of the clients,” Pam says. “‘Woah, you can print it this large?’ ‘You can print that many pieces?’ Well yes, we can. And once companies hear about this, the work will continue to follow.”

And follow it has. Pam recounts the early days of their jump into large-scale filament printers, musing that life has never been the same since. The trajectory of their workload has been trending upwards ever since. “We had grown to where we needed the second printer,” she says, “and where we’re at right now, we will need a third.”

The Work

“From soup to nuts” is how Pam describes the Pamton 3D business model. “If it fits, we’re gonna print it,” she says.

They have done projects for large manufacturing facilities and for students, steel mills and environmentalists, construction companies and building restoration teams, for entrepreneurs who want to prototype as they bring a physical product to market. Pam recalls a job producing models for an environmental organization working to educate the public about how water should flow away from their homes and into reservoirs in order to better control pollution.

They’ve helped old industries threatened with obsolescence to replicate parts they need that are no longer being manufactured, components with no drawings or STL files. “We’re breaking new ground for them, and that’s the really exciting area of additive,” Pam muses.

The darling of their client list is NASA Glenn, who approached them at a large additive manufacturing show in Cleveland looking to produce batches of prototypes of the new Compass Satellite.

Pam realizes that it might not make sense why one of the foremost scientific research institutions in the nation turned to a basement production facility to fulfill an order that they surely must have the capability to do themselves. Yes, NASA is doing 3D printing, Pam confirms. But – “The volume of parts that they needed,” she pauses, “they never would have been able to keep up with it.” 

The beauty of Pamton 3D is that the task no longer falls on the business owner’s shoulders, whether a budding entrepreneur or a behemoth like NASA.

The Advice

“These are not plug-and-play instruments, they’re not plug-and-play toys,” Pam says, of 3D printers.

“You’re watching these four-year-olds on YouTube with the printer that their parents bought them…and it shows this four-year-old put the filament in and – whiz bang – there’s the part.” Pamton steps in to fill the chasm that lies between the internet persona of 3D printers as magical creation boxes and the reality of technology that takes time and dedication to master.

“With Pamton being a service bureau, we take the stress and the frustration away,” Pam explains. “It’s our job to make sure everything is running smoothly when the business owners are going to sleep at night.”

She means this quite literally.

The analogy of her Gigabots as “her girls” is more than just cutesy anthropomorphizing: the time the printers take up in her life and the attention she gives them is somewhat akin to children. “It’s like having a baby in the house or a new puppy in the house: you have to just get up and check on these things,” she explains. “It’s just a little bit of reassurance when you wake up in the middle of the night and just take a look at it and say, ‘Yep, everything’s running good,’ and you go back to sleep.” For bigger jobs or ultra-time-sensitive projects, she and Tony will take turns babysitting the printers practically around the clock.

They’ve gotten much unsolicited advice on the topic of their basement as company headquarters, and Pam can agree that there are drawbacks. “But,” she says, “there are more pros than cons.” The ability to simply pop downstairs in the wee hours to check on a print – this is their advantage. “At 2 o’clock in the morning when the filament needs to be changed, it’s being changed.”

With this all-hours accessibility, she explains, they can quote clients ultra-competitive turnaround times on projects. There is no way to speed up a print beyond its inherent print time, of course, but their down-time between batches and jobs is slim to none. Says Pam, “We lose no time.”

Of course there are disadvantages to living with your work, she acknowledges. “It’s always there,” she explains. “They take maintenance. It just isn’t something that’s a walk through the park.”

For anyone toying with the idea of bringing a 3D printer home to start a business, she’s quick to jump to advice. “Try it,” she says. “If it doesn’t work out, you can always move it to another facility, but it’s something to consider.” But, she stresses, don’t underestimate the work this will entail. “It is time-consuming, and if you’re not willing to invest the time and the money into this, it will not succeed.”

Pam has more words of wisdom where this came from, and with over twenty years in the additive space – both with PolyJet and FFF printers – she’s a good person to give it.

She gives herself a dose of her own advice every day in the form of helpful reminders stuck to the side of each printer. They range from technical prompting – Clean gear after filament rethread – to attitude checks – Be patient.

“Be patient,” Pam says. “I cannot stress that enough.”

This mantra becomes all the more important when a deadline is rapidly approaching and she has a customer breathing down her neck. When something unexpected goes awry, calm amidst the chaos is what allows her to maintain a cool head as she works her way down the checklist of what could be causing the problem.

As far as other advice for people new to 3D printing, Pam stresses not skimping on quality, both of equipment and of materials. “Filament will make or break you,” she says. She understands it can be tempting to go with the budget option. Don’t, she says. “It will catch up with you in the end.” She found a filament she likes and has stuck with the manufacturer, maintaining a close relationship with John Hosbach of Village Plastics. “John knows his filament,” she says. “It’s unbelievable. Our prints look like spun silk when we get finished with them.” 

Pam has come to understand that 3D printing is never an exact science, and that with so many factors playing into print quality – from filament source to the weather that day – even experienced additive manufacturing veterans can wake up to a spaghetti bowl. Starting with a level playing field in the form of reliable equipment and materials rules out preventable problems that will save valuable sanity in the troubleshooting process. “That’s a great starting point, to have good equipment and good filament,” she stresses.

“But,” she goes on, “patience is by far the most important thing you need to have.”

The Lessons

“Oh, the printers will teach you lessons every day.”

The past twenty years of additive manufacturing have been a journey of learning for Pam. “You have to be teachable,” she says. “Once you realize that, then the sky’s the limit. But if you always feel that you know it all, then you’ll never grow, you’ll never advance.”

It helps, Pam says, that the 3D printing community is so supportive and eager to assist their peers. “With this particular community of individuals that we’ve met, everyone is very helpful,” she muses. “YouTube videos, directions – people are willing to talk and willing to help you, which is a huge asset. And when you have a support team like that, it makes you want to grow.”

The pace of the industry can sometimes be overwhelming, she says: technology changes at such a clip that it’s hard to stay at the forefront of it all. “But yet, at the same time, everyone’s been so helpful,” she says. “Like, ‘Hey, did you hear about this new material on the market?” Or, ‘What’s the temp on your extruder? What’s your speed?’ It’s an incredible community to work with.”

The payoff is reflected in the work they do. A 500+ hour print under their belt. NASA on their client list. Fluency in a wide lineup of materials, from flexible filament, to Nylons, to Teflon. “None of this was ever dreamt of when we bought the first printer,” Pam says.

It’s clear that the journey has held its fair share of ups and downs, but it seems that the right attitude is at the core of it all. “Additive will teach you patience,” she reiterates. “Additive will teach you persistence. Additive will keep you on your toes 24/7.”

She maintains a very even head about it all, and recognizes that things could change at any moment for her. “It’s terrifying and at the same time it’s exhilarating. When things are rolling, life is great.”

When I asked what advice she would give to a new 3D printer owner who was thinking about starting a business like hers, her response was quick.

“Make sure you have a lot of liquor in the facility.”

Learn more about Pamton 3D: https://pamton3d.com/

Innovating in The Time of Corona(virus)

The exponential spread of the novel coronavirus across the globe led to overwhelming demand on supply chains and disruptions to traditional manufacturing and distribution systems. Because of societal lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, a dire need quickly arose for locally fabricated, specifically focused and creatively sourced solutions to equipment shortages and emergency supplies. At home and across the globe, designers and engineers quickly mobilized into online, open-source prototyping groups to solve the challenge of a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and medical device accessories. 3D printing and additive manufacturing was an obvious go-to, with the ability to rapidly prototype and iterate on the fly, teams could utilize 3D printers to supply healthcare providers with equipment now, as soon as there were designs to print. The intention and needs were obvious and clear – to aid humanity and fill the gaps in supply chains – however, organizing volunteers and streamlining the process to avoid duplicate efforts was a daunting task.

