otter slideIn the future, I would prefer to continue to receive all major news surrounded by otters. This new revelation was brought to me this past week at OtterBox‘s Fort Collins, Colorado headquarters, with otters everywhere, from the slide near reception (which, yes, was very fun to go down!) to the Flying Otter statue near workspaces to the photos of the critters on every landing on the stairs to the soda fountain for employees. Otters, it turns out, make for an incredibly productive environment, as evidenced by this company, which is the #1 supplier of smartphone cases in the US — to reach the top, bring otters along.

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OtterBox Founder/Chief Visionary Officer Curt Richardson

And so Stratasys brought otters along to the announcement of their all new J750 3D printer, which can utilize an incredible six materials at once, capable of more than 360,000 digitized colors in a variety of resins. It sounds impressive — and at OtterBox, we gathered media could see first-hand that, yes, in fact it is a remarkable piece of equipment.

“We are still in many ways a tooling company,” OtterBox Founder and Chief Visionary Officer Curt Richardson told us Friday morning, emphasizing the importance of the equipment needed to produce their wares. “Great toys — great tools.”

OtterBox got its first 3D printer around 2005 or 2006, and still uses it alongside newer generations of additive manufacturing systems in their PIT (Prototype Innovate Test) Lab. Among their newer equipment is a Connex Objet 500 from Stratasys — and, for a few months now, a J750 3D printer. As one of several beta customers of the new system, OtterBox has had the J750 running since day one, and hasn’t stopped since.

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Have you ever seen a collection of more excited journalists? This was only one small tour of excitement to go through the PIT Lab at OtterBox, crowded around the J750

Product development is a critical factor for any company, particularly in an industry so rapidly changing as one involving technology. With new smartphones rolling out all the time, OtterBox certainly has its work cut out to keep up with protecting the latest phones from several manufacturers. Their product development process was previously a full 26 weeks — half a year! — from concept to production as ideas were turned into prototypes which were tweaked and tweaked again using traditional methods that weren’t especially time-efficient. The problem, as Richardson told us, is volume here; for a new iPhone release, up to 1500 molds might be required.

“I want to print rather than machine a mold — I want it now,” Richardson said, to understanding laughter.

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OtterBox prototypes 3D printed on the J750

Thanks to 3D printing technology that dramatically speeds up the process, that formerly-26-week cycle is down to just 8 weeks. At less than one-third the former time, cases can make their way through rigorous development and testing cycles, getting onto shelves (and onto phones) with impressive speed. In their original development cycle using earlier generations of equipment, 3D printed cases came off the printbed in white, and engineers would have to paint each one at a rate of one color per day, meaning each 3D printed case might take three days to finish. With the J750, prototypes come, full-color, right off the printer and ready to go.

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OtterBox Engineer Tech Supervisor Brycen Smith

OtterBox’s Engineer Tech Supervisor, Brycen Smith, took the floor to fill us in on some of the specifics of this process, and how 3D printing works for OtterBox from ideation/creation to newest innovations and production.

“Iterations,” Smith began, “are huge for us.”

For an industry as exacting as smartphone covers, where a few extra millimeters of plastic might render phone features unusable, these iterations are key to success. In the first 24 hours of the process, OtterBox turns to their 3D printers — now the J750 — to create their “Feature Location Verification” model. With these first prints, the initial case can be examined to ensure that everything fits around the new phone’s features, that no functions (screen, cameras, buttons, speakers, charging port) will be hindered or inaccessible, and that the user experience will be optimal. Thanks to the speeds of the J750, printing completed cases in just 1-3 hours, one single 8-hour workday can now see 5-12 iteration prints, which go right into the engineers’ hands. This immediate benefit allows for double- and triple-checking of all key precisions that must be in place. As Smith told us, precise locations are critical, and the J750 allows for precision and is not at all grainy, ensuring that no stray materials interfere with product testing.j750 printer7

“J750 has really helped us to load it in, to get products into the decision makers’ hands quickly,” Smith said. “Without [the J750] we’d be in a world of hurt. It’s a huge cost savings. I can’t even quantify it — dollars, time. Huge.”

cabinetFrom day one, the J750 has enhanced and streamlined the process at OtterBox. Because this printer produces prototypes that aren’t just the exact size, but the exact colors that the final product will be, everyone from decision makers to the teams working in marketing and packaging are able to use the rapidly produced cases throughout the full process of bringing a new case to market. This work parallel is “how we’re so fast to market,” as Smith noted.

OtterBox had been working with their Connex for some time now, and because the J750 represents a premium upgrade to the line, they were able to get started very promptly working with their newest system. The learning curve, Smith explained, in getting started with the J750 when it landed in their PIT Lab was comparable to “going from an iPhone 4 to an iPhone 6; it’s comparable, intuitive, a little bit different, but overall easy to adapt. Within 2-3 days we knew the ins and outs.” They started the J750 up the day they got it — and the very first print to come off the J750 at OtterBox was so true color that it was within their manufacturer’s tolerances of final Pantone color. The initial reaction from the team was clear: “Can we have two?”

The J750 at OtterBox is currently putting out about 750-1,000 prototypes per week, used throughout the development cycle (and even to produce replacement parts/fixtures used in their testing lab). In the future — perhaps 10-15 years, according to Richardson, and without time estimation from Smith — OtterBox is also considering using 3D printing for final production, and perhaps fully customized OtterBox cases for individual customers. Materials need to evolve still for end-use pieces, as their current final product is produced in a proprietary rubber/silicone material possible only through more traditional manufacturing techniques. Still, said Smith, this is “not in our scope right now, but it’s not out of our scope.”

Below is a video, taken on-site at OtterBox, of the J750 in action:

Available as of today, April 4, Stratasys’ new J750 3D printer offers a true all-in-one experience for professional users. With the capability to print using rigid and flexible materials in a variety of colors, finishes, and opacities, prototyping is the name of the game here, as users are able to see exactly what the finished product will look like — and fast. Aren’t these phone cases cool? What do you think of OtterBox as a Beta customer? Discuss in the 3D Printed OtterBox forum over at 3DPB.com.

[Images: All photos and video taken on-site at OtterBox by Sarah Goehrke]

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