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3D Printed Echo Dot Holder Project
Amazon Echo Dot Holder Project
I want to share with you a 3D printing project that I completed for Amazon. This is a good example of a real-world end-use 3D printing product or 3D printed product. I want to share it with you because it’s a good example of not only designed to solve a problem in real time and truly rapid. This is not rapid prototyping, but rapid design and production and about using my own desktop 3D printers to create a full working sample. Also, to complete the design and communicate it to a production facility to make a larger quantity. I thought this is a great little story, a real-world example. I had to wait to publish because I wasn’t allowed to disclose the project until after this event happened that these products were needed for. I want to share with you all about this story. I have a relationship with someone who works at Amazon. I’ve known quite a few people that work at Amazon. It happened to be people in my networking circle have worked there over the years.
My main contact works in the Amazon Skills Department, which if you don’t know what that is, an Amazon Skill is it’s somewhere across between an app and an API and a driver for the Amazon Echo, which is their smart speaker. You have the normal Echo. They have the Echo Dot, which is the small one. They have the Echo Show, which is their new video one. It’s all about these smart speakers. It’s a very important department as you could imagine at Amazon because it’s their ecosystem. They were the first ones out there. They are the market leaders in smart speakers over any of the competitors that are out there. My contact reached out to me because she knows that I am an industrial designer. I know a lot about 3D printing. This was in mid-December of 2018. This was a very quick project where she called me up and said, “We have this event that we’re doing.” There was about three weeks from the first phone call to this event, which is a ridiculously short timeframe but I was very interested in this project for a number of reasons.
I decided, “Let me see what we can do. Let’s try to help you out with it.” Where they’re having an event, which is actually sponsored by Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon is a key partner on the Amazon Echo. They have their own skill or skills that they’ve created for certain ecosystem utterances. That’s what they talk about when they’re discussing certain phrases that the Echo listens for when you say Alexa. There are specific utterances that they program the Echo to hear and respond to and to perform a function back to you. They have some specific ones that are specific to Nickelodeon. In the case of Nickelodeon, their skills are specifically geared toward kids as you could imagine. Youths anywhere from probably six or seven years old up to a teenager. They sponsored this event. It was an event where they were going to give away 100 of the new Echo to these 100 kids that were invited to this event. This was in Ohio. They wanted a way for Nickelodeon to brand the event.
Since they’re giving away a 100 Echo Dots, Nickelodeon wanted to give them something that is going to support their brand and keep it in the forefront of all these kids. They decided what about creating an Echo Dot holder? I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the Echo and maybe have looked on Amazon and searched. Echo Dot holders are a thing. There are a lot of them that are manufactured and sold for people that have the Echo Dot. It’s either to make it look prettier or to present this technology in a different way that’s maybe going to be in a different harmony in your environment because the Echo Dot itself is a piece of technology. If you’re putting it on top of a fine piece of furniture or maybe I have a piano in my living room that is in a good location to put it. This technology looks a little funny on a nice piece of furniture like that. In the case of this event for kids, they wanted something that supported the Nickelodeon brand. I went and researched and found that there were all these different Nickelodeon logos. With a simple Google Image search went and found, there are lots of these splat logos. That’s what Nickelodeon likes to use to reinforce their brand.
There were a couple of them that are round in shape. These splats obviously look like they’re dripping and going out all over the place. They’re essentially round. Others are more oval or oblong and different shapes. They had some that I thought I could transform into a good-looking Dot holder. There are a lot of engineering things I had to consider including how the Echo Dot is a speaker. It has fabric all around the outside of it. That fabric in certain areas is porous. They are speakers and the sound has to come out. I had to consider some engineering issues of number one, the object I designed needed to fit the Echo Dot or the Echo Dot needed to fit within it. From a practical point of view, 3D printing it, there are some things I experienced that I want to share with you between the size in the CAD file and the size the 3D printer prints. There’s a good lesson there. I had to make sure that I left enough open space or spaces in my design so that the sound wouldn’t be muffled or impeded in any way. I had to consider the function of it because there are microphones on the very top of it. There are function buttons to mute it from hearing anything or increasing the volume or lowering it manually without asking Alexa to change the volume level.