As a company with a wealth of R&D project experience and long used to working as a distributed team, re:3D put out the call that we would prototype – for free – any life-saving devices or PPE in order to expedite review by medical professionals. We are conscientious contributors to the open source design community for COVID-19 response. We take a First, Do No Harm approach to any design work we do for this effort, meaning that it needs to be designed with input from, and in partnership with, the individuals who will utilize any equipment we prototype. We will not create anything that gives a false sense of security, but is ineffective or harmful. Our medical providers on the front lines are in need, and we are honored to take on the challenge.

Face Shields

In two overlapping efforts, we prototyped a design for a 3D printed face shield with full visor coverage and an adjustable zip tie style latching mechanism. The inquiry started in Puerto Rico. Vicente Gascó, our friend and colleague from Tredé and Engine-4 shared he had a supply of 4000 clear plastic lenses for face shields, but no visor to which they would attach to the head. Armed with only the measurements of the lenses and aided by an idea from assembly guru and NASA technician Andrew Jica in Houston, Brian Duhaime, our mechanical engineer in Austin, and Alessandra Montano, our graphics designer in Puerto Rico, pumped out five different iterations of a face shield in only 48 hours.

Vicente and Luis Torres, co-founder of Engine-4, pulled our Puerto Rico Gigabot out of Parallel-18 and added it to the existing Gigabot at Engine-4. Gigabots in Austin and in Puerto Rico printed out iterations of the designs for testing.

In Houston at the same time, CTO Matthew Fiedler, mechanical engineer Helen Little and community liaison Charlotte Craff were meeting with doctors from a local hospital to discuss their needs for a face shield. Knowing that vetted, open source face shield designs were already available, the group reviewed designs by Prusa, Lazarus3D, Budmen and Professional Plastics. The Houston team 3D printed existing options for the doctors to test, but the designs didn’t meet all of the doctors’ needs:

  • Lightweight, fully closed top
  • Reducing the air gap between lens and chin
  • 180 degree lens coverage
  • Limit number of parts to reduce need to source materials in short supply

Knowing that supply chains were disrupted and very little raw materials were available in a timely manner, re:3D conferred with Professional Plastics and determined that plastic sheeting supplies were well behind schedule, but that there were excess pre-cut face shield lenses available. Again, re:3D opted to prototype to existing, local supplies, keeping stress off of traditional supply chains and getting creative with what was available.

Over the next week, Helen built on the work done for the Puerto Rico design, integrated the needs of the doctors and iterated ten different versions of the face shield while working from home and rarely getting to hold a print in her hands. The result is a single print, face shield with an adjustable latching mechanism. It’s designed for 180 degrees of protection and comfort without the addition of foam padding.  It has the approval of the hospital’s Infection Control and  is currently available at the National Institutes of Health 3D Print exchange for COVID-19 Response. https://3dprint.nih.gov/discover/3dpx-013504

Hands-Free Door Pulls

Eliminating unnecessary shared contact surfaces is imperative, especially in buildings where essential workers are operating to continue necessary services. Our team includes multiple military service members. One of our reservists was activated when she sent out a call back to our team to make some hands-free door pulls to use on the base. Aided by Matthew Fiedler, Mike Battaglia, our designer in Austin, and Brian Duhaime went to work prototyping hands-free door pulls for lever-style and bar-style door handles.

These designs were drafted before we had dimensions for either of the door styles, so had to be modeled in such a way to enable incremental dimensional adjustments while preserving the models’ shapes. During her free time, the service member sent feedback on the first versions via pictures and notes, and Brian and Mike iterated the changes remotely, melding organic shaped and attachment options into single print solutions.

The hands-free door pulls are now successfully in use on base, protecting our military personnel as they work to respond and aid COVID-19 efforts. These models are available for download here https://3dprint.nih.gov/discover/3dpx-013825 and here: https://3dprint.nih.gov/discover/3dpx-013822

From Intubation Box to Drape Stands

As a 3D printer manufacturer, we are understandably advocates of 3D printing use in manufacturing. However, we recognize that not all innovations require, or are best served by, an exclusively 3D printed solution. As we do much of our manufacturing in-house, including machining parts on our CNCs, we can apply rapid prototyping principals to traditional manufacturing methods. Take the example of an aerosol or intubation box:

We were contacted by an anesthesiologist based in Austin about modifying such a box, used to protect doctors and nurses from aerosols released when intubating a patient. The doctor’s main concerns were ability to clean and the need for a “helper” hole. This equipment needed a curved, clear surface rather than sharp corners where germs could hide. We offered to prototype using polycarbonate sheeting and an aluminum framework available in our machine shop.  In this case, the request for aid evolved before we produced a prototype. The anesthesiologist reported that the existing boxes were unwieldy and took up too much space, so instead requested a solution for supporting clear plastic drapes to achieve the same purpose and be easy to store. Matthew Fiedler proposed a combined 3d printed base and a bent aluminum frame for the project. Design work is ongoing and we will update this post as the prototype develops.

Are you a healthcare professional needing a COVID-19 related equipment solution? Please reach out to us at info@re3d.org to begin coordination. Should you wish to purchase any of our COVID-19 designs. They’re available in our online store: https://shop.re3d.org/collections/covid-19

Interested in supporting existing efforts to fight COVID-19? See below for how to help in Austin, Houston and Puerto Rico.

There is a huge maker community that has sprung to action to support the 3D printing of PPE here in Austin and the surrounding areas.  One of the largest efforts is being run by Masks for Docs (masksfordocs.com), who are actively soliciting donated face shield prints, assembling the shield, and distributing them to hospitals, health clinics, nursing homes, etc – all around the Austin area.  To help with this effort, re:3D will be collecting donated 3D printed face shields in drop-boxes at two locations, Brew & Brew and the Draught House Pub.
 
If you have a 3D printer at home or work & want to help out in the Austin area, you can access the Face Shield Design here.
 
Recommended Print Settings:
  • PETG is preferred, but PLA is completely acceptable if you don’t have PETG or are not able to print with it.
  • 3-4 solid top/bottom layers
  • .3mm layer height
  • 5 Perimeters (AKA Shells or walls)
  • 0% Infill
 
Drop off boxes can be found at:
 
Brew & Brew
500 San Marcos St #105, Austin, TX 78702
 
The Draught House
4112 Medical Pkwy, Austin, TX 78756
TXRX and the amazing maker-community continue to organize face shield collection around Houston.  We are donating 3D printed face shields as well as hosting a community donation box for makers in the Clear Lake area who are printing the face shields at home.  At our factory, the batches are consolidated and sent to TXRX for assembly and distribution to hospitals and first responders in the Houston area.  To date, over 1600 face shields have been donated from the Clear Lake area –  keep it up!
More information and the design file is available here.
 
