Komodo OpenLab on What It Takes to Get from A to B

A pile of colourful plastic parts from Komodo's prototypes.

This post was written by Lawrence Kwok of Komodo OpenLab and was originally posted on Komodo’s blog

Jorge Silva, Komodo OpenLab co-founder and technical lead, approached me to assist in the design of the new enclosure for the Tecla. Having already previously worked with George Brown College, he was looking to develop the concept further into something with more commercial appeal and some functional improvements, all in a low-cost niche device.

Lawrence's rough sketches and notes.

These are early sketches, where I’m trying to imagine the absolute simplest enclosure possible while taking into account material cost, manufacturing method, ease of assembly, durability in use and product aesthetic. Originally, I had envisioned a hard skeletal frame, with a soft, malleable shroud, making the assembly reliable but also very simple.

An earlier prototype, developed in partnership with George Brown College. It has a clear enclosure and a green board inside. It fits inside a person's palm.

The photo above shows a previous prototype developed in partnership between Komodo OpenLab and George Brown College. Building off of the George Brown model, I started taking into consideration brand aesthetics, attempting to use the existing material and manufacturing method to speak a more mainstream and commercial language.

Jorge wanted to explore what injection moulding would cost, so we quickly translated the model to obtain early quotes. It proved too expensive at the time, so Komodo decided to buy a MakerBot 3D printer for manufacturing. This wasn’t my first time 3D printing, but it was my first time operating a printer myself and blurring the boundaries between a prototype and a finished product. Having a printer made it very easy to check the design in real-world conditions, but consistency in print quality was always a concern.

A closeup of a silver part of the protoptype with the MakerBot logo in the background.

We hadn’t established confidence that 3D printing would work. At any time, we might’ve had to change channels back to injection moulding, so the design had to be flexible in the face of contradicting immediate concerns and future concerns.

One of the biggest concerns with 3D printing was quality and consistency with respect to the first few layers of the print. Surface quality, texture, flatness and build plate adhesion was a moving target. The MakerWare software updates weren’t at the point where this was a quick fix.

A bright pink-coloured layer from the MakerBot.

It was at this time that the decision was made (based on Komodo co-founder and business development lead Mauricio Meza’s feedback) to deviate from the two-part assembly into something more manageable for the printer, helping to decrease print times and increase quality and consistency. Once MakerBot’s own firmware improved, Mauricio’s idea paid back four-fold.

We decided to split the assembly into four parts, and I decided to bring the acrylic back into the equation, knowing full well that this meant we would be 3D printing and laser cutting. The trade-off in number of processes was made up for by the fact that this was an opportunity to revisit the brand aesthetics — a return to the original Pibow inspiration, and a nod to the George Brown concept.

I found a program that allowed me to study what the 3D printer would do without actually having to print, which was great for troubleshooting print quality and detail. With good results and optimized print times, we were able to construct ‘Beta Boxes’ for the developers, and I started prototyping the wheelchair mounting clip. Jorge came up with the brilliant idea: who doesn’t love magnets?

A series of pen notes and sketches connected by arrows, from Lawrence's notebook.

Based on sales projections, I calculated how much time each part needed for printing/finishing, how many parts could be simultaneously printed, how much time each unit required for assembly and testing, how many printers would be required, what print speeds were within reason, as well as how many failures to expect. It was an amazing feeling to already know all the significant numbers rather than working with an uneducated or abstract notion.

The prototype in grey, blue and orange — Komodo's colours.

After considering a number of palettes based on MakerBot’s own plastic selection, Komodo opted for colours that were in accordance with their brand (see above), deviating from the more ‘medical-device-looking’ palette.

Things were all set to go, but new funding became available and we quickly pivoted back to injection moulding. Due to my lack of experience with injection moulding, a professional was called in. Stopher Christensen, founder of Tensen Design, did an amazing job refining the design for injection moulding. Read more about it on Tensen’s thorough blog post.

Mauricio and Jorge work together assembling the first batches of Tecla Dos.

Mauricio and Jorge assembling the first batches.

The daily output of Tecla Uno was roughly seven or eight. On the first day of Tecla Dos, Mauricio and Jorge made over 50 in the afternoon alone. They now have someone dedicated to assembly (amongst other duties).

To me, being “in the bubble” always involves a little bit of wandering. You just do what it takes to get from A to B.

Two of the final prototypes with all of the separate components pictured behind them.