Sixty 3D printed pieces sit on a pegboard on a wall inside a Metro Vancouver office. It is the visual representation of the distance NEXE innovations came in five years as he struggled to market his flagship product in coffee pods. From part to part, there is an almost imperceptible difference, and then every now and then, ‘eureka’.
NEXE was founded by Darren Footz, formerly of Granville Island Coffee Company, to bring to market a fully compostable plant-based coffee pod to combat the amount of these products that we dump in landfills each year. As it went through its design validation phase, in 3D printing, the company saw a method of prototyping that, through the use of PLA material, would align with these values. With every change in wall thickness, the previous prototype was naturally recycled, while the alternative could have seen them eliminate tons of injection molds over the 60 iterations.
“Anytime we need a new half-ton block of steel [for example] – if we want to do it 60 times, then throw them in the trash because the prototype didn’t work, that’s a huge waste, âsaid NEXE Scientific Director Zac Hudson. TCT. “Whereas with the printing process, the only waste is the compostable parts which you can then throw on the compost.”
The most widely revered benefits of 3D printed prototypes – the savings in time and money – haven’t gone unnoticed at NEXE either. Instead of ordering a new stainless steel mold every time a new design iteration was needed, NEXE simply adjusted the CAD design and was able to print a new part in 30 minutes. This, according to Hudson’s plans, would save the company weeks at a time and, over the course of five years, speed up the product development process by a factor of five.
It became a proven technique for NEXE, which released the NEXE pod in April 2021 and a smaller Nespresso pod three months later. While Hudson doubts the technology will ever be used for production by NEXE because of the volumes it will be working on – 10-20 million pods per year currently and 220 million per year by 2023 – he describes 3D printing. as a “fantastic prototyping technology.” . ‘ The 30 minute turnaround time for a single prototype is “pretty exceptional” and NEXE struggles to isolate the real issues.
Moving from prototype parts to end-use pods, Hudson says the biggest difference is in the mechanical properties, as the PLA material used generates a ârock hard plasticâ and the specifically formulated resin that is used in the. Injection molding of the final product provides the flexibility required to be used by the consumer.
“The only thing [3D printing] doesn’t allow us to test punctuability so well, âexplained Hudson. âIn a brewer there is a needle that pierces the pod and for our commercial coffee pod it pierces really well, whereas if you just print with PLA it breaks. This allows us to test the fit and tightness and some of the filling and dosing procedures, but to test the piercing we really need an actual formulation. The possibility of using custom resins in a 3D printer would be quite advantageousâ¦ This would allow you to prototype as close as possible to your finished product.
But until it is possible, NEXE is progressing well. 3D printing allows the company to explore “advanced pod designs” that may have “a functional ingredient or an ingredient that blends differently with what’s inside” and expand the types of drinks that can be made with a brew machine. The technology will also allow it to keep moving forward with its coffee pods.
NEXE currently operates a fleet of approximately half a dozen fusion deposition modeling 3D printers to prototype its products.
In this market, it is necessary. If all the coffee pods consumed each year in the world were lined up, they would circle the earth 15 times. And it’s believed that between 40 billion and 60 billion plastic coffee pods are thrown away each year.
âIt’s about 100,000 pods per minute,â Hudson said. “That’s a terrifying amount of plastic.”
A terrifying amount of NEXE plastic is looking to cut back. How quickly it succeeds will, in large part, be down to 3D printing.
Want to discuss ? Join the conversation on the Global Additive Manufacturing Community Discord.
Get your FREE print subscription to TCT Magazine.