The Clear Lake drop off box can be found at:
re:3D, Inc.
1100 Hercules
STE 220
Houston, TX 77058
The maker community, including a few Gigabots have done a fantastic job collaborating in San Juan & beyond. We are currently collecting requests for those in need of PPE and sharing opportunities to connect with Engine-4 and Trede’s efforts in Bayamon and additional efforts. If you live in Mayaguez and would like create face shields to be assembled with sheets that have been donated to Engine-4, a drop off box has been established. A UPRM student has also initiated a Slack channel to share other needs. Email info@re3d.org for access.
 
The Mayaguez drop off box can be found at:

Maker Chris’ house at:
76 Calle Santiago R Palmer E, Mayaguez PR 00680


If you live outside of these areas and/or are seeking ways to contribute, A Form to Volunteer is Available Here. We will be responding to inquiries this weekend and doing our best to facilitate introductions:)

High-Voltage Innovation: Creating Tools and Training Models with a Utility Company

Here’s a question: when was the last time you thought about what happens when you flip on a light switch?

We take for granted this everyday miracle without much thought to what goes on behind the scenes to make the lights turn on. Only once the power goes out do people suddenly take notice of this invisible luxury that our daily lives rely on. Lighting our homes, charging our devices, refrigerating our food, powering hospitals and public transportation and the nation’s economy – life as we know it hinges on the seamless, invisible flow of electrons we call electricity.

But, perhaps, everyone once in a while, you have taken note – maybe while driving on the highway past towering transmission lines stretching as far as the eye can see – of the massive system around us that goes mostly unnoticed on a daily basis, and how little you know about how that system functions.

Today’s story may change that for you.

The electrical grid in this country is over a century old. The first commercial central power plant in the US – Pearl Street Station in Manhattan – opened in 1882 and served 82 customers.¹ Today, the US electrical grid is made up of over 7,300 power plants and 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, serving over 145 million customers.²

The focus of our story today is one of the largest of the roughly 3,000 utility companies keeping the lights on in the US. (Due to company policy they cannot disclose their name in external-company features and thus will remain nameless in this article).

Making safety a priority with hands-on training

Jim Patchen is a high voltage work methods specialist for said utility company. His job is to develop procedures on how to work safely around high voltage. His office is a veritable mini-museum of utility relics from a bygone era.

As equipment from the field has been retired over the years, he’s rescued treasures from a certain fate as scrap metal. Artifacts like ammeters, voltmeters, control switches, and molten and re-hardened piles of metal from errant tool mishaps start at the floor and line shelves up to the ceiling.

As for his collector’s habit, Patchen explains his motivation behind this essential preservation of history. “It is important to understand the legacy of this industry,” he says. “Early on, work methods and tools were quite primitive, but over time they have evolved. It’s good to know where you came from so that you know where you’re going.”

The job of every utility company is to generate electricity and transport it to customers. This is, of course, a highly simplified explanation, but the general flow is as such: electricity is created at a generator – taking the form of power plants, hydroelectric dams, solar panel arrays, or wind turbines – transported along transmission lines, and distributed to communities for end use.

Along the way are substations – the large, somewhat hectic-looking clusters of wires and electrical equipment you may notice while driving on the highway – which transform the electricity into high voltage for fast transport along transmission lines and into lower voltage for its final use in homes and businesses. Far from the chaos that they can appear to be to the untrained eye, substations are meticulously-organized, well-oiled machines that are crucial components of the electrical grid. And while designed for maximum safety of workers, they are also extremely high-voltage environments, which inherently pose a unique set of dangers to those in the vicinity.

“Working in a substation is difficult,” explains Patchen, “because it’s many, many circuits coming into one small location, so the high voltage environment is really concentrated. We have to work really [safely] around that to prevent injuries and incidents that could affect the grid.”

This particular utility company has over 1,000 substations in its service territory. As a work methods specialist, Patchen’s current role revolves around creating procedures to ensure the safety of workers in addition to the integrity of the grid and the power they’re providing to consumers. “If you make a mistake in a substation, you can impact thousands of customers,” he explains. “If I drop a screwdriver in a substation, I can take out 90,000 customers. So, everything we do is critical.”

Workers at the company go through a roughly three-year apprenticeship of rigorous training on how to work safely in such an environment. “Traditional training involves PowerPoints and lecturing,” explains Patchen. Unfortunately, he continues, the retention rate of knowledge taught in these sorts of settings tends to be abysmal. Their goal is to incorporate more tactile learning to keep students engaged throughout lessons.

There is always hands-on training out in the field for all students in the apprenticeship program, but the company wanted the ability to bring this type of learning into classrooms on a daily basis. They saw the value of using scale models of real-world equipment on which students could practice skills like protective grounding in a safe, unenergized environment. The models give students the opportunity to test their proficiency, and teachers the ability to confirm that their lessons are getting through and sticking. “They’re able to practice and prove their understanding of what they’re being taught,” explains Patchen, “and then you’re able to validate knowledge that way.”

Patchen began by building these training models by hand. He estimates that he created his first substation model in 1999, using components that he found at the hardware store. Cardboard tubes and spark plugs come together to form a miniature substation on which students can practice, with no danger of a deadly misstep.

When Patchen caught wind of the powers of 3D printing, its potential to be applied to his work was immediately apparent. “When 3D printing came into the picture, we thought, ‘Oh man, we could really make these models much more realistic.’” He also saw the opportunity to start reproducing models for other locations at a pace that just wasn’t feasible when he was building each one by hand.

“If I was gonna buy a printer, I wanted one with a big print platform,” Patchen recounts. Their size requirements are varied, he explains. Sometimes their prototyping needs are small-scale, but other times they want the ability to create large objects that would dwarf the average desktop printer. “We wanted…a single purchase that would best fit both those kinds of parameters,” he says.

He did his research and found re:3D. “The Gigabot was amazing because of its large platform and the ability to print small and large, no matter what our needs might be.” Patchen is now in the process of 3D modeling his original substation in CAD and printing out its 21st century cousin.

Patchen explains that the company recently invested in a state-of-the-art training facility, where he sees abundant opportunities to use their Gigabot for educational purposes. “Our goal as a utility is to be a leader in our industry,” he says. “In order for us to do that, we have to lead in safety, innovation, and technology. We believe that 3D printing is gonna help us get there.” 

Tool creation from then to now

One challenge of the work is that, between different eras of design and the wide range of equipment manufacturers, a single type of equipment may have several different designs out in the field.

Because of this, there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all tool for every job and every company. This can leave utilities to do their own tool creation when needed, to make the job safer and more efficient for workers and keep power flowing to their customers. Oftentimes, workers see areas for improvement, opportunities for a new tool that doesn’t exist that would make their jobs easier.

“When I first hired on, I was a high-voltage substation electrician. I worked in the field for many years,” explains Patchen. “If you had an idea for a tool that you wanted to create, you would have to draw it on a piece of paper or a napkin and bring it down to a local machine shop, and then they would do their best to build it.” That process, Patchen recounts, could take weeks to months – and that was just to get an initial prototype.

Anyone who’s been through the development of a product knows that the back and forth of the process – when not done in-house – can be quite costly in both time and capital. The first iteration comes back – often after a lengthy lead time – and design flaws become apparent. Revisions are made and submitted, and the process is repeated. More waiting, more money.

“Today with 3D printing, you can take your ideas and concepts and prove them out,” Patchen explains. “The average person can change the industry.”

3D printing cuts down on the tool design process in both the time and cost departments. A design can be printed and reworked on repeat until all the kinks are ironed out. “Then,” Patchen explains, “I could go spend the money at the mill or the machine shop, and it’s actually effective spending at that point.”