There are physical buttons for increasing and decreasing the volume you can press on the device. Other things like that that had to account for. There was abstracting this splat logo to not be two dimensional, but how was I going to creatively make it three dimensional and perform its function of being a holder. I thought this is a pretty cool project. I’d like to do it. Even though I had to create this design literally in a week so that we could go and get it manufactured in a 100-piece quantity in time to make the event, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to spend. It was challenging. It’s something I wanted to do. I also thought my kids would like it. I was going to print some here and they would enjoy it. I’m going to take you through the process. I had to get an Echo Dot. Amazon, they sent me one immediately when we decided to do the project. I had it within two days Prime. I was able to physically measure the device. In order to make sure I did things properly, especially with the speaker, the sound coming out of it, I needed to tear it down. I found that some other people online had done some teardowns of the new Echo Dot. I didn’t have to tear it down as much as I thought I was going to. I learned from other people already doing that work.
It turns out this fabric on the outside, which I thought was covering very large speakers the whole way around was more for decorative purposes and making an aesthetic impression. The speaker openings, the outlets were only at the very bottom edge of the circumference of this Echo Dot. It was important to know where the sound was coming out. I didn’t obstruct that in any way. It was coming all out all around the bottom. That was easy. I decided I wanted to capture the entire Dot in this holder. I didn’t want it to be like a cup that you would drop the Dot into. I wanted to capture it. I created a design that is not only a receptacle but had for all practical purposes, a lid or a cover. It doesn’t cover the entire top of the Echo Dot but certainly does capture it. I needed it to be easy to assemble by the people at the event because I wasn’t going to be there. In fact, the people that hired me to do this job were not even going to be at this event. It had to be intuitive.
I ended up designing a cover that would snap together so that you had these 3D printed parts, they would come straight off the printer, no raft, no support. I had to make this ultra-simple for not only the manufacturing process. The cost didn’t get skyrocket high and be expensive for them because they had a limited budget for this promotion and also to make it easy and intuitive to work with. Another thing I had to account for is the Echo Dot on its side, there’s one particular location where you plug in the power cord and can plug in earbuds or a headphone of some kind. There’s a headphone jack I needed to leave space for access to that. The other thing I realized as I experimented and worked with this is all the Echo, the Dot or the normal Echo smart speakers, have a ring around them that this LED light turns on. When you say the name that’s going to wake up the object, the blue LED light comes on and it goes around in a circle.
I needed to make sure I left as much of that visible as possible so that people’s experience with the product was not going to change dramatically because of the holder. I had to keep that in mind. I began with the logo. I was able to bring it into my CAD program as a background image. It was the easiest way to deal with it. I tried to get an AI file, which was actual vector art from Nickelodeon. They are such a big company that it proved to be a bureaucratic nightmare to try and do it in our short time frame. I went with the plan of downloading an image from Google Images of the logo, putting the background image into my CAD file and tracing out the perimeter of the splat logo. I also traced out the lettering of the word Nickelodeon. Everything else I created my own geometry in my CAD program. I use Rhinoceros. That’s my primary or preferred CAD program. I proceeded to abstract that splat as the entire base. I’ve made it about three millimeters thick.
Along the sides, I decided to abstract it as if the paint had dropped onto the top of the Echo Dot and had splat and spread out. It was dripping down the sides of the Echo Dot. I created this geometry. It looks like paint dripping down the sides, pulling in, collecting at the base and then spreading out from there. That was the look I created. These drips are structure periodically, but there’s also lots of openings where you see through to the fabric of the Echo Dot and where the sound can come out. Two specific areas on either side of the top of the Echo Dot I brought that shape up to the top and then bridged it all the way across. I made it look like paint had dropped on the top of the Echo Dot and spread out. I created these negative spaces that look natural with the design but leave an opening for all these four buttons on top of the Dot and for the four microphones. It could certainly hear anything going on in the space. It’s on that very top piece where I put the word Nickelodeon.
At this point in the design, I had to think about color and the practicality of 3D printing this. Was I going to be able to use a full-color 3D printing process or do I need to use an FFF or FDM process? Was my color going to be limited by the available colors of filaments? Could I do a two-color print? Because the way all the Nickelodeons logos are, there’s one color in the background and then their lettering is a contrasting color. In this case, the colors we chose were orange for their primary logo is orange and then white for the lettering. I wasn’t sure these 3D print service providers, service bureaus, are going to be able to handle a two-color print because I’ve spoken with a lot of them and I’ve used some of them in the past. For the most part, they pretty much did one color printing. I decided early on I was going to find a way to make it work. I even considered printing all 100 of these on my own printers at one point.
