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Get a sneak peek at how a product or design consultation goes with an on-air 3D design consultation of the puzzle toys created by Fleet Hower. He takes us step by step through his design and business process and we take him step by step through how his products and designs fit into the market he intends to reach. It’s a can’t-skip episode for those interested in knowing more about 3D print businesses, and especially desktop FFF 3D print businesses.
We’ve got what I hope you will agree is a real treat for you today. This is a departure from our usual interview episode, and it is sponsored by MakerBot. It’s not quite an interview, although we are going to be asking questions, but it’s more of you get a sneak peek into how we conduct a 3D design consultation or a product consultation, a product design consultation. If you’re a regular listener, you might remember about two months ago, maybe slightly over, there was an episode where we talked about 3D printed puzzle toys.
We got the founder/owner of that company, Fleet Hower, to agree to come on as a guest to our podcast. We’re asking him questions, but this is not your typical interview. We’re actually evaluating his product and his marketing plan, really all about what he’s doing with his 3D print based business. To get our advice for free, which we’ve given him our advice for free and you’re going to hear it because we’ve hardly edited anything out of this episode. It’s a long one because of it. It’s about an hour. He’s getting that advice for free for allowing us to share it with you, for him being open and honest about everything that he’s doing.
I just want to explain a little bit about what Tom and I do that you’re hearing here. We typically are hired as design consultants but what we actually do is much broader than that. That is really look at who are you selling to, what is your mission for your company, where do you want to go with your business and then seeing how your design and products fit within that. When we say design consultation, this is not like, how do we make this prettier? It’s really more of a business consultation or a marketing consultation combined together. Certainly, in this case, we’ve not designed his product and we are not going to. He is an architect/designer of his own and he has decided to go into business.
Let me just do a little background on Fleet. Fleet Hower is the designer and architect intent on transforming the way we think about and produce products that shape our lives. I love that mission. I think that’s really great. He is fascinated with digital design and physical production and leveraging the rapid changes of manufacturing technology. He has developed some things that you’re going to hear about, an adaptable and intelligent computational design strategy that interfaces with the physical fabrication. This is how he creates the puzzle portion. Anyway, his company is called Locknesters, as we said before.
This is certainly a fascinating interview experience that I think you’re going to have here if you’re at all interested in how others are doing business using 3D printing. This is desktop FFF 3D printing that he’s using in a practical way to produce consumer products. I think you’ll be fascinated with this. Boy, I just hope you enjoy this journey with us as we explore his product and try and help him improve the way he’s going to market and get it to market. Let’s listen to our talk with Fleet.
Listen to the podcast here:
On-Air 3D Design Consultation with Fleet Hower of Locknesters
Fleet, thanks so much for joining us on WTFFF today. We’ve been wanting to talk to you for a month or six weeks or something. Since we first saw your design of, I guess, it’s a bear. You have a couple others on your website I think. Since we were reviewing the product for our 3D print toy episode.
Great. It’s a pleasure to be here. You’re right, the bear is the first product that we’ve released. We’re wrapping up production and development on two others. They’ll be out early next year, February – March range of 2017.
Wonderful. You reached out to us after the episode. We thought we’d really do a little bit of an on air 3D product consultation. It’s one of those things that we do for our clients all the time and we thought that there’s just a few things that might make this product more successful in the marketplace. Having that discussion on air would help other people as well as help you.
Thank you for letting us allow our listeners to be a fly on the wall during this discussion. This is going to be a little different from our typical podcast interview but I think people will get a lot out of it. Tell us first a little about why you started this company and what your long term plan is.
I guess it goes back to … I was trained as an architect in graduate school. Graduated a few years back and was looking around at job opportunities as we do when we get out school. I knew I wanted to run my own office, wanted to have my own office eventually. Quickly realized that it would be very long road to get large scale building to missions and whatnot. I’d always had an interest in more product scale design and digital fabrication. Conveniently, that married with the ability to produce consumer level products and get them out and make money, would be much convenient than trying to get a commission for a whole building.
We know a lot of architects who feel the same way as you do. As they get out, they’ve worked so hard, studying in school and getting through all of that and then go, “This is not completely what I want.”
Exactly. I realized this scale of design work was something I could sink my teeth into quickly. I was fortunate to have some really fantastic instructors in architecture school that pushed me in the direction of digital design, computational design. It was just at the point when 3D printing, I guess the anticipation or excitement was on its way up, about to hit its peak. I dove in, took me a little while to design the first prototypes and they were extremely rough. I’ve just been over the process of time period of a couple years, been refining them continually to get them to the level that they are today. It’s been a long process. The initial seed was an interest in digital fabrication, digital design and the idea that maybe I could leverage those capabilities to be able to start an office at a young age and have some self-sufficiency there.
I think that’s a great path to take. I have to tell you, I feel for you. I actually went to college with the intention of studying architecture myself. When I got there, I discovered this thing called industrial design and ended up going that route with my education. Also, very soon after school was doing my own thing. Fortunately, Tracy, at that time, had a job with benefits. We were already married so I had the luxury of doing that. It’s very interesting. I tell others, trying to figure out how to make a living as rather less experienced designer of whatever type that you are early in your career.
I always think there is a fit for you in the marketplace in one way or another. Whether that’s as an architect or a designer or as you’re exploring an alternative to what you studied, the path in terms of design and product. There’s always a fit for a company that can’t afford the several hundred dollars an hour of a very seasoned experienced designer in the field but would rather pay the $50, $75, $100 an hour and is willing to accept what they’re going to get and some of the inexperienced nature of a young designer.