It goes without saying that this also slashes a massive amount of time from the process. They can internally turn around dozens of 3D printed iterations and settle on a final design in less time than a machine shop could get a first version back to them. “It’s a very cost-efficient way to change the industry using the field employees’ input.”

The challenges of tool development

Nowadays, Patchen’s tool creation process typically involves a manufacturer, so that when a design is finalized it can be mass-produced and made available on the market to any utility company who may also have a need for it.

There are several challenges that Patchen is confronted with when he’s approached with a tool idea from a field employee.

The first is the broad range of equipment designs that they’re making these tools to service. “In these substations, there’s stuff that was built in 1920, there’s stuff that was built last month,” he explains. This means that the same device with the same function can take different forms depending on what era it’s from. “When we have to build something, we want to make it fit all of those,” he says. “We want to be able to make one product, one time, and do it right.”

The second challenge is their partner in tool creation: the manufacturers. Patchen starts the process by approaching a manufacturer with a tool concept, they come back with an initial design, and the utility workers trial it out in the field. This, Patchen explains, can be tricky with manufacturers who aren’t in their line of work. “A lot of times, when the manufacturer’s trying to understand what your needs are, they’re not in the field, they don’t work in your environment,” he says. “They make tools, [but] they don’t understand how you’re using them.”

This can result in tools that are inconvenient or awkward to use and therefore difficult to actually put into practice, defeating the purpose of creating them in the first place.

With 3D printing, Patchen found a solution to this flaw in their design process. “When you get an end-user involved in creating prototypes, you’re really closing the gap on the amount of time and the cost it takes to create useful tools.”

Now, he and his team handle the early stages of the process, modeling CAD files and printing initial prototypes in-house. By the time they approach a manufacturer with a tool concept, they have a 3D printed prototype that’s already been put through the ringer out in the field. This allows them to leapfrog several steps ahead in the production process. “3D printing has enabled us to improve our innovation when it comes to creating new tools or specialized tools across a very diverse line of equipment,” he explains. “We’re able to come up with concepts, print the prototypes, and trial them out in the field, so when we communicate back to our manufacturer, the data is more accurate.”

Rather than discovering a design flaw after something has been expensively injection-molded, Patchen and his team can work out the kinks on their end and ensure the design they send to a manufacturer is accurate from the get-go. All that’s left to do at that point is create the tooling to mass produce it. Says Patchen, “It saves [the manufacturer] money, it saves us money in the long run, and lots and lots of time.”

At the 2019 ICUEE conference in Louisville, Kentucky – the largest utility and construction trade show in North America – four tools Patchen and his team helped design were on display. It’s a big honor at such a lauded industry event, but his focus remains on safety and sharing innovation so that other utilities across the nation can benefit. “I’m not trying to make money,” says Patchen. “I’m just trying to make it better for the employees in the field.”

Sparking industry innovation through new tool creation

Where taking a tool from concept to a purchasable physical product used to be a months- to years-long process, Patchen explains that 3D printing has given them the ability to slash that development time down into the weeks. “That’s huge when it comes to our type of work where we’re in such a high-voltage, dangerous environment.”

Much of the challenge and danger of the job stems from the simple fact that a utility company’s singular focus is keeping the lights on.

When equipment needs maintenance, they do what they can to keep the power flowing. This means that workers are almost always working near energized, high-voltage equipment – hence the necessity of Patchen’s job. And although there is always an inherent level of risk to a job which necessitates working in close proximity to high voltage, Patchen’s aim is to protect workers through the development of new tools, training, and work methods.

“Technology is changing our industry,” says Patchen. “Every six months, there is something new.” The blistering pace of innovation lifts the industry as a whole, but the challenge, Patchen explains, is staying on the forefront of that.

“We don’t want to sit back and just watch that happen. We want to be a leader in that,” he explains. “3D printing gives us the ability to be part of that process – to lead innovation.”

One ubiquitous tool used in the field is a live line stick, commonly known in the business as a hot stick. The lengthy, fiberglass poles allow utility workers to perform a variety of tasks on energized equipment, insulating them from the electricity and keeping them at a distance from machinery in the case of a malfunction or electrical arcing. The end of the stick operates as a mount for a variety of different accessories that serve a wide range of purposes, like pulling fuse and operating switches. 

One hot stick variation that Patchen’s team uses is a switch lubricator. Workers were struggling to open sticky switches, often having to use a stick to forcibly hit at a switch five or six times. They remedied this with a hot stick that dispenses lubricant onto a switch so that it can be opened easily with one knock.

Part of the design is a control unit, mounted on the opposite end of the hot stick, with a button for the user to dispense the lubricant. The unit the manufacturer sent was large and clunky: a worker had to remove a hand from the stick in order to get to the button, sacrificing dexterity.

Patchen designed a new mount with a slim profile – probably a quarter of the size of the original unit – enabling the stick operator to keep both hands on the pole and simply move a thumb to hit the button. “We were able to use our 3D printer to create this new prototype that’s much more ergonomic and gives the end user more control when working in an energized, high-voltage environment.” Printed on their Gigabot and mounted to the pole with velcro straps, the new unit Patchen created is being adopted by the manufacturer as an option on new purchases.

Gigabot has opened a door for Patchen and his team, and the tool requests are streaming in.

There was the gas cap to attach a generator to an extended time fuel tank, out of stock when they desperately needed it during a widespread emergency and power outage. Patchen 3D printed it.

There was the camera mount hot stick used to inspect energized equipment that carried a price tag of nearly $500. Patchen printed it. Their 3D printed version of the mount attaches to other sticks they already have, at a grand total of $1.67 apiece.

The list goes on.

“We were recently approached by several field crews to create a special plastic cover that would protect them in high voltage environments,” Patchen says. There was no product on the market that fit the bill, so he got to work on a design with a manufacturer.

The equipment that needed to be covered took a wide range of forms in the field, complicating the product development process. Patchen gave the manufacturer drawings of the equipment and their product idea. Eight months later they still didn’t have a workable prototype.

Patchen stepped in. “I used my 3D printer, made a prototype, and got the product finished within three weeks. Now it’s actually purchasable on the market.”

But perhaps Patchen’s most impressive project of all is a small, unassuming plastic hook.

He and his team were confronted with a scenario in which they needed to perform maintenance on a 500 kV substation. “In our system, the highest voltage that we have – and one of our most critical circuits – is the 500 kV,” he explains. “To clear that equipment or take it out of service, we’d have to de-energize the whole grid, which can be quite costly – tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

A teammate came to him with an idea to circumvent the clearance with the help of a specially-designed plastic barrier which would allow them to safely perform maintenance without shutting down the system.

The solution came in the form of a rectangular-shaped, high-voltage plastic cover, which would enclose each of the 13.8 kV circuits that connect to the main 500 kV bank. The covers would be mounted from below and secured in place with rubber rope and plastic hooks. The hooks that the manufacturer sent with the covers, however, posed a problem.

Maneuvering from the ground at the end of a 14 foot hot stick, a worker had to insert one end of the hook into the eyelet of the plastic cover in order to fasten it. Workers were finding the hook’s design difficult to navigate into place at such an angle.

Patchen took the feedback from the field employees, reworked the hook’s design, and printed out a new version on their Gigabot. The slight tweaks to the hook’s form were a game-changer. Where workers previously had to fight the old hook into the eyelet at an awkward angle, the new design naturally wants to snap into place.