After I came up with the design and printed some in my office and tested them out, I realized I did not have enough capacity and enough time to print all of these in time to ship them partially because there wasn’t enough time and partially, I was going to be away for a week. I’m not going to be able to run and print these in my office by myself. I needed to rely on a service bureau to get it done in time. I decided I’m going to find a way to make it work. Even if they don’t normally print two colors, I’m going to design this thing so that only one of the two parts had two colors. In this case, it was my cap that snapped on the top. It had two colors. It’s not the larger and main holder cup-like part, which is much larger. It’s going to take longer to print. I decided I’ll design this in a way so that if they aren’t able to print with a two-color or two-filament machine, they could program into their G-code to pause it at some point and change the filament to do the lettering.
The Engineering Aspects Of Design
This cap piece is small enough. I’m sure they were able to position at least ten or twelve on a build plate. You would have maybe a handful of machines, somewhere eight to ten in the process that they would need to print these caps on. Somebody paying attention, even hopefully programming it to pause at the right layer, switch that color and then print the lettering the rest of the way. I did make that assumption and I’m happy to say it worked. I was able to get a company. Finishing on the design, I want to talk a little bit about the engineering side of it. This is a good lesson for anybody who is embarking on a project where you’re creating a 3D printed and used part that’s got to mate with another manufactured product. I measured carefully. Like any industrial designer or engineer, I have some high-quality measuring tools that includes one of my most important tools is a set of digital calipers, which is a very precise measuring tool for any of you that may not be aware of it. It’s a small handheld tool. They’re about $100 if you were to buy one for yourself.
I find it to be an invaluable and critical tool so I could measure exactly what the specific height of the Echo Dot was, the diameter of it, and take all sorts of different measurements so that I could design my CAD model to fit it properly. Nominally, I’m going to say it’s about 100 millimeters in diameter and about a little more than 43 or so millimeters tall. As I created my design and accounted for all those spaces, I went to print some samples, test them, and make sure that they work properly, that the Dot fits in there. I always knew there were probably going to be some differences between my geometry and the actual product size. That it probably wasn’t going to fit exactly. It was going to be some trial and error. I went and printed and sure enough, the very first two or three that I printed, the Dot wouldn’t fit or the fit was too snug. I didn’t have enough tolerance between the 100-millimeter diameter of the object and the inside diameter of my cup that it was going to fit into.
Even though I understand about tolerance and I didn’t make my whole exactly the same inside diameter as the outside diameter of the device, I did leave a half a millimeter to a millimeter of tolerance there. Still, when it printed, it came out too small. What this points out is the accuracy of different 3D printers in that the dimension that you create in your CAD file is not always the exact dimension that prints out. Different 3D printers and all of mine are FFF filament 3D printers that are extruding the filament. In my case, I used PLA because it’s in an office environment. I don’t have a good exhaust fan system so I don’t use ABS much. When the 3D printer prints out the object and extrudes it out, there can be some differences. In my case, some significant ones of a couple of millimeters of difference. I had to keep scaling in two dimensions, the X and Y dimensions specifically. I had to scale it up a little bit to get to the point where the tolerance was right. I knew that this was going to become an issue when I produced it in quantity with an outside resource.
Once I got the overall dimension right then I worked on the mechanism that I was going to use to make this lid parts snap into the base part over the Echo Dot. I tried a few different methods. What I ended up coming to was an interference fit. First of all, I made almost like a lock and key shape where there’s a tab coming up from the bottom sides. The lid itself had almost a C shape part that would meet that tab. There was only one way for these parts to fit together. I made an interference fit of a little dimple, a negative space, a concave if you will. Then another convex one that was not line to line. I did leave some space and tolerance between them. There definitely was an interference fit so that when you put these two parts together, you need to snap it in place and that it would go theoretically over the center and snap in place. One method I tried at first didn’t work very well. My geometry was too small for the 3D printer to work the way I wanted it to.