There’s always a fit somewhere. I really admire you’re going out and creating your own product and your own world. I think that speaks a lot about you as an entrepreneur, I’m impressed. That’s great, number one. What kind of questions do you have for us, Fleet? How can we help you best?
I’d love to get your advice with your backgrounds in industrial design and properly having a better overview of the 3D printed product landscape. I’d love to have your advice as to the market. I know I have some opinions about this, but the marketplace in terms of where the product might fit in and then more maybe on the nuts and bolts end. Just your reactions to the product, how you think it’s working and maybe ways to leverage it marketing wise.
Let’s start with the product because that’s a little easier to tackle, because the marketplace and the marketing is a bigger topic. We could go on a whole episode on that. We’ll have that discussion before we’re done today, but we could go down a big rabbit hole on that one. My first impressions of it are that the scale is great. It’s got a really nice scale. When we were reviewing it online and just looking at the picture, until we held it in our hand here, I didn’t imagine that scale even though the measurements were there. There’s still some amount of that that happens when you’re picturing it in your mind. It has a really large scale, which is super nice and surprising in a 3D print product because you transcended the build plate obviously. I think that that’s really great.
I think the weight of it, maybe a material choice that could happen, it could use a little more heft to it. Or weight, I think. We understand what it’s made of and why it is the weight that it is currently. I’m sure part of that’s the material, part of that’s the fact that there’s infill in here. It’s not solid because you needed to print at a certain speed. We get all that.
The weight quality surprised me a little. I think the American market tends to equate value with weight. That’s unfortunate at times. I also do think it is a reality. That’s just something to consider. It’s not a must have. There are some weighted materials. There are some materials that have actually a heavier weight to them and substance to them, they’re pricey. Then again, here, this is not a cheap product that you’re making here. This is not an inexpensive little toy. This is as much of a conversation piece as it is a toy.
In the original podcast, you had this discussion about weight. I realized what a good point that was. I think the one I sent you was just under 20% in fill. I’ve doubled that effectively for some that I’m producing now. It does, it makes a big difference. I think that’s spot on. The idea of having a little more gravitas, I think it really helps it.
It does seem a little bit unstable, sort of feels like it’s going to tip over. Tom’s bumped it a few times and it rocks a little bit. It might be a little bit of a maybe offsetting of the gate of the foot position might help it a little bit or something like that. Just an observation on it. It’s one of these things. It’s going to constantly get bumped on a table and fall off, especially if you got kids running around or other things. Just thinking about if there’s ways at which you can make a minor design change and help that stability a little bit.
That doesn’t bother me as much, honestly though. It’s not that hard to tip over. I don’t think it’s the end of the world. Could it be improved? Sure. Yeah, it could. To me, I want to talk about the surface appearance of the product. To me, there’s some really interesting things going on here. First of all, I like that there’s a couple of different colors and material being used. There’s primarily black material and then one that’s more grey. I think that’s fun, especially it plays up on the different puzzle piece nature of it. It highlights some of that. I think it wouldn’t be as successful if you hadn’t done that. I think that was a really smart choice on your part.
Clearly, you can see that this is printed on an FFF 3D printer, where you can see the layer lines and all that. You’ve really taken the product and it looks like you’re using some sort of a polishing compound and you’ve buffed it for sure, I would imagine, on a buffing wheel of some kind, that gives it a more glossy appearance. Also, it transforms the plastic. It takes you away from the typical quality of plastic that is 3D printed.
I think that the really surprising thing compared to the way that it looks online, and this is part of our marketing challenge that we can talk about in a few minutes, is that you have a quality of finish here that’s pretty impressive. It transcends plastic. You’re like, “What is this material? I have to know.” It feels like plastic in its weight, but it doesn’t. That’s another thing. Solving that weight problem will fool them even more, which is a very cool place to be because now it’s really is a conversation piece.
The weight problem, that’s the easy side of it. The surface finish took a long time to develop. It’s actually the white patina, which I think you’re referring to, is a result of barrel tumbling. They’re printed and then the supports are sanded and then the pieces are barrel tumbled for about a day. Kind of like slow cooking a piece of meat.
The plastic is not terribly durable as you know, so you tumble it kind of with a media, abrasive media, do it for a long time. The white residue there is what’s known as bond, which is the material that holds the ceramic together in the tumbler. That actually comes off on the pieces and gives the pieces that patina. That can be controlled by according to how much water you’re using in the tumbling process. I’ve chosen to leave a lot of the patina on so that you get that wood grain quality. I don’t know if it’s wood grain but …
I think that’s a good choice.
That was a great choice. Barrel tumbling, that interests me because that’s something we experimented with in our early days of 3D printing. Didn’t have a lot of good results, but I think that there are so many variables in barrel tumbling.
The aggregate material that you’re using, if you’re willing to show that, I think would be very interesting to know.
I’m just using, it’s a pretty straightforward ceramic cylinder and then it’s combined with just some water and that’s it. It’s in a pretty large barrel, it’s about a ten gallon barrel. You’re looking at 35 to 40 of media. I can get about four, five bears in each load.
Wow. They’re also bumping against each other and that’s helping in as well. I see. Fantastic. When you pull it out of barrel, aside from cleaning off any loose dusty residue, are you doing anything else to it?
They’re in really bad shape when they come out. The white residue, this bond, it basically covers the entire piece and they need to be cleaned up. They actually get a second tumble, which is in walnut shells. I guess you would characterize it as a medium grit walnut shell. That buffs the pieces for another eight to ten hours. That reduces the residue that’s covering the pieces and you’re left pretty much with the patina that nestled in those build lines. They come out of that process and they’re extremely dusty and then they get wiped down and they get finished with urethane top coat.