“This small, plastic hook took about three hours to print, and it cost around five dollars.” Patchen can’t underscore its value enough. “We were able to take that [3D printed] hook and share it with other crews, and we avoided many, many 500 kV clearances because of it. This small, five dollar device saved us hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

He smiles and gestures towards their Gigabot. “That’s paid for the printer quite a few times.”

UAV Innovation Taking off at United States Air Force Academy

Download our whitepaper on 3D printing and drones

Steve Brandt has been flying airplanes for 20 years. F15s and F16s, mostly, with ten years as a test pilot flying new systems for the Air Force.

Given his history, it’s curious to hear him describe the latest tenure of his career. “I always like to say I’ve flown more first flights since I’ve been here in [four] years than I ever flew actually flying airplanes,” he says, “because just about every airplane we build has never been flown before.”

Brandt leads the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Research at the United States Air Force Academy. The elite institution – perched idyllically in the mountains ten miles outside Colorado Springs – is home to just over four thousand cadets pursuing degrees ranging from business to engineering. They will also graduate as Second Lieutenants in the Air Force.

The experience cadets go through at the USAFA, Brandt underscores, is unparalleled – even among the ranks of engineering behemoths like MIT or Ohio State. “There’s probably not another undergraduate senior in college that gets this kind of experience,” he says. “The Department of Aeronautics here is definitely the most well-equipped aeronautics lab in the country, especially at the undergraduate level.”

The Academy is home to impressive manufacturing labs, multiple levels of wind tunnels – from lower-speed options all the way up to supersonic (Mach 4.5, or four-and-a-half times the speed of sound, or 3,425.43 miles per hour) – a huge airspace for flying, and a long list of faculty and researchers to mentor cadets through their studies.

Cadets march their way through the Aeronautics Major, which culminates in conducting a capstone project of designing, building, and flying an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, under Brandt’s watch.

The aircraft that the cadets build and fly are not the balsa wood models of your childhood. They boast wingspans ranging from two feet to over five, retractable landing gear, jet and electric fan motors, and autopilot systems. They take off down runways, shoot off bungee cord launchers, and are released off the top of trucks while driving. 

“Everything we do here in the design of the airplanes is not normal,” says Brandt. “It’s abnormal.”

The aeronautics workshop is brimming with bodies of aircraft – spilling out of workshops and lining hallways and filling shelves up to the ceiling – that don’t exist in the real world…yet. “We’re doing cutting edge things. We’re trying to make airplanes do things that haven’t been done before,” Brandt explains. “When everything’s not normal, 3D printing is the solution, in so many ways.”

Designing One-of-a-Kind Aircraft

Lieutenant Colonel Judson Babcock is an assistant professor at the Academy currently teaching the senior capstone aircraft design course. This, he explains, is where students take on a project from a customer like the Air Force Research Lab and have the challenge of creating an entirely new, unique aircraft to meet a specific set of needs.

One such undertaking is a personnel recovery system: an airplane designed to rescue a fallen soldier from enemy territory using a retractable capsule released from the nose of the vehicle midair. Another is a supersonic air refueling tanker: a stealthy, high-speed craft capable of zipping into enemy airspace above the speed of sound, slowing down to refuel fighter jets mid-flight, and buzzing back to safety.

In the past, Babcock explains, UAV construction at the Academy typically happened in the mediums of balsa wood and foam. But with the unusual vehicles they’re making, traditional fabrication techniques are not always ideal. “Indeed, our students are making aircraft that have never flown before,” he says. “They’re unique shapes, unique designs, and unique structures.” All qualities, he explains, that render them “difficult to construct by hand.”

Pushing the envelope as they are, the Academy works to stay staying cutting edge with their facilities and technology. It was several years ago that 3D printing blipped on their radar.

Brandt and his colleagues in the aeronautics and mechanical engineering departments were researching methods that could increase their efficiency and accuracy in the aircraft design process. “Pretty much everything we design has got uniqueness to it,” he explains. “We can’t go buy something off the shelf.”

Brandt was aggressive about bringing 3D printing to the Academy for the technology’s ability to manufacture parts quickly and accurately: the technology could give them the ability to create these unique components in-house for rapid prototyping of aircraft.

“The value added to being able to print the parts over anything else is that there’s detail that can be made without flaw,” he says. “I can build holes exactly where I want the holes to be for a motor mount; I don’t have to machine it out of a piece of aluminum and spend a lot of hours and it be a lot heavier than it needs to be.”

As the Academy set its sights on bigger planes – “things that are two, three feet in breadth, and two, three feet tall,” Brandt recalls – he began looking for a printer with a build plate to match.

“I found the Gigabot, and it was the only big printer that I could find that had the volume that we started to think towards,” he recounts. Brandt saw a large-scale 3D printer as their ticket to print bigger sections of sizable aircraft with ease. Rather than having to break a component into multiple pieces to fit onto a small printer bed and connecting the parts post-printing, they could print entire plane sections in one go.

“When I found [Gigabot], we sat around and said, ‘Should we make this investment?’ One of our machinists said, ‘If we’re going to do it, get the biggest one, because you’re not going to want to print smaller.’”

Incorporating 3D Printing into the Airplane Design Process

The Air Force Academy invested in a Gigabot XLT, and with it, over 14 cubic feet of build volume. The printer purchase has paid off.

“To say that we use our Gigabot all the time is pretty much an understatement,” Brandt laughs. “It runs every day; there are times when it runs non-stop for three weeks.”

They use 3D printing to produce a multitude of parts in a variety of steps throughout the aircraft design process.

The first phase is the wind tunnel. Cadets take the CAD model of their concept craft, print it, and subject it to the rigors of wind tunnel testing to assess its aerodynamics in advance of flight. “We can validate the design in a wind tunnel with a 3D printed model, and then take it to the next scale and validate the fact that what we learned in the wind tunnel is accurate,” explains Brandt.

Once they confirm that the aerodynamics and stability of the aircraft are suitable, they’ll take the same CAD model, scale it up, and construct it with the help of 3D printing. Brandt goes on, “The only way to do that is to be able to develop the same airplane at a larger scale, and that requires a big printer that allows us to print larger parts so the accuracy is there in the design.” The successful scaling-up of a wind tunnel model is really only possible in the age of CAD and 3D printing. A balsa wood or foam model may pass wind tunnel testing only to fail on the runway because its larger, hand-constructed cousin didn’t quite match the geometry of its wind-tunnel brethren. 

Fuselage, tails, motor mounts, landing gear interfaces, control services for wings: all of these unique components are printed and assembled – along with batteries, servo motors, autopilot, and carbon-fiber-wrapped foam – to create a fully-functional aircraft.

“We can take the novel designs that our students create, put them on a 3D printer and assemble them together,” explains Babcock, “and we can have a totally unique design – a new aircraft that the world has never seen before – that hopefully meets the requirements that the customer gave us when we set out on that process.”

The Benefits of 3D Printing in UAV Testing and Design

3D printing is now a staple within the USAFA Aeronautics Department, and with it has come a bevy of benefits.

“We break airplanes a lot,” explains Brandt. These are planes that have never flown before that may take a little practice to get the hang of operating. Babcock echoes the sentiment. “Part of the learning process our students go through is failure,” he says. “Inevitably, when they’re creating an aircraft, something will happen and the aircraft will crash or be damaged in some way.”

Because of this, both Brandt and Babcock stress, the cost of plane production – in the form of both raw materials and labor – is extremely important to the Academy.

