Brink of a Breakthrough
This piece began life as a run of the mill article for the website on an innovative product made with sub $5,000 desktop 3D printers. Scratching the surface of an already interesting piece revealed a thoroughly fascinating insight into the attempts of a startup to mass manufacture a future everyday product using desktop 3D printing. An attempt that came painstakingly close to being realised.
The company is SnowShoe and their product is so genius in its simplicity that it has the power to revolutionise digital to physical B2C transactions. Current interactions between the likes of retail outlets and smartphones are, at best, clunky; few really like or use QR codes, NFC is only built into some devices and Google Goggles never hit the ground running.
The SnowShoe Stamp contains no circuitry, no need for batteries, no Bluetooth, no NFC, it is just a piece of plastic that when tapped with a smartphone can open up hidden items in games, verify digital coupons in store, turn your smartphone into a loyalty card, turn event goers into instant subscribers and just about any physical to digital action you could imagine. Each Stamp contains a different fingerprint that, when touched to a screen, acts as a gesture, a gesture that is recognised by SnowShoe’s browser-based API which then unlocks a specific piece of content.
3D Printed SnowShoe stamps
The Rubber Stamp
With over $3.5m of funding in the bank, companies like Disney and Red Bull already repeat customers and over 3,000 developers working on SnowShoe’s API the Stamps are in demand. The way the company goes about producing the all-important physical bridge is not your usual mass manufactured plastic product, each piece in the wild so far has been 3D printed on a MakerBot.
It wasn’t always intended to be this way as CEO, Claus Moberg explains: “We had been manufacturing stamps out of aluminium, at a per-item cost of ~$25. We won a MakerBot Replicator in the 2012 TechCrunch Disrupt hackathon, and decided to see if we could manufacture Stamps out of conductive plastics. We bought some conductive filament from China, plugged it into the MakerBot, and printed a Stamp that worked really well on our iOS test devices. When we realised that the plastic stamps only required less than $1 of filament per stamp, we decided to try to scale the additive manufacturing process.”
For those of us that understand the technology the SnowShoe Stamp perfectly fits the criteria for a 3D printable product; not only is it a small item that is made of plastic but each design is different from the next. There are five points on each SnowShoe Stamp that are placed in such a way when tapped to the smartphone act as the signature to unlock the specific piece of content. The five points are printed with the conductive ABS and the rest is printed with regular ABS, which masks the unique pattern and protects the Stamp from being spoofed.
Because every Stamp is unique, injection moulding doesn’t offer the economy of scale it usually does to a mass manufactured plastic part and batch industrial printing that services like Sculpteo offer, can’t produce the subtle material changes required. Instead, SnowShoe is currently using a farm of desktop 3D printers produce 5,000 Stamps a month.
“We have 16 MakerBot Replicator 2Xs running out of University Research Park in Madison, Wisconsin.” Explains the entrepreneurial Moberg, who left his PhD studies at that very university to launch SnowShoe. “The printers are actually quite reliable when well maintained - we make sure to grease the works and tighten all the belts regularly."
Stuck in the Snow
I know what you’re thinking; ‘why haven’t I seen this product in every single outlet in the world?’ There’s a 'but' to this story, a but that means SnowShoe can currently only guarantee that the Stamp works on iOS devices (about 30% of the overall smartphone market), a but that means 3D printing might not be the answer to its prayers after all.
Despite testing on all touchscreen devices initially, and being very satisfied with the results, customers started reporting catastrophic failures on Android devices. Following a series of dead-end assessments SnowShoe discovered that it was the consistency in the filament causing the problem. The conductive ABS is barely conductive enough to register on Android devices and seeing as the resistance of magnitude can vary by three orders in a single spool it explains why some Stamps from the same batch would work and others wouldn’t.
“It is very frustrating to be so tantalisingly close to mass manufacture,” noted Moberg. “Our company would be moving forward at an incredible pace if we could find an ABS filament that was both hard enough to print consistently at .2mm layer height and conductive enough (<10,000 ohms resistance per linear foot) to function successfully."
SnowShoe's unique fingerprint system
SnowShoe's unique fingerprint system
Though the solution would appear to be within earshot Claus doesn’t think 3D printing remains a viable option for manufacture. “We have looked into developing our own filament, and we have tried everything on the market to-date.” He said. “The issue seems to be that once you dope the ABS with enough graphite to make it sufficiently conductive, it becomes too soft to print consistently. We have, for the most-part, suspended our engineering efforts around 3D printing, as the volumes (>500,000 pieces) and price point (<$.50/Stamp) we are trying to supply over the next six months would likely strain additive manufacturing processes even without feedstock issues.”
Because of this scale and those problems SnowShoe is currently in the design for manufacturing stage of a process that would pair traditional injection moulding with a CNC process to impart the unique capacitive signatures. Though desktop 3D printing did not entirely solve the manufacturing process in this instance its involvement in the growth of this particular startup is significant.
The path set forth by this Wisconsin startup shows how desktop 3D printing can be used to mass manufacture products. It is a trail that could see other companies set up basecamp and begin to use the technology for more than just the trinkets and toys prevalent in most desktop 3D printing marketing material. ShowShoe’s travails also serve as a reminder for the need to push forward with material science in order to unlock more applications.