You do put a urethane coat on it. You know what I really love about it is that the lines are still coming through. In fact, you’ve almost enhanced them by creating the white, but you don’t feel them. That’s the difference. You see the print lines coming in but you don’t feel them.
The feel has always really been my concern. The look of the patina is a pleasant surprise. When I was setting out, my assumption was it was really the feel that was going to get the product more on the consumer level.
Wonderful. You’re really putting quite a bit of labor and process into this. To me, this is one of the ironies of this as a 3D printed product from what people would expect. They think, “Oh, it’s just a file. I’m going to print it and then I’m going to clean off any, if there’s any supports or whatever is there. Then I’m done.” Honestly, in a lot of the designs that we do, that’s what we’ve tried to do, is to make it so there’s the minimum amount of labor going into it because obviously the cost of that labor. You’ve taken something that’s clearly, it’s a modern design product in CAD, printed with modern technology of 3D printing, but then you’re going into it with quite a bit of process and labor after the fact, which takes it away in feel and quality and impression I guess from this highly technical type of product.
This is something that I had no idea I was going towards. My background was really in digital design and computational design, not really in the hardware or the physical world as much. I wanted to get the product to a level that I could sell to an everyday consumer. I’ve just been pushing, pushing, looking for new techniques that have primarily focused around finishing the product. I looked at some chemical techniques. I was never really interested in those because I don’t want to be around that many chemicals quite honestly. You’re right, most of the labor, almost all of the labor and the pieces go into the finishing. Most of the hand labor is sanding the support sound and then the urethane that comes by hand at the end. In between those two is the tumbling process. That’s where most of the time is.
I don’t want to get quite into the market yet. I’m going to tread lightly toward that. I just have one more comment on the lines and everything. One of the areas that I think is the most successful is down on what would be his left leg. When you turn it around to the back, you see that the print lines are going in a different direction. I really love that. I think that that’s really an interesting … They have a little bit more diagonal quality. I’m sure it’s the way that it’s positioned on the plate so that’s how it’s printing. That is something you should definitely work when you design new designs, work towards making sure that you work that in. Not trying to have all the lines line up. Keep them in a variety like that. I think it actually makes it most successful.
It gives it that sense of, and you know this being an architect, when you bring in natural materials, whether it’s leather with their grain or it’s wood. When you start to bring that in, there’s this variety that naturally happens in it. When people are going to be looking at this and going, “What is this material,” and this curiosity, having that little bit of mixed up directionality helps it even more in terms of creating that mystery level of, “How is this made? I want to know more.” That’s going to serve you well going forward.
That’s a great comment. Thanks. That’s not something I thought a lot about.
That’s actually one of the first things I noticed as well. Just for our listeners, you’re probably hearing some things on the background on my microphone because I keep playing with it, taking them apart as we’re talking here. I’m experiencing it more. Let’s talk about that labor has a cost to it. I don’t want to completely go down the retail road yet. It really is related to what we’re talking about. The design has a cost too. That’s one of the things that I just wanted to go into because this took you a lot of hours. Do you have an estimate as to how many hours it took you to design and refine it?
Do you mean from beginning to start or just the design work, as in the digital part?
No, from beginning.
Whether it’s on paper sketching to the computer and also trial and error. Because in order to get to a final product that is sellable, all of that is required in order to get there. Even if it’s a guess-timate, do you have a sense of it?
The bear is pretty simple, his five pieces as you know. The fewer pieces the models have, that dramatically reduces the design time. The bear I would say, two, two and a half weeks. I create the models, I create the bear first and then there’s actually an algorithm that I’ve written that creeps across the surface of him and divides him up into pieces. That’s less evident on the bear that has five pieces, more evident on some of the others that have more pieces. There’s a back and forth series of trials where you’re prototyping, you’re printing, you’re checking for fit, you’re adjusting, reprinting, checking for fit and so on and so forth.
I’d say the bear took about two weeks to get to this point in terms of design. The finishing process, now that I have it developed, it’s something I can use on many products. The original development of the finishing process took a long time, I’d say that it took about six months of looking around on the market and trying to find equipment.
That make sense.
Now that that’s in place, that’s transferable to the other models. Thank God.
That’s fairly typical. You’re talking about two, two and a half weeks, you’re talking about maybe 100 hours’ worth of design time and maybe another 100 hours’ worth of fit and finish and overall. Because even when you take what you’ve learned from your finishing, each object will have some difference that you have to work out.
More or less, I’d say that those are good estimates.
But then that finishing process as you said, that is something that you’ll use for a long time to come. That’s great.
That’s certainly the plan.
Now, I want to ask you a question about something you just said. You said you have an algorithm that divided up the bear. Are you telling me that the shape of each of these puzzle pieces was something that was created by an algorithm?
Yes. Again, this is …
You should see our faces. It was just like shock of surprise here.
You know what, I can send you some images of some of … The most complex puzzle I’ve created is, it’s a bust of George Washington. He’s about 200 pieces. I’ve only created one. It was a ton of printing time. When you look at the models that have a lot of pieces, you can see that the connection types remain similar. There are three connection types that the pieces use. They have a flow to them in the way they flow down the model. All of the models are built from the feet to the head. They all have an order. All of those things are the result of an algorithm that basically it crawls over the surface of the mesh and it tries to create one of three types of connection.
One is the standard male to female puzzle piece connection we think of. One would be I guess best described as two female connections and then the third is a clamp connection where one piece wraps around two other connections for two other pieces. Not to get too into the weeds here, but the algorithm does a lot of that and it helps keep the consistency of the geometry the same across the piece. It keeps the design qualities pretty cohesive across the entire puzzle. That’s a little less evident on the bear. It’s more evident on the models with more pieces.