“That’s where 3D printing really has an advantage for us,” says Babcock. “Typically it would cost hundreds of dollars to produce scaled models of these aircraft. With 3D printing, we can produce a model on the order of $5 instead of $500. It’s literally 100 times cheaper than other construction methods we have available to us.”

Turnaround time is also of concern. They’ve found that 3D printing allows for quick crash fixes in addition to rapid design iteration in the early development stages.

“It happened this semester with my cadets,” Babcock recounts. “We put their aircraft in the wind tunnel, and it didn’t have the stability that they had predicted before we printed the model. We had to make a design change.” The group went back to the drawing board with their CAD model, made some tweaks, and printed a new prototype for the wind tunnel. The plane was ready for re-testing by the next class and passed with flying colors.

Staying on schedule is crucial not only given the cadets’ looming graduation day, but also for the customers who are ultimately relying on the results of this testing to move forward with a real-world project. Babcock adds, “It’s only because of 3D printing that we’re able to do a rapid turnaround on our design iterations and solve problems fast enough so that we can get to the goal of actually flying a prototype for the customer.”

Once cadets’ planes progress past wind tunnel testing, 3D printing also comes into play as they begin flying outdoors for the first time. The technology allows them to quickly repair crashed crafts and get them swiftly back in the air.

“One of the beauties of having a 3D printer is I can get a part at two in the afternoon, I can slice it, get it on the printer, it can print all night, and by the time the students come back the next day, they have a part in their hand,” says Brandt. “That’s the way the world works today, and that’s what we should be showing them.”

The technology functions as on-demand inventory when they have to mend broken aircraft. Once the CAD file is created, there’s no manual labor, nobody whittling balsa wood into the wee hours. “With 3D printing, we have a repeatable process that is hands-off where we can manufacture the replacement parts we need on an as-needed basis,” Babcock explains. “We don’t need to do a large bulk order of parts in advance; we can print new parts to repair the aircraft as accidents happen.”

A Challenging Atmosphere

“One of the biggest challenges of building airplanes, especially at the scale that we fly them: every single ounce matters.” Brandt explains that cadets have an extra obstacle working against them: they’re flying in a challenging atmosphere – literally.

The Academy sits at 7,200 feet elevation. It’s more difficult to take off and fly an actual airplane in these conditions, let alone a small vehicle that doesn’t have the capacity to carry a large engine. “Developing lift – which is what we need to do – is harder at this altitude,” says Brandt. “It’s a very challenging place to fly, yet we do it pretty successfully over and over.”

“And the speeds?” He smiles. “They’re fast.”

The aircraft they’re building are typically in the range of five to fifteen pounds, cruising at speeds between 30 and 80 knots – roughly 35 to 90 miles per hour. So not only do their designs need to be lightweight, they need to be strong.

3D printing affords them the ability to design and create parts in a way that traditional manufacturing or hand construction often does not, and also to adjust print settings to maximize a component’s efficiency in both volume and weight. “A 3D printed part can meet all of those contours, yet still have the strength that we need to be able to put it on an airplane and have the structure that we need to fly,” says Brandt.

Enabling Innovation with Cutting Edge Technology

3D printing is a relatively recent addition to the arsenal of manufacturing capability at the Academy, yet the headway they’ve made since bringing the technology on board is impressive.

“This capability here has really just been developed over the past four or five years of building airplanes at the volume and scale that we’re doing,” says Brandt. “We used to get three or four – maybe five – airplanes built a semester; maybe two or three of them would fly – maybe.”

Now, he explains, they have the means to significantly increase both the quantity and quality of production. They’ve essentially doubled their numbers – building, by Brandt’s estimates, somewhere between eight and twelve airplanes a semester. “And why can we do that? It’s because we have the design tools and the manufacturing tools to do it.”

It’s a boon not just to the Academy but also their customers – like the AFRL – who rely on their aerospace expertise. “I think the most invigorating thing to me is that we provide – as best as we can – a product to a customer in a very short turnaround time,” says Brandt. “3D printing has enabled us to build airplanes that are what the customer wants. The only way we do it with the level of precision and accuracy that we do it today is because 3D printing has infected it so much.”

Inspiring Future Airmen

At the end of the day, the Air Force Academy is just that: an academy.

Its mission is “to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation.” And what better way to do this with the next generation of pilots and flight engineers than with the challenge of designing, building, and flying a unique aircraft that solves a real-world need?

“When you design an airplane, it’s built on a computer screen somewhere,” Brandt muses. “We’re going to take that CAD drawing and turn it into a real airplane. It suddenly jumps off the screen, and now they’re holding a real piece. The fact that we can do that quickly with a 3D printer is amazing.” Babcock has also seen how the technology has impacted the learning process for cadets. “It really makes the world come alive for them.”

When the cadets’ planes finally leave the theoretical realm and go wheels up, “the whole learning loop is closed,” explains Brandt. “All of the learning comes together, and they go, ’Wow, I really do understand how an airplane flies, I understand how it works, and I also understand that – even at this small scale – these things are very complex.’”

The majority of the USAFA graduates will go on to become pilots. This experience of designing and flying scaled-down jets, Brandt explains, “gives them a greater appreciation for how those things operate, and the complexities that they inherently have inside of them.”

As for the “inspire” portion of the equation, Babcock has seen enough cadets go through the process to understand that box is being checked.

“You have to realize these cadets have worked for four years in an extremely demanding environment: extremely rigorous academics combined with extremely rigorous military training and athletic requirements,” he explains. “In their last semester here in this capstone design class, everything comes together, and they design and build an aircraft from scratch that has never existed before to meet a unique customer need.”

Toward the end of the semester is when they first send their designs skyward. “When it actually all comes together and works for the first time, you just see it on the students faces,” explains Babock. “It’s an indescribable feeling where all of their four years [have] come together to reward them with this moment where they’ve actually made an aircraft and flown it. And it actually matters because there’s a customer out there that needs this aircraft to meet a certain requirement. It’s really a special feeling for them.”

Brandt recognizes that the Academy has taken a lot of chances as they plumb the boundaries of what can be done with regards to new aircraft development.

He references back to his statement about the unparalleled educational experience that the USAFA provides, even when compared to other top-tier engineering institutions of the country. “Their level of innovation is not the same as what we do here,” he adds. “We take big risks because we want great return, and we’re willing to take those risks to give the cadets the best experience that they’re supposed to get at the Air Force Academy.”

Brandt and Babcock both reflect on the profound effect that 3D printing has had at the Academy, for cadets as well as the customers for whom they’re creating aircraft.

“In terms of performance and reliability and cost,” says Babcock, “3D printing has changed how we operate around here for the better, because it’s beat all of the previous methods hands down in all of those categories.”

Download our whitepaper on 3D printing and drones

NASA Repost: 3D Printing and the Future of Aeronautics

The following articles were originally posted by NASA on nasa.gov. You may recognize a familiar machine in the video at 1:24

August 19, 2019 – 3D Printing and the Future of Aeronautics

Today is National Aviation Day and progress is ongoing in the next evolution of air mobility – all thanks to emerging 3D printing technology.

This image of a full-scale model of Langley Aerodrome No. 8 is being constructed at NASA’s Langley Research Center. The LA-8 model will to contribute to the agency’s Urban Air Mobility (UAM) initiative. “It’s definitely a new world with 3-D printing,” said engineering technician Sam James, pictured here. “It’s the future without a doubt.”

