Greenhouse Canada

Could ‘3D’ Change the Way You do Business?

Where we used to be limited in the number of changes we could economically make when a customer requested a custom design, now we can undertake half a dozen iterations if necessary – and that’s only possible because of 3D prototyping.

March 1, 2016  By Derek Moeller

A 3D printer finishes a pot cover prototype. Photo CourtesyMcConkey Company

March 2016 — The path to market for innovative custom containers was once fraught with long production design, expensive mould development and potential miscommunication from flat paper prototypes. Today’s process, however, has streamlined the process for growers, retailers and their container designer partners.

Where we used to be limited in the number of changes we could economically make when a customer requested a custom design to take to market, now we can undertake half a dozen iterations if necessary – and that’s only possible because of 3D prototyping.

In the past, growers and retailers ordered new container designs based only on computer aided design (CAD) renderings or engineering line drawings. Today, customers can see a physical sample produced right from the drawings, ensuring their vision and the actual product align perfectly.


Without 3D prototyping, it’s difficult to design containers in a way that relates to the producer’s other pieces of equipment, such as rolling racks or robots. The process of 3D printing takes automation up a level. Trays and pots are built to work with specific products. Rapid prototyping allows for lots of small iterations to get little details exactly right.

And that doesn’t mean only decorative containers. For example, development of an injection-moulded carry tray designed to be used with multiple pot sizes benefits greatly from rapid prototyping. You typically have to have a tray for each pot and manage return inventory. Designing a product such as this, with so many variables and design angles, would be nearly impossible without rapid prototyping.

One of rapid prototyping’s greatest tenets: let’s stop adapting the square peg for the round hole, when we could be designing the perfect round peg.

It all starts with a virtual design of the container or tray using CAD. The 3D modeling software then “slices” the design into any number of horizontal layers (can be hundreds or thousands). The printer creates the object one layer at a time, seamlessly blending layers to create one final prototype.


  1. It avoids expensive mistakes. Rapid prototyping allows you to know exactly what you’re getting. You don’t build out moulds – you save upwards of $40,000 in projects and time.
  2. For the first time, growers can create integration automation solutions, designing plastic containers and trays to work with their specific equipment. It allows for a depth of change in the way greenhouse automation is developed.
  3. It gives retail buyers a choice. Traditionally, you take what’s on the market and hope the customer likes it. Now we can develop three pots that the retail buyer might like, providing more choices rather than putting all chips in one house. Buyers see all-new, entirely fresh options.
  4. It allows the buyer to participate much more in the process and allows them to give infinite input into how they can differentiate from the competition.
  5. Products can get to market faster. Faster product creation and approval results in a shorter product development life cycle. The product is on the shelf quicker because you aren’t waiting a month for the mould to be built and rebuilt.
  6. It allows for development on any scale. Now available are 3D printers with larger build sizes, allowing design and prototyping of not just scaled down versions but also the full-size product. This makes it easier for growers and buyers to understand how the product will work in the real world.

Fun Fact: 3D printing is rapidly expanding in versatility and can now be used for ceramics, stainless steel, aluminum, glass, even gold.

Even with the amazing  advances in design flexibility that we’ve seen recently, this is just the start of 3D prototyping’s potential. The most exciting part will be seeing where the technology takes us – and custom container design – next!

Derek Moeller is president of McConkey Company, a U.S.-based container designer and manufacturer and the first in the horticulture industry to use 3D printing as part of its custom design process.

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