Interesting. That’s very cool. One of things that occurred to me when I first saw it was that, it didn’t seem locked in enough. That was like the first impression of it, but as I started playing with it, I realized, “Wow, they really are actually fitting in really nicely.” Now, that makes a lot more sense to me, now that you’ve described that.
The bear is hollow inside. It looks to be roughly about a centimeter thick at its minimum. I know there are others that are thicker than that and actually some that are probably thinner. Overall, that’s about one centimeter it looks like, wall thickness. There’s a cavity inside this bear so it’d be an interesting place to hide things if you wanted to. It’s interesting because we’re actually, in our family, not in our business but in our family, we’re puzzle enthusiasts. Everything from jigsaw puzzles, old school jigsaw puzzles like on a rainy day type of thing, or actually physical 3D puzzles. My family has had one, gosh, since I was a little kid. We talked about it in the original episode. The polar bear.
That polar bear is famous in our family because all the kids, when there’s a family gathering of any kind, whether it’s somebody’s birthday or it’s Thanksgiving or something like that, some kid inevitably just takes this polar bear off of our mantle over our fireplace and wants to take it apart. It’s a much more difficult puzzle to assemble. Three, four or five year olds can’t do it. They ask for help and adults help them do it. They just don’t have the dexterity in your hand to hold all the pieces together until the last one locks in. Or I think even the intellectual capacity to understand the orientation of how the parts need to be and to figure it out. It takes someone being eight to ten. Even into teenagers, some people struggle with how to do it. That’s some of the fun of it as well.
When I looked at this product online at first and now that we got it, as a puzzle piece, as the idea of a puzzle toy and the assembling of it being something that … When I think of a puzzle, I think of something that is not so obvious how it goes together. It takes some 3D visualization and spatial understanding in your brain and then trial and error to try to figure out. This bear puzzle on that level to me is very simple in terms of … As you said, it constructs from the bottom up. It’s somewhat obvious or more I would say than some of the other 3D puzzles that we’ve used, how it goes together. It’s not as big of a challenge, I guess, into how you put it together. I don’t know if that really was a goal of yours or it really was not important. Is it just visually, it’s supposed to be intriguing as a puzzle but not necessarily challenging? I guess I’d mention your thoughts on that.
The first puzzle I designed was a dog and he had 27 pieces. I gave that to some friends and it took a long time for them to figure out how to put the puzzle together. I realized that the difficulty level is a bit exponential because the pieces are so abstract. If you go from 27 to 12 or 13, it’s much, much, much easier. If you bring that down to five. It’s much easier than that. The line I’m developing with the dog and the dinosaur will have a five piece puzzle, which is this bear. There’s a ten piece, which will be the puppy and a 20 piece, which is the dinosaur. They get successively tougher.
I got to the point that I really wanted to get one to the consumer level. The bear seemed to make the most sense because it seemed to have the most general appeal partly because it was fewer pieces but also because it was frankly just easier to prototype in large numbers when I was working through the finishing process because it has five pieces. Now that he’s to the level of being out in the world, I’m getting the dog and the dinosaur ready. They get much, much harder as they go along. You’re right, the bear’s very straightforward to put together. I’m hoping that line of three will have a nice cross section.
That makes a lot of sense. It does. I think this would appeal to a much younger person and then you can step up as you enjoy it and want to have more challenges. As an assortment from easier to more difficult, I think makes a lot of sense. Let’s head into marketing from there, because this is really where we start, where Tom’s question is really going to. When you’re talking about someone who’s a puzzle enthusiast, for instance, if that’s your target market, then this one may not be so successful.
Of course, having this collection of three though, may very well be because now you’re talking about a grouping, a gift program of giving to somebody three really progressively more difficult puzzles. Wonderful. Thinking about that, when you’re talking about who that target consumer is, especially when, and correct if I’m wrong, but I think it’s $120 for the bear online.
You’re not talking about an inexpensive gift. This is a gift you give to someone. It’s an object you buy to make a statement in your home. Who is that profile customer? Have you identified them?
That’s a great question. I’ll preface this by saying this is an area that I know very little about. I have, in the past, know nothing about. I’m learning by doing here. The market I’ve identified thus far are individuals, generally 25 years and older that are typically designers or interested in design objects. They’re in one designer toy store, a great designer toy store. Then several home décor stores and one upscale mens store. I’m selling primarily to people that are in design related fields and that are between the ages of 25 and 55. I know that’s a broad, very broad demographic.
No, it makes a lot of sense. I understand it. I think that, as I think back on my life, I had several people, relatives or close friends of the family, who were the type of people who would buy this type of product and might have given it to me if it were around. One, we always called my Uncle Frank and he actually was my great uncle, who was not just my uncle who was not a designer but he definitely appreciated really unique designs and objects and was always buying me and even gave us, as a wedding gift, a unique pseudo toy, pseudo precious quality object as a gift. I see this being having more of that boutique quality and being in that genre.
This is what I just want to mention so that our listeners, as well as you, this is the issue with, when we do 3D design consultations, they tip into marketing so quickly. In fact, we start there. I think this is a major point not to be misunderstood because you’re succeeding but doing it backwards from how we would recommend it. We would say, know who your market is first and design to it. You may succeed despite yourself doing it the other way because it’s much more easy. But it’s riskier. It’s much riskier and much more easy to make mistakes and fail doing it the way you’ve done it.
Just so people understand where we come from is that, seven out of ten products fail in the marketplace. That’s probably being really generous. It’s probably closer nine out of ten. In my experience, especially when you’re talking about stuff that’s being sold on Amazon and stuff that’s being sold online. The big failure of it isn’t always the design or the invention or how cool it is. It’s a misfit between the market and product itself. It’s a misfit in either where it’s sold, how it’s sold, how it’s marketed, how it’s priced might be a misfit as well.