About 80 percent of the model is built using 3D printers on center using nylon and polycarbonate, which allows engineers to change the wings, the fuselage and add other sections of the model such as propellers and computer hardware rapidly.

Since 1939, August 19 has been celebrated as National Aviation Day, the legacy of a presidential proclamation first made by Franklin D. Roosevelt to celebrate the birthday of civil aviation pioneer Orville Wright. At NASA, aeronautics is not only part of our name, it is an integral part of our mission. And, this year we’re celebrating National Aviation Day on social media by highlighting some of unique and surprising ways our aeronautics research impacts your daily life. From innovative video games that help those with ADHD to using wind tunnels to test automobiles, ships and wheelchairs, explore all the ways NASA is with you when you fly–and beyond–by following us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

April 25, 2019 – Langley Aerodrome Created to Explore Urban Air Mobility

One of the keys to unlocking the future of Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is exploring how different technologies and configurations of aircraft will perform in the urban environment. To start gathering as much data as possible, NASA engineers are moving forward with their newest modular unmanned aerial system, the Langley Aerodrome #8.

“The project is called Advanced Urban Air Mobility Test Beds,” said Dave North, Unmanned Aerial Systems Section Lead. “This is a new effort in aeronautics to look at urban flight, both unmanned flight like package delivery vehicles, all the way up to manned vehicles that may carry six or eight people at a time.”

The new vehicle’s namesake is not just because it was designed and built at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, but in honor of Samuel P. Langley who coined the term aerodrome when he named his series of unmanned aircraft in the late 1890s. Yes, before the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, Langley was flying “drones” over the Potomac River. His Aerodrome #5 flew for 90 seconds over a distance of half a mile.

“It seemed fitting to honor Langley’s work as we explore unmanned systems,” said North.

The LA-8 recently completed its first wind tunnel test in NASA’s 12-foot Low Speed Wind Tunnel here at Langley.

“This is all about getting the data and getting the process down so we can help the private sector accelerate the whole Urban Air Mobility effort,” said North.

A popular concept for urban flights is known as electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL. Put simply, the aircraft can take off like a helicopter, hover, and then transition to fast forward flight like an airplane.

“That hand-off from hovering to forward flight is really difficult from a control standpoint,” said North. “NASA is starting to look at these concepts and how you would fly them in the airspace, and how to help all these private companies get their vehicles certified, air worthy and safe to fly. So we’re building these technology testbeds to investigate those things.”

Collecting as much data as possible in a world where many different styles of urban aircraft are coming to life off the papers they were first designed on is the challenge. To accomplish this task the LA-8 is a modular vehicle that can have almost any part redesigned and swapped out for a different one thanks to computer aided design (CAD) and 3D-printing.

“The focus initially was to build as much of the aircraft as we could using 3D-printers,” said Greg Howland, NASA engineer. “We go straight from the CAD file to getting it printed out. Less hands-on work for the parts.”

Roughly 80% of the LA-8 is made from 3D-printed material allowing these engineers to change the wings, the fuselage and other sections quite rapidly.

“We’ve already figured out a lot of things that we would like to do a little different on the second and third models,” Howland said. “So I’m making changes in the CAD files as we go along, and if you need replacement parts, you can almost just push a button and get a part printed out.”

The continued redesign of the Langley Aerodrome will help NASA focus on making these types of vehicles safer and share that data with the private industry.

“How do you look at off-nominal conditions?” asked North. “Off-nominal meaning, what if you lost a propeller or motor, could you still control the vehicle and get it on the ground safely? Can you fly this in gusty winds? These are areas that we’re building these technology test-beds for.”

The capability to rapidly design, fabricate and test these types of new configurations was developed as part of the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts – Convergent Aeronautics Solutions (TAC-CAS) program. The project is also being funded by the Air Traffic Management – Exploration (ATM-X) and TAC Transformational Tools and Technologies (TAC-TTT) programs.

North said that they expect to have the LA-8 move from wind tunnel tests to flight tests by late August.

David Meade
NASA Langley Research Center

Saying ‘I Do!’ To 3D Printing For A Wedding

It’s that lovely time of year again where love is all amongst us as weddings are galore! More than a handful of our teammates have utilized the power of 3D printing with Gigabot to create wedding decor that reduces costs while optimizing creative expression & personalization… so we thought we’d share their applications in hopes to inspire 3D printing for your special day.

4 Ways To Utilize 3D Printing For A Wedding (& Why You Should)

3D Printed Wall Decor Lighting Up The Dance Floor 

Jeric 3D printed and assembled an LED sign for his sister’s wedding. The printed parts took 14 hours in total to make using a combination of PLA & PETG – PETG for the front, translucent part of the sign and PLA for everything else. He used super glue and hot glue to hold everything together. He also installed LEDs throughout the inside – the LEDs are RGB and have a transmitter connected, so they can use a remote to control the color and light-up patterns. Check out the photos from the full build process in this album.

Why use 3D printing?

“3D printing gave me amazing flexibility in the design, but also let me quickly build a functional 3D design.”
Jeric Bautista

The 3D Printed Icing On Top of the Cake: 3D Printed Wedding Toppers

Alessandra designed & 3D printed ‘Mr&Mrs’ wedding cake toppers and table decorations for Samantha Snabes’ sister’s wedding. They took about 1 hour to design and model for each print and the wedding cake topper took approximately 1 hour to print while the table decoration took about 43 hours to print using silver PLA. The prints were then spraypainted with gold. Access the wedding topper designs for free here on our Sketchfab

Why use 3D printing?

"Weddings are expensive but custom wedding items are extremely expensive. With 3D printing, you can literally shape your dreams without having to go bankrupt. Time-wise, I was able to get a specific picture from the customer's Pinterest and generate a 3D model under 1 hour. Even if one of the models takes 43 hours to print, you can leave Gigabot in charge while you go home, watch series and take a nap, so you virtually save those 43 hours of possible manual work.”
Alessandra Montano
3D Printed Wedding Cake Topper

A Trove of Treasures In A 3D Printed Chest: 3D Printing Gifts

Mike B. 3D printed a Zelda treasure chest for a Zelda themed wedding. The chest had a slot at the top to drop in gift cards. He also 3D scans newlyweds when he goes to weddings and ships them print-outs of themselves a few months later. For the Zelda treasure chest, he used hinges from the hardware store, a bit of Bondo to give a wood texture, acrylic paint, and a clear coat. The design took 2 hours, and Mike kept changing it to look more authentic to the game. The portraits were printed in white PLA and scanned with a Structure Sensor. Scans were cleaned up a bit in MeshMixer.

Why use 3D printing?

"For many fabricated items, the materials inform the design but with 3D printing, you can make virtually anything if you can model it. A treasure chest would traditionally be made with wood and metal. You can mimic lots of different fabrication methods all with the same two tools, a CAD program, and a Gigabot. The Zelda treasure chest needed to look cartoony so in this case, it was actually easier to prime/paint than a metal/wood fabrication would have been. 3D printing is indispensable for prop design! For the scans, someone would have had to sculpt them; this was more of a portrait captured at the moment which I think is special.”
Mike Battaglia

3D Printed Accessories: A Life-Sized Diamond Isn’t Tough

Tammie 3D printed a diamond to be a light within a large diamond ring to further accessorize the wedding. She used natural PLA and it took 1.5 to 2 hours to complete the print using Gigabot and didn’t do any post-processing work on the prints.

Why use 3D printing?