I opted for a different one that worked right away. I was pleased it snapped in place. It could be removed and snapped back on multiple times. I’m sure the number of times you could do it is probably finite before things were out. I wasn’t how many times you could take these parts apart and put them back together. I’m sure they would wear out at some point. I wanted to make sure at least that you could take it apart and put it together a dozen times or so. I tested that and it certainly did work to be able to do that. I think that probably it might last being snapped together and pull apart maybe two or three dozen times. In the life of this thing, that’s probably more than acceptable. Why would you need to remove the Echo Dot from it multiple times? You might need to remove it once or twice if for some reason there was a problem with it or you were replacing the Echo Dot. I felt like it was more than reasonable to work that way.
Finishing The Project
I was also pleased that the process of 3D printing and unused part, the tolerance is tight enough that I could create that interference fit and mechanically it worked well. I was pleased with that. Now that mechanism was solved, I 3D printed to test the colors. A standard orange filament that’s available was a good color. The white was fine. I made it so that the entire lid portion, the main structure was a certain thickness. At the next layer, I had the lettering buildup from that for a couple of more millimeters. There was a point at which you could easily change the filament, print the rest, and get the right look of the contrast between the white lettering and the orange object. It was time to go and explore having 100 of them made in like a week’s time. It’s the reality of it because originally I was told, “We would need to receive them no later than Monday, the seventh of January because that was the day of the event. A couple of days later, they called me back and say, “We need to receive them the Friday before.” I’m like, “Great.” In order to get these things printed in time, I had to ship them out by the previous Wednesday so that would be received the previous Friday.
My timeline kept getting compressed. I had about a week to get these things manufactured. I’m talking to people and getting quoted that end of that week. I ended up talking to people trying to get this all done so that somebody would be able to start manufacturing these things. That was a little bit scary, I have to say. I first went to a local company in Pasadena, California, not too far for me, who I know and has printed some things for me. I thought, “They’re ideal. They can handle a lot of these things.” I know their printers have two filaments. They were running them all the time, they could probably do this. The reality is their staff was gone exactly during this time that I needed them printed. It’s a pretty small company. Some people were also sick during this time so that one ended up not happening. I reached out to another company who I believe in the Midwest. They’re in Minnesota or somewhere like that. It’s Slant 3D. I know they have their own machines that they developed that they print on. They print on FFF. They use PLA, which I thought was a very appropriate material given that this is a product for kids.
I reached out to Gabe who’s one of the key people there. He said, “I’m game. We may very well be able to get this done for you. Send me the geometry.” At first, I went to try to upload it to their website because they do have an automatic quoting system, but the file size of an STL you can upload, there is a limit to that. My file was larger than their limitations. I needed to email and send them Dropbox links with my files. They were game to do it, but I said, “I need two colors. I need this logo. Can you handle that?” They looked at my geometry and said, “Yes, we can handle that.” That was good. This is the other engineering and I would call specification lesson for something like this. Even though I created the geometry in the computer, according to the dimensions, if you measured all the dimensions are listed them was absolutely dead on what I needed to be printed, I still needed to provide them with some critical factors. I detailed for them, it’s like, “When you print your first sample, you’ve got to measure it very accurately. The inside diameter needs to be a minimum of this and can be a maximum of this.”
I gave them a range to hit a tolerance. They needed to measure that. The same thing with the interior height to fit the Echo Dot. It needed to be a minimum of a certain height but could be over that height by a little bit. For any of you that are maybe students, this issue of tolerance is an important one. Any manufacturer in the world and any part that you might manufacture, you want to give that manufacturer a tolerance meaning a range to hit. You can demand that a product be absolutely dead onto a specific dimension they need to hit. The more that you put that requirement on a product, the more expensive that product is going to be. It’s very hard for any manufacturer to hit an exact dimension every single time and not have a range of dimension that it can be. It means that they can’t have a range to hit. If they miss that target, they’re going to have more defects. That is a no when it comes to the reality of engineering and manufacturing of a product.
You’re going to need to have somewhat of an acceptable tolerance or a range of dimensions that can be made if you want to get a good price. Expect that a manufacturer is going to be able to do it in a reasonable amount of time and certainly at a reasonable cost. I did give them a range, but I was very specific. It’s like, “You need to make sure. You can’t trust the CAD file and that it’s going to print what it is.” The guys at Slant 3D have some good engineers there. They’re familiar with these things. They were able to measure and follow my instructions and meet those critical factors. They produced these products within a reasonable amount of time and at an acceptable price for the promotion. We required them to ship out via FedEx to get to the destination. I was very pleased with their level of service and with the quality of the product they produced. They actually sent me a time lapse video of one of them being printed. I have a lot of photos, not only for my own photos from making the samples but photos of the end products that got shipped to the event. A couple of photos of the event itself.