Overall, that’s the problem in the marketplace and why there is such a high failure rate. We have the reverse of that. We have an 86% success rate. We almost have nine out of ten that succeed. The very few that haven’t succeeded, there was like a major market shift colossally. Something big happened. We feel that we have a formula for how we develop. It doesn’t make us any less successful in terms of design, it just where we decide to focus our time and energy is where we know we can be more successful. That’s how we filter through design ideas.
Design ideas might come to us and we say, “Yeah, that would be great. But if we’re going to sell that on Amazon, that won’t work. Let’s table that one and maybe we’ll find a marketplace for it later.” We’ve done a few episodes on it, we call it our discard pile. We have set of playing cards and you discard your ideas really quickly into the discard pile. They may come back up and be the perfect match in your hand later, they just aren’t the match right now. We don’t throw away ideas, we just set them aside.
The issue is, is when you’ve come up with something very cool and very interesting and great and now you have to find a market fit for it. That’s a whole lot harder. It’s also much more expensive. That’s where a lot of companies fail. It’s not that the product’s not great, it’s not that the market fit isn’t great, it’s the fact that you have to get into that market and the access to that market can be very expensive and difficult to reach or limited audience.
The great things you have going for you is you didn’t have to spend a ton of money on an inventory like many companies do because they have to traditionally manufacture it. From that perspective, you’ve done yourself such a favor in being able to access that type of market. That’s what I think you’re doing here. A designer store market, home décor is perfect. I think you want to narrow your age gap lower. Not that it won’t appeal higher, but I think you want to think …
Let me say it this way. I think you want to be selling to that 25 plus market, but it’s not necessarily intended for them. It may be intended to be given as a gift to a younger person who could not afford it. Exactly, who might not be able to afford it. You want to have that appeal stay there but probably your audiences will actually be older who are purchasing it, the ones with more buying power, baby boomers right now have tremendous buying power. The home décor store, I think West Elm, that type of décor level, it’s perfect for that. Its pricing is high but that doesn’t matter in that particular store because people are going and buying wedding gifts and different things like that.
When you think about it from a gift giving perspective, it needs to be positioned in a place at which it gives it the value that it deserves and it doesn’t downgrade it. Online is a terrible place to sell this product. You’re going to be challenged. Unless somebody has already seen it physically at someone else’s house or in another store and they’re just being told, “Oh, you can go get it online at LockNesters.com,” great.
They’ll do that but it’s going to be very hard to communicate the value proposition online. It doesn’t matter how many videos you throw at or how many good photos or testimonials you have, this product requires a touch. It requires being physically down the store, which is another irony of a 3D printed product and digital on demand inventory, is that you think, “Hey, I don’t have to have stock,” but I would argue you do have to at least have some shelf stock. You need to use as many stores as possible as showrooms. Even if they’re ordering it to be made on demand and delivered later, they’ve got to see it and touch it.
Another set of stores that I would go after would be museum stores. To me, this is not far off. I’m interested to see the dog and the dinosaur. We think the dinosaur might be even more of a good fit for what I’m going to suggest. If you don’t have somebody trying to sell these into a museum or modern art gift shop or the Metropolitan Museum of Arts and Dinosaurs … Science and technology. All the sorts of science type stores, that should be a big market.
What is that line of science gift types stores that’s out, that’s kind of a mall chain? It’s high end. The Discovery Science store, that’s it. There’s a whole for those. There’s a whole level of catalogs and store channels. That’s the focus, that would be great. The price point is not out of range there. The thing that you do have to think though, and I’m really hoping your margins are in that, $120, its wholesale is you’re talking about probably 50 bucks or $60 at most. It’s a challenge.
This is great advice. I think in the previous podcast, I was, at that point, I was selling them for a bit lower. The whole reason there is because initially, and this speaks exactly to what you were just saying, I was thinking, “Oh, I’m going to sell this online. It’s going to be great. I can sell them for less.” I’ve realized that they do okay online but when I go to stores and I get them in people’s hands, if I get them into the buyer’s hands, they really do a lot, lot better than any email interaction. You’re totally right about needing to get them into people’s hands.
The flip side of that is, I’m selling it wholesale. The $60 is my wholesale price. It’s working. It’s obviously very nice when I sell a couple online because the margins are very different. I had to adjust the price because I’ve realized over the last couple weeks that long term, it’s really in wholesale. Really because of everything you’ve just been saying, needing to have them in stores, needing to have them in from of people, people playing with them in person and they decide to buy them.
The thing about it is that it’s a great way to move into building your brand. You’re too new right now and 3D printing doesn’t have a home right now. It needs to be, in our mind and our experience with it, is that when an object can fit right on the shelf next to something else that is not 3D printed and that’s not the question that they ask, that’s the, “Wow, this is so cool. Look, it is 3D printed.” It’s the a-ha after they’ve picked it up and played with it and decided to buy it already.
That’s when you’re building your brand. Then they’re going to start coming to you as like, “What’s the new one that you’re going to launch next? I want to be first on your mail list.” Now, you’ve built your brand and your audience and your fan base, but you have, in your case, you have to build it by getting them in as many hands as possible, by getting them to pick them up and touch them.
Right. That’s what I’m trying to do right now. It’s a lot of legwork, a lot of visiting stores, sitting down with people. To your point, the conversation, it doesn’t really turn to what we’ve been talking about in terms of manufacturing and production. Most buyers are less interested in the production means than what the product is and how it’s designed. I think that’s been a place that I’ve been happy about to get to, to be able to take the product into a store and not have it always come back to, “Oh, is this 3D printed? Oh, we understand this,” but instead have the conversation be about, “Is this a fit for the store? How does it sit with our other inventory?” That kind of thing.