“I would have never found a diamond this large to display for the day! Thankfully for the size of Gigabot and the versatility of 3D printing, it was made possible.”
Tammie Vargas

There you have it! Four special 3D printing applications for very special days. Don’t forget to check out the pics above and free downloads on our Sketchfab! Also, we’d love to know – what have you printed for weddings & special occasions? Don’t hesitate to share on our forum! Until then…happy printing ever after 🙂

HiveCube: Building a Safer Future for Puerto Rico

Note: re:3D does not manufacture HiveCube homes, but rather was part of the prototyping process and helped to 3D print architectural models which HiveCube used for pitching to investors.

Maria Velasco was hunkered down with family on the west coast of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez when Hurricane Maria hit.

“The first 24 hours there was no contact with anything outside of your neighbors.”

She described how, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, they could venture a little further from home each day to assess the damage. Families relied on word of mouth to check the wellbeing of their loved ones; people would drop by to let others know they were alive.

“It’s a humbling experience,” Velasco recounts. “You realize what you need and what you don’t need in life.”

It was this focus on the essentials in a time of crisis that got Velasco and her business partner, Carla Gautier, thinking. Channeling the spirit of resiliency on the island following the disaster, Gautier and Velasco vowed to stay and help rebuild in their own way, to make the future safer for the people of Puerto Rico.

The Beginnings of the Hive

Gautier has a particular skillset that makes her well-suited for the challenge: she’s an architect.

While completing on her Bachelor’s of Science in Architecture in Boston, she spent four months in Berlin, traveling around Europe to study alternative types of architecture for low-income communities. It was on this tour that she was first exposed to structures made from shipping containers. Later, during her Masters of Architecture, she spent time in West Africa – in Benin – studying informal construction and development.

These two exposures later came together to form the foundation of HiveCube.

After completing her master’s, Gautier started working for FEMA, getting an up-close view of the destruction around the island post-Maria. On this assignment, Gautier saw firsthand a major factor that compounded the destruction of the storm: buildings not being up to code.

She and Velasco did some research, discovering that 55% of housing in Puerto Rico is constructed informally. Some areas of the island may not have stood a chance against the force of Maria, but surely structures being built to code and with hurricanes in mind should be a given on the island, the pair mused.

These three experiences in Gautier’s architecture career – her work on low-income housing in Europe, her study of informal construction in West Africa, and her exposure to the prevalence of informal construction on her home turf – came together to form the seed of an idea.

Gautier wanted to bring her knowledge of simplistic yet effective designs for low-income housing from Europe to help people in her homeland, to create affordable housing built to withstand ferocious storms that didn’t compromise on quality or comfort.

The idea for HiveCube began to take shape.

A Jumpstart from Parallel18

Hurricane Maria tested the resiliency of Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico stepped up to the challenge.

San Juan-based startup accelerator Parallel18 created a new program post-Maria specifically to harness the energy and drive to bounce back that they saw amongst the population. Called Pre-18, it was a separate entity from their typical accelerator program, where they mentored around 40 companies from Puerto Rico each working in their own way to rebuild and kickstart the economy after the storm. HiveCube was one of the companies accepted.

Something I'm excited about in HiveCube is their team. They have two very energetic, capable founders in Carla and Maria.
Lucas Arzola is the Director of Operations at Parallel18
HiveCube founders Velasco and Gautier with Sebastian Vidal, Executive Director of Parallel18

HiveCube and the other companies of Pre-18 epitomize the buoyant spirit of Puerto Ricans following one of the worst disasters on the island in recent history.

“We had our campaign called ‘El Boricua se las Inventa’ – Puerto Ricans Get Creative,” explains Arzola. “We’ve seen that creativity happen all around us, and HiveCube is just one example of a company that was born from the hurricane and created a solution that now is growing and thriving.”

Companies from the Pre-18 program were then eligible to be selected for the following Parallel18 cohort; HiveCube was one of 16 that made this jump. “We’ve never as many Puerto Rican companies in the Parallel18 cohort as we did in this one,” Arzola muses.

The Pre-18 program was so successful that Parallel18 has decided to make it a regular thing. “It’s going to be an official program we’re going to do once a year,” explains Arzola. “So the idea is that we can do one Pre-18 cohort for every two Parallel18s.”

HiveCube’s extended time with the Parallel18 team super-charged their pace of progress as well as reinforced the value of the accelerator program.

“We’ve seen them evolve and grow significantly in a short amount of time, so it sort of validates our program as well,” says Arzola. “There’s no better validation than just seeing thriving companies that will be able to contribute to Puerto Rico and grow from this point on, because we’re able to support them in this stage where they need help the most. That’s why we do what we do.”

Parallel18 is also where Gigabot enters the HiveCube story.

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The duo was having a tough time pitching investors: their vision was getting distorted along the way, often manifesting in others’ minds as a less-aesthetic, lower-quality “trailer.” But what the two had in mind was so much more – they just couldn’t figure out how to communicate this in a way that resonated with prospective investors.

Gautier and Velasco experienced firsthand the phenomenon of using a 3D printed prototype in lieu of a digital one. The digital renderings on a computer screen or projector weren’t getting them the reactions in meetings that they wanted, but perhaps a physical model could convince people of their vision, they thought.

They used Gigabot to print a basic architectural model of a Hive, and began taking it to meetings with investors and communities working on reconstruction. The physical model excited people in a way that digital drawings and renderings hadn’t.

Suddenly, in Velasco’s words, “everybody wanted to take the meetings, everybody wanted one.”

There was something about being able to turn a physical object over in their hands that clicked with people. The surge in enthusiasm over the model pushed the pair to continue driving forward and make the concept a reality. With the first hurdle crossed, they now had to bring their vision to life.

Building a Hive

HiveCube works with used shipping containers, lending a second life to  structures that would otherwise end up in container graveyards.

They buy a certified-as-seaworthy shipping container, verify that the container is structurally sound, and begin preparing it for its new life. The container is given holes for windows and a door, a fresh coat of paint, and the interior refurbished and outfitted with living fixtures.

The prototype Hive that they constructed for their August launch party is what will become their Basic Model: a two bedroom, one bathroom unit with a kitchen and living room in the center.

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They’re filling a major gap on the island that contributed to the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria: creating housing that’s code-compliant but also affordable for the general population.

“We believe in their concept: the fact that they’re bringing an architecture background to what they’re doing and are designing hurricane-resistant homes that can provide accessible housing,” Parallel18’s Arzola explains. “That’s really relevant to one of the big problems that appeared after the hurricane: the fact that the median income in Puerto Rico is low compared to the cost of housing. There is a need for more affordable options in the market.”

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Their goal is to create something that’s more than just a safe shelter. “We’ve been trying to make sure that we build something that’s actually nice to live in, not just something cheap and fast,” Velasco explains. “Something that people would want to own and they’re proud of and that they feel comfortable and safe with.”

The pride for their island shines through HiveCube’s mission to create safe, affordable housing for Puerto Ricans.

As Velasco puts it, “We’re going to try and build something that can actually help the community be stronger, if something like this – God forbid – happens again.”

On December 13th, HiveCube took home the People’s Choice Award at Parallel18’s Generation Five Demo Day, an award bestowed by an audience vote.

“It speaks to how relatable and relevant the solution is to Puerto Rico,” muses Arzola. “So yeah, we’re very proud.”

To stay in the loop with HiveCube’s progress and home releases, sign up for their newsletter at: www.hivecubepr.com
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