The Amazon-Nickelodeon Event
There were, unfortunately, more photos than I’m able to show you because we were not able to get releases and permission to show some of the kids’ faces who are using it. There are some photos from the event, but unfortunately, I can’t share some of the ones that the smiling faces of kids who were thrilled to get the holder with the Echo Dot. Trust me that they were very happy. It was a great event. It did happen. It got done on time. These things got printed in less than a week. I did have a little challenge with the filament. I’ve had received sometime in 2018 a swatch chain of all their standard filaments that they carry, which actually was a suggestion I made to them. They followed that suggestion and they’ve created it as a standard thing they send to potential customers so you can decide what color you want and see the actual material and not see it on a webpage where that color might differ from the reality of it. They had the perfect orange, but they didn’t have enough on hand to print all 100 of these.
In order to get it done in time, I had to agree and my client, because they ended up paying for it, Amazon had to agree to a pay a little bit extra to ship in some filament overnight for them to be able to have enough to do the whole job. It all was worth it. It ended up being within the budget. We were able to do that. This event in Ohio, it was an event for kids where they had 100 kids and their parents obviously coming into this event. They had all these tables and each table was one of these holders in front of every seat for every kid along with a business card, which spoke somewhat to the Nickelodeon skill. How they would use it and why they would want to use it? They were all told and explained that the holder was 3D printed to hold the Echo Dot. They played this game where all the kids were saying, “No way, that’s not true or that is true.” The Amazon people created an interactive story using the idea of the 3D printed Echo Dot talking about how it was made and these kids not believing it was 3D printed. They have a story they made out of it. The kids had a lot of questions and ideas about how to use the Echo and how it works.
In the end, they turned into this interactive story, like a Mad Libs thing which apparently was quite funny. Finally, they pulled away a curtain and there was this giant pyramid of Echo Dots that was revealed. All the kids in the room exploded and the families were excited and thankful that they were each getting an Echo Dot to go in this holder to take it home. It was a very successful event. It was fun to be a part of it. It was fun to do something. Even though it was a very short timeframe, but to be able to provide real value, it’s a great example of how 3D printing can be used, not just for prototyping but for an end use product and done it in a relatively short timeframe. You couldn’t have manufactured these things any other way. FFF 3D printing ended up being the ideal way to do it because the cost was very low per item. It ended up being around $20 total per item 3D printed with all things involved. It was nominally around $20 for both parts, maybe a little bit over. Shipping on top of that. It was reasonable enough so that Slant 3D made some good money on it. It was worth it to them to do.
I want to thank them for rising to the occasion and getting it done because they helped bring happiness to 100 kids and their families at this event. It was a great promotion for Amazon and for Nickelodeon. That all worked out so well. I don’t think there’s any other way I could’ve done it. Any other 3D printing process like powder bed fusion or any of the full-color processes. The items would have been much more expensive. It would have been prohibitively expensive to do the event. Amazon was willing to pay for. Nickelodeon was willing to pay for. I guarantee you this is great brand awareness for all those kids. I’ve talked about it with their friends. It was a successful event and project. I had a lot of fun doing it even though I had to do it in about one week. It’s a lot of fun. I hope that the story of this actual project is of interest to you and was a help to you perhaps as you consider some of your own projects and things that you might do a, I’ll be happy to answer any questions any of you have about the project.
If you know, I didn’t already answer them in my story, reach out to me anywhere on social media, @3DStartPoint or you can also leave a comment at 3DStartPoint.com. I’ve got a lot of images of the actual product and some from the event that would be of interest that I’m going to put a couple of screenshots from my CAD file, especially with that interference fit joint of the lid to the whole, the rest of the base of the holder so you can see that it will be a grayscale picture. I can show you the renderings I created and then photos of the real piece and don’t forget I’ve also got that time-lapse video that will be in there that you can check out as well. Thank you. I hope you enjoyed this episode. I’ll be back next time with another great episode.
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