Exactly, that’s perfect. So now that we’ve had a little discussion about the market and this product, now I want to come back to one other detail about the product we didn’t talk about before. I think we’re doing this in the right order. This is not an accident. I want to talk about your packaging of your product. This is something that it’s not easy to understand, looking at your website. Because when this product arrived to us in the mail and I opened up the package, I was completely surprised. I had not seen the package, I didn’t understand it, went back and looked at your website and said, “Oh, I guess there is a picture of something in the package,” but it does not do the package justice looking at the photo on your website.
That’s good to know.
The packaging, it appears to be, and I’m making a couple of educated guesses here, just being an industrial designer, it looks like you actually have thermoformed this package uniquely around the individual product, is that fair?
Yes. It’s a mold, it’s vacuum formed around the mold.
A mold that just happens to be the same size as the product.
Basically, the only difference is the mold doesn’t have any undercuts in it. It’s like a 200s of an inch offset in terms of size from the actual product.
It’s a very cool package. It’s essentially a rectangle that’s, gosh, got to be about fifteen inches tall and maybe eight inches wide. But then it’s a formed plastic sheet that has foam on the inside and it protects the product incredibly well. The plastic it’s formed off is white, and then the black extrusion, rubber, like a U shaped or a C shaped that captures the front and back piece together. That’s your package. Really cool. I understand, as an architect, your design sensibilities and why you’d want to do that. It is unique, for sure. The retailers probably hate it. It’s not only the retailers that will not like it, it’s the consumer. Because I’m giving this as a gift. Wrapping that is going to be an impossible task.
You have to head into more of a box situation for mass market retail, especially retail stores. I’m going to recommend you take a look at a past episode we have. You may or may not have seen it. She’s an architect as well, Jenny Woo, and she did jewelry. She had some beautiful boxes that were created out of wood. They had interesting nest shapes inside that held her 3D printed metallic jewelry. It’s a way to still keep the coolness that you have but create something that nests the product that way that you have here. But it creates something that is more appropriate for a gift, more appropriate for a higher price point. That’s another issue.
Where I was going with part of this was to find a place where Fleet could recover a little more margin in what he’s doing. I wasn’t saying you should make it a box out of wood. I’m just saying look at the way that she’s done it because I think there’s some interesting ways to think about packaging at a higher price point, at a higher end product.
Here’s the thing, I think that a lot boutiques, the package has nothing to do with why someone’s going to buy it. They’re going to buy it because of the package, the package is sort of an afterthought. Maybe that’s fine. If you end up getting in the museum stores, you’re going to have to have some stock on the shelf.
They just can’t seat these things on a shelf in any manner that’s going to be efficient to their … They always think about the dollars per square foot of shelf space or floor space they have in their shop. You’d have to keep this all in back stock and only have one sample out for display. Or they would throw the packaging away all together. That’s what they do with certain types of figurines. They throw the packaging away all together and they only set the objects out and then basically what happens is that someone who buys it as a gift would have it gift wrapped by the store, into their own box.
Your boxes aren’t even being seen, which is a problem because I think you have a little flyer piece in there as well. The card’s in here about how to assemble it and then there was another card with the info of the company. You want to nest that inside your bear just in case. To me, if you want information to get to your customer, if they’re all hollow like that, that’d be a nice surprise, interesting place to put them. I know you probably might think of it as selling out or being too commercial or too conventional.
But I think at some point you’re going to have to think of a more practical package that is a box of some kind that can help tell a little bit of the story of the product and why it’s so wonderful, but also just makes it more practical for retail. There’s beauty in the package but I also think it’s costing you probably more than it needs to. It will hurt sales overall. Eventually, yeah.
I think that’s all fantastic feedback. The big thing I’ve heard from retailers is their method of displaying. It’s not so stackable. I provide a small, it’s not a rack but a base that they’ll sit vertically in for the retailers. They like that okay. The boutiques don’t have any problem with the packaging but I think it’s exactly as you say. I’m starting to try to do business with larger companies. I think it’s starting to become more of an issue there. It is expensive.
The packaging is a labor of love, it takes a lot of effort. I’d certainly be able to save some labor and material there. The original idea for it was, as you could probably guess, originally they were in a box and they would ship and the pieces were completely apart. The idea is to be able to ship the product and have the consumer open the product and see it assembled. This was the solution I came up with. I’m always trying to tweak that and look for new solutions of a way that I might be able to do that in a way that’s awesome or retail friendly, I would say.
I think you can assemble the product and wrap it in something inside a box that keeps it together and gives it a little bit of a separation or cushioning from the sides of a box, whether that’s tissue paper or it could be bubble wrap or anything. There are ways and maybe more creative ones. Look, we respect the design intent of alternative packaging. We did it ourselves in our very first business with our stylus pens for handheld computers. We shipped the pen, it was in clear plastic tube with these bright colored stoppers in the ends and we wrapped the instruction sheet and information piece in a cylinder. That’s what you saw through the clear and the pen was in the middle.
It was the coolest pen packaging ever. When we actually were starting to ship to retail instead of online direct to consumers, that’s when retail rejected that more fun creative packaging. We went to blister pack. We had to sell out, if you will, to something more practical. Because they needed to see it. It is the practicalness.
This is not trying to get people to hire us or anything like that. This is where you do need an expert. You need an expert who understands retail packaging. We have a client who came to us recently and they made a mistake in the dimension of their product. It is basically one inch off. Because of that, they cannot ship Amazon because their whole packaging and everything is one inch too large. It puts them into oversized.
