Polar Portal

PRoject Background

While supporting the development efforts at Polar 3D, I was challenged to develop a new, production-ready version of a device the team called the "Polar Box."

Polar 3D is a manufacturer of 3D printing hardware, software and curriculum. It's target market is teachers in k-12 schools. Unlike DIY users (e.g. makers, tinkerers, et al.), users in the educational environment need devices that perform flawlessly to support their sole purpose — educating students. A device that requires assembly, troubleshooting or constant supervision will be "disappeared" — often after its very first failure. 

Like the Astroprint or Octoprint device before it, this simple device was intended to provide wireless, cloud-based 3D printing for non-cloud-enabled printers. It was designed to connect non-Polar 3D printers to the Polar Cloud to provide both cloud-based 3D printing and a web cam through which to view the progress of prints. The original device was comprised of readily available parts, including a Raspberry Pi 2, generic plastic enclosure, and an off-the-shelf webcam.

The desire for this new product was to create a unique device that would provide the plug-and-play functionality and intuitive usability that teachers demand, in a form that would accommodate multiple 3D printers, at the company's projected sales volumes, and at a cost that would yield profit margins appropriate to Polar's recent shift from direct sales.

Project Details

Working in close collaboration with colleague Brandon Leedy, we started this new design with a brand refresh. Because the name "Polar Box" has no reference to the function of the device (and actually highlight it's nondescript form), we knew we needed a new name to start. The word portal reflected the function of this device — to provide a window into the printer — and the new device was born.

The design was crafted around (admittedly "bullish") projected annual sales volumes that were to exceed 10,000 units. With the shift to resellers as an outlet for this product, the ID team targeted a device that would provide great value to the end user at a textbook 4X markup over the cost of goods. With these financial goals in mind and the desire to meet the users' needs for plug-and-play simplicity, the design team created a simple device with foolproof function (there is only a single thing the user can do with it — plug it in) and a unique, adaptable and whimsical form.

We knew immediately that we needed to move away from the "box" mindset for several reasons. First, there were two established competitors with similar devices — at just slightly more than the cost of the electronic components. These units are little more than a Raspberry Pi with a plastic enclosure, but they provide a simple, low cost way for a DIY user to cloud-control their 3D printer and to generate more users for the software associated with each device.

 The $99 Astrobox is simply a Raspberry Pi with a plastic enclosure.

The $99 Astrobox is simply a Raspberry Pi with a plastic enclosure.

 Like the Astrobox, the $74.95 Octoprint kit provides DIY users a simple 3D printer cloud-controller made of readily-available electronic supplies.

Like the Astrobox, the $74.95 Octoprint kit provides DIY users a simple 3D printer cloud-controller made of readily-available electronic supplies.

Second, we knew that to generate a reasonable profit on our device, we needed something that looked like more than a kit. In the context of our target market — teachers — a kit would undermine the need for a simple, plug-and-play device. In the larger context of 3D printer users, a kit would also be perceived as an object of low value (as evidenced by the two sub-$100 units available). And because the Polar Cloud software was free, we needed to generate profit from hardware sales.

Third, we were dealing with a target market with significantly higher expectations of reliability and simplicity than those of the DIY crowd. Teachers expect their tools to work to support their teaching efforts — they don't expect to compromise their work to troubleshoot an amateur-made piece of DIY equipment.

For these reasons and more, we knew that a high value product was mandatory to both differentiate our device from our competitors — in both ease-of-use and perception — and to justify a higher price.

Project Results

The unit was designed for an initial run of 10 (beta prototype) devices intended for debut at a trade show and for use as demo units for investors. These units were produced in cast urethane to perfectly reflect the look and feel of the production device but before committing to the cost of higher volume tooling. (Though this initial run was just ten units, because they were designed with manufacturing in mind, even these prototypes could be produced for just less than the device's $200 MSRP.) 

The final device was designed for injection molding and could be manufactured for $60.91 (with packaging) at just 1000 units/year. The price of tooling was just $10K. That investment was to be refunded by the manufacturer after the first 10,000 units.

The production unit was comprised primarily of four injection molded housing components, a Raspberry Pi, and a weight to keep it from tipping over as the neck articulated to its fullest extent. The camera is mounted on a 12" gooseneck that allows it to be used with any 3D printer without relying on the geometry of the printer for a mounting surface. To enhance economies of scale over our entire product line, we repurposed the custom-made board camera and the Raspberry Pis used in Polar's 3D printer. All unused ports of the Raspberry Pi are covered and only a pair of cables exit the base of the unit. This means that the user has only two actions to perform to get the device working — plug it into the wall, plug it into the printer — plug and play. Due to the geometry of the case (e.g. aggressive interference fits around cables and an extreme, umbrella-like lap joint) the base of the unit would exceed an IPX3 rating for ingress protection.

For the packaging, we selected a simple matte finish black corrugated box with a vacuum-formed insert and a printed cardboard sleeve. The graphics took on a nostalgic rainbow theme and played to the "polar" (i.e. circular) nature of the device.