Hardware / Manufacturing

How MakerBot and New Lab powered this Dumbo startup’s production hack

A little-known fact about product startups: manufacturing packaging can be a headache. That's why off-grid energy company BioLite turned to a few local resources.

The BaseLantern in action. (Courtesy photo)

A few weeks ago, we pointed to how BotFactory tapped Brooklyn resources as a model for the borough’s innovation economy. Well, score another one for collaboration in Brooklyn’s tech scene.
Next month, BioLite, based in Dumbo, will ship out its latest product, the BaseLantern, a compact lantern that charges phones and includes an app to regulate its energy usage, director of design Anton Ljunggren told Technical.ly. As we previously reported, BioLite funded development for BaseLantern through Kickstarter, on which it raised more than $400,000 in the first week, easily surpassing its $75,000 goal. Ultimately, the campaign topped $800,000 in funding.
But two other Brooklyn tech players made cameos in the development process: MetroTech-based 3D printing giant MakerBot and New Lab, the Navy Yard facility that’s angling to be a manufacturing hub. Like many other companies, BioLite uses 3D printers for product development and prototyping. But as Ljunggren told Technical.ly, it turns out they can help out with marketing efforts, too — namely, in designing product packaging.
BioLite’s products, like many other electronics, are packaged in plastic blister packs, then put into a cardboard container. Those blister packs may seem pretty standard, but, Ljunggren said, they require testing to ensure that they hang properly on sales racks and protect the product adequately during shipping. In the past, all of that had to be a last-minute consideration, since the blister packs are usually made only after the product has been manufactured.
That’s often presented a challenge for trade shows, Ljunggren said. The company needs to present a polished prototype of not just the product itself but also its packaging, months before manufacturing actually begins. For BioLite — which is relatively small, with 38 employees — that has meant turning to custom shops to produce small numbers of blister packs in a matter of weeks. Given the short turnaround, the order ends up being costly: thousands of dollars for just over a dozen packs. And for a startup, that just doesn’t make sense.
This time around, for the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, held in Salt Lake City in August, BioLite didn’t even have that luxury. The company had been steadily refining its displays for the BaseLantern up until the last few days before the show. None of the manufacturing shops it turned to could fulfill an order for blister packs in time. Needing a quick alternative, the design team came up with a mockup using its MakerBot printer.

“No prototyping house is going to help you that in that short time frame,” Ljunggren said. “We had to figure it out.”

Brought to you by MakerBot and New Lab.

The BioLite blister pack, brought to you by MakerBot and New Lab. (Courtesy photo)

Here’s what his team did. First, it used the 3D printer to create a dummy form of the BaseLantern, which was then sanded, bonded and painted in preparation for the blister pack. (The 3D-printing process works in layers, so the objects it produces often have visible ridges.) Then, the team headed to New Lab, where BioLite has a membership in order to use the facility’s prototyping shops. There, it used a thermoform machine to heat a piece of PET plastic, a type of plastic often used to package water, and mold it over the dummy form. The resulting blister pack was then ready to be packaged up in the company’s mocked-up outer packaging.
Ljunggren estimated that the company ended up saving some $5,000 in marketing costs by having to come up with its own blister packs for the trade show. (The final cost, he said, came to $600 for 15 or 16 blister packs.) It turned out to be an unexpected benefit of its 3D printers, one the company was initially reluctant to buy, he said.

“Before we got the 3D printers from MakerBot, we tried to figure out what we would use them for,” he said. “It turns out there’s all kinds of things we had no idea they would be useful for. We didn’t plan to do our packaging on a MakerBot.”

Sure, this is a clever workaround — and no doubt, a good marketing anecdote for MakerBot. But it also points to at least one more potential use case for 3D printing, which is still struggling to be seen as more than a novelty. Even more significant, it illustrates a lingering deficiency for small manufacturers going to market — who knew packaging for a trade show could be such a hassle? — and how the growing number of resources for Brooklyn makers could ease the process. (Might Makerbot rethink its new education focus?) A good sign for Brooklyn’s manufacturing ambitions, for sure.

Companies: BioLite / New Lab / MakerBot
Series: Brooklyn

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