These are the rookie mistakes that can cost you tons of money in long run in either not getting the placements that you should or costly reduce and time that you’ve lost as well as money to redesign something, repackage it, rebuild your inventory in that particular case. You’re luckier, you’re a lot more flexible. If yours was a little bit off height, you could readjust it and it would be fine. Not everyone is. This is where an expert consult is necessary, whether it’s just a consult to review the design ideas, a few hours of somebody’s time, it is worth the money to spend because you will make so many less mistakes and you will be more likely to succeed. The second thing that I’m going to recommend for you is a, and I will make this introduction to you offline, is a consultation with a sales rep who sells into these types of boutiques.
That’d be amazing.
It sounds like, “Oh, I’m going to be giving margin away with the sales rep.” Two things, one is you don’t need to be doing this. It’s not your day job. Your day job is building this business and this company and more designs and more brand. You need somebody who’s out there repping, who understands this. This is the biggest mistake that we have found for those inventors who try to do it themselves or those designers who try to do the product themselves.
When they go in to represent themselves in retail, it takes about three times longer than your average sale to get closed and get into retail because of the rookie errors that they make. One of the big issues is, is there’s a hierarchy that happens. There’s a buyer, an assistant buyer structure that happens in a company. If you don’t understand it, if you don’t understand the time cycle of when they reset their shelves, when they want to have holiday products on time and the build-ins that you have to have into your cost structure for displays.
All of those things are something that a sales rep who sold into these stores has experience with, can advise you on and you go in there with all that smart information and you don’t make those mistakes. We have seen people who thought that they were all on set, ready to get into Bed, Bad & Beyond and they were really happy with the product and the buyer loved it. Then email after email and all of this information exchanged and a whole cycle, a whole year went by, with no response back from the buyer or anything.
What ended up happening was that she was emailing the buyer something that was supposed to go to the assistant buyer. Basically, the buyer was like, “This is not for me,” and just deleting it, not realizing that the assistant buyer was never copied on it or it was never directed to the right person. Their job, they feel, is not to educate you on how to work with them. Your job is just to make it easy to work with them. She was getting penalized because she was a rookie. It cost her a whole year of time. That is just, in retail world, that’s millions of dollars.
Obviously, I’m just diving into this world. I think all of those points you hit on are areas where I could certainly use help. I think for me, the point that you just made that sticks out the most is that my time is probably best well spent on the design end of things. At this point, I’m a small operation and I’m also spending a lot of time visiting stores. Luckily I live in New York, which is an advantage. I can do that. There are a lot of stores here. I think in order to grow, I want to use somebody else’s expertise that’s in that space so that I can use my expertise on what I’m good at.
It’s not just the fact that you won’t visit those stores, you absolutely will, but you need to do the important one when you’re convincing the buyer to pick up the product and how well designed it is and when they need to meet the designer in person. You don’t need to sit in the meeting when they’re talking about inventory and how many they’re going to need and what product flow is going to be. You need somebody else to handle that for you.
You need to be able to come in at a higher level. Designers involved in sales meetings is a really important thing. They can help close the deal, it helps bring credibility to the product or the project in a different way, that a real sales rep or sales professional can be seen as, “They just want to sell me anything.” You come in and you end up giving the buyer more confidence. Eventually, if this is going to grow, you have to get out of being the chief everything officer.
I totally get that.
It’s also perception level, especially when you’re selling a higher end design, is the perception level is that you are this wonderful designer and you’re very busy and you have a company working for you. You need to have a bigger presence and having that distance of someone, a middle person in between you and that actually helps you in perception.
Those are great. That’s great advice, thanks.
I just have one more detailed question about the 3D printing of these parts. Do you mind sharing what actual 3D printers you’re using? I think some of our audience would be interested in that.
One of the printers I’m still using is one of the original ones I bought back in 2013. They’re all Rep 2s, MakerBot Rep 2s. Great, very simple, straightforward. I love the Rep 2s because you can rebuild them in ten, fifteen minutes, which I’m doing a lot. They’re easy to get into, they’re easy to replace. My one growing concern with them is it’s becoming harder and harder to find replacement parts, third party parts online. I’ve got a bunch of machines that have 6,000, 7,000 hours on them now and they’re still going strong.
Wow. There’s got to be a market there for some companies. Hey, note to any of you manufacturers or people who are wanting to do more business in this industry. Because I hear this a lot, especially from people in Brooklyn it seems. There’s a lot of people using those older Rep 2s.
Good. Thank you so much for sharing with us. Do you have any last questions for us?
Not off the top of my head. I really appreciate the advice you gave me. I appreciate the time you’ve taken to really delve in to the product. I was shocked on the initial podcast, that level of discussion you got into, that was truly gratifying. On the business end, I really appreciate your thoughts there and a lot of what you’re speaking to is right, gets right at what I’m dealing with right now. Thanks for your advice.
We’ve been there, done that. We absolutely know where you are. We’re glad we could help and we do appreciate your coming on and being willing to share your experience and what you’re doing with our listeners. I think it’s going to be very valuable for many of them, not just now but in the future. Because people listen to this, discover the podcast months in the future and then go back and listen to episodes.
I’d be surprised if this doesn’t become one of our more popular episodes because so many people really want nitty-gritty details of practicality of what they’re going to deal with as they’re going into business involving 3D printing in some way. We’ve actually found some people resistant to want to share the realities of it. The fact that you’re being open about it, I don’t it, in any way, is going to jeopardize your business, but you’re going to help so many more people. Thank you for that.
