3D Printing Innovating Smart Home Technology

 3D printed consumer components [Source:  NBD ]
3D printed consumer components [Source: NBD ]

Charles Goulding and Greer Veon review several consumer product companies who successfully used 3D printing technology to aid the development of their products.

The demand for smart home technology is now bigger than ever, as many companies are looking for ways to deliver the newest products with never-before-seen capabilities.

Companies that produce smart home appliances and software find that 3D printing allows for the development of more complex designs at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional methods.

Elements of the Smart Home Technology Market

Smart home technology is a category of basic home appliances and amenities that have been programmed with communication technology that allows some amount of automation or remote control. “Smart Home Technology” could include:

  • Security systems

  • Appliances (washing machines and refrigerators)

  • Home theatres

  • Environmental control units (lighting, air conditioning, and heating)

  • And more…

Many advancements in this technology have been modular innovations, such as the Google Home pictured above or Amazon’s Alexa, that each allow users to access multiple devices in their home simultaneously. This technology is usually accompanied by mobile software or a corresponding app that allows users to access their devices while they are in the home or away.

The smart home technology market has grown within the last decade and only looks to keep expanding. Experts say that the market is expected to reach US$112.8 billion dollars by 2024. As far as consumers, 57% of Americans say that smart home technology products saves them an average of 30 minutes each day, while 45% of Americans believe their smart home devices save them an average of US$98.30 per month (US$1,179.60 per year). Product designers that invest in 3D printing for these appliances and their parts are eligible for the R&D tax credit.

3D Printing Smart Technology

3D printing technology offers many opportunities for designers and manufacturers to more easily develop advanced smart home technology components. Forward-thinking large and small companies have discovered the advantages 3D printing can enable when designing consumer products. The list below shows examples of this practice in home theatre systems, security cameras, and smart appliances industries.

SYMFONISK Table Lamp

 IKEA’s SYMFONISK WiFi audio system [Source:  IKEA ]
IKEA’s SYMFONISK WiFi audio system [Source: IKEA ]

As IKEA has grown to become the world’s largest furniture retailer, the company released its first line of speakers as part of their IKEA Home Smart mission last year. Recently the Swedish company (with US$58.7 billion dollars in sales) has partnered with SONOS, the American electronics company (with US$17.7 million dollars this past year in sales), to develop the SYMFONISK WiFi-connected sound system.

The speaker duo is designed as a bookshelf and table lamp and re-envisions the placement of a home speaker system. The IKEA Design Team wanted to create a speaker that had an entirely different perception of home furnishing without invoking a “tech” style. Their design was derived from normal expectations of shelving and lighting appearances, which also allowed for sleek designs. The table lamp speaker is wrapped with a 3D printed exterior that helps improve the sound quality and softens its visual appearance.

Singer Personal Audio

 Singer Audio custom 3D printed speaker [Source:  Matt Roberts via Flickr ]
Singer Audio custom 3D printed speaker [Source: Matt Roberts via Flickr ]

Singer Audio executed a three-year KickStarter campaign that raised over US$9,000 for a custom 3D printed portable speaker. The company recently shipped their state-of-the-art Singer Personal Audio Speakers. Singer Personal Audio speakers combine the design of raw, digitally produced objects with handcrafted speaker systems. The device can come either as one Bluetooth pairing speaker or a home theatre speaker set that can be added on to any existing home theatre network.

The speaker technology was created by founder Russell Singer who formerly worked as a design & development director at a 3D printer startup. Singer wanted to create a 3D printable speaker for entertainment, and after a few prototypes saw the potential for a business that focused on fine audio manufacturing and quality.

During product development, the Singer speaker iterated through several design prototypes in order to improve low frequency. The final selection of speaker driver provided a reliable and audibly-even response from the sealed speaker enclosure. Singer Audio indicates 3D printing allows for a unique level of variation for customers while maintaining high-quality repeatability for each device.

Home+ HomeKit

 The Home+ app [Source:  Hochgatterer.com ]
The Home+ app [Source: Hochgatterer.com ]

As a way to offer a more affordable Apple option, software engineer Matthias Hochgatterer developed Home+ and the corresponding open-source HomeKit Camera. The Home+ app, currently offered only on iOS software, is an app for users to download and customize variations that are not currently offered on Apple’s default Home app.

Hochgatterer then designed a HomeKit camera that offered pre-installed software through a Raspberry Pi Zero attached to a camera module, as well as 3D printed plastic enclosure parts that are easy to assemble without the need for tools. Hochgatterer offers the CAD designs for download on his website, which can be completed on any 3D printer, as well as pre-printed device components at a price of US$30.

Using this coordinating software, users can then access the camera in order to view live streams or take snapshots directly from any Apple device.

SmartCan

Rezzi, the newest smart home company developing IoT devices, worked with Protolabs to design and print their first smart home appliance. SmartCan is a plug-and-go motorized trashcan attachment that moves garbage cans to the curb. The device responds to commands in the corresponding smartphone app software that can allow a user to set a specific time and date for the appliance to take the trash out automatically.

Protolabs, a leading 3D printing company with US$445M sales in 2018, worked with Rezzi’s designers to manufacture a prototype. The final product should hit the market sometime in 2020. SmartCan was also awarded Protolab’s latest “Cool Idea” award for innovation in automated consumer electronics technology. The reward supports entrepreneurs and their companies with a US$250,000 grant for creating prototypes and starting production runs.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the now permanent Federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit that typically ranges from 4%-7% of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • Must be technological in nature

  • Must be a component of the taxpayer’s business

  • Must represent R&D in the experimental sense and generally includes all such costs related to the development or improvement of a product or process

  • Must eliminate uncertainty through a process of experimentation that considers one or more alternatives

Eligible costs include US employee wages, cost of supplies consumed in the R&D process, cost of pre-production testing, US contract research expenses, and certain costs associated with developing a patent.

On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the PATH Act, making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax for companies with revenue below $50MM and, startup businesses can obtain up to $250,000 per year in payroll tax cash rebates.

Conclusion

With both smart home technology and 3D printing growing strongly in complementary ways, it’s very likely the two technologies can generate far more complex and advanced products in the global marketplace.

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