Thank you. This has been really fantastic. I really appreciate the time.
On-Air 3D Design Consultation – Final Thoughts
I got to tell you, I think for me, that was one of the most fun times I’ve had interviewing somebody because we weren’t just interviewing him, we were also just doing what we love to do every day published here. I think what gets me out of bed in our business every day, it gets me going, it’s not just this podcast, which I love to do and I love to learn new things every week. I am fascinated by that. That’s not enough to sustain me. It’s this idea of how I can really help get 3D printed products to market, how I can make that happen. That’s what gets me really jazzed. Every day, having an opportunity to do that just excites me even more.
I was also fascinated to learn from a practical, technical side, how he’s taking 3D printed parts and post processing them to finish them in an automated way, with the barrel finishing and some of those details. Wow, fantastic.
It may have sound like we were being a little bit nitpicky, which we are and that’s our job to be. Because at the end of the day, for something to sell on its own – that’s what I think most people don’t understand. Today, we get to explain 3D printing, explain our products, there’s lots of videos, there’s lots of techs that go along with it when we’re online. But when you’re on a shelf somewhere, the object has to speak for itself, the packaging has to speak for itself. Everything has to talk for you so that you can’t have explanation of something. All of those things have to go together. There’s some wonderful things that he’s done here with that finish, with that color balance that’s going on, with that textural element that makes it so that someone will pick it up and want an explanation, which is half the battle right there.
Seven out of ten, at least seven out of ten products fail in the marketplace. Most often, it has nothing to do with how beautiful a design it is. There are many other things that affect the success or failure of a product, but the design of it also is a big issue. When you’re talking about selling a product in high end boutiques and a product of this quality level and price point, which I think is appropriate. If you listen to the episode 3D print puzzle toys, I believe we talked about the price of the product in that episode and it was lower. He has raised the price. I think he has appropriately raised the price.
Keeping in mind, when we’re looking at it, we were only looking at it online. We never had one in our hand at that time and we were saying, “Okay, this pricing seems really good and really cool.” The minute I got it into my hands, my first thought was wow, this needs to command a higher price point. The minute you pick it up, you realize it needs it higher price point. The perceived value was higher.
I also appreciate and completely believe that the amount of labor and care and craft that’s gone into this is deserving of a higher price point. There’s greater value there. It’s got to be right. When you’re selling in these museum stores or other high end boutiques, these picky details we’re talking about, they matter.
That’s why he needs to be positioned there. That’s why we talked about that from a marketing standpoint, is being positioned in a marketplace where there is an appreciation for the design value. Look at what he said here, this is what we’ve been trying to get across, to really make a successful design, like your tie, like our angel, like this puzzle toy, 200 hours. At least.
You cannot just craft this thing together over a weekend and say, “This is good enough for sale.” This is a 200 hour product. It’s more than that because he spent six months polishing up his finish. In our case, we spent years polishing the way that we design, our structural integrity to how we design. That’s what we bring to it. This is the specialness he brings to it.
Having something that’s your unique angle, your unique style, your unique IP, that’s extremely important. That has to be built into it as well. You can’t spend less than 200 hours on something to really get it to level that it needs to be to be saleable. I think that that really needs to be clear. When you’re putting 200 hours into something, you have to put it into a marketplace that can appreciate that, will reward you for that from a financial standpoint, from a price point standpoint and want to talk about that.
That’s really where you get at a museum quality level or museum store, Discovery Science store, all of those things. They want to talk about the how as much as the what. That’s extremely important in the process of where he is. Now, someday along the road, there might be manufactured totally different ways but a completely unique finishing on them, maybe mass produced one. Totally different model in the future, it doesn’t have to stay where it is in 3D print world. Starting it here is brilliant.
There’s even intermediate steps that Fleet could go to. I know that in Brooklyn is Voodoo Manufacturing that uses the same 3D printers that he’s using, the Maker Bot Replicator 2s to print products. If he gets a bigger order and he needs additional capacity, he could easily outsource at least that initial step of manufacturing of 3D printing the parts to a company like Voodoo and then bring it in house for the finishing.
Not just that, he could also license finishing. You can license your finishing process, you can patent that, you can patent a process. Maybe. I don’t know if you can patent that particular process but maybe. That’s a possibility. It’s certainly something proprietary and licensable, which can then expand the income that your business and company makes. That’s true. Actually when you think about that, if a company like Voodoo would be interested to learn how to do that post finishing, to offer that to their customers as a finishing option, that’s something I hadn’t thought about before.
Anyway, lots of possibilities and opportunities there. I think there was something for everybody in this interview, in this episode. For people interested in about designing products and bringing something to market and something about the details of actually manufacturing a 3D printed product and then issues of marketing it and then packaging it. There’s something in there for students, teachers and entrepreneurs, business people, designers, engineer. There was something for everybody there.
This is airing with enough time for you to potentially get one in time for the holidays. If you’re interested in giving a gift to a 3D print enthusiast, that might happen as well. You may have found yourself the perfect holiday gift. We’d love to hear your thoughts anywhere on social media, please ping us @3DStartPoint.
About Fleet Hower
Fleet Hower is a designer intent on transforming the way we think about and produce products that shape our lives. He is interested in creating collaborative relationships between digital design and physical production in ways that leverage the rapid changes taking place in manufacturing technology. Fleet’s work is helping to disrupt the traditional workflow of design-to-manufacture by investigating new possibilities of adaptable and intelligent computational design strategies that can interface directly with physical fabrication.
In addition to producing his own line of 3d printed products, Fleet partners with companies interested in exploring new physical fabrication methods. These collaborations have expanded clients’ capabilities to produce new products, events, and advertising campaigns.
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