In product development, the ability to turn a concept into a tangible prototype is often the key to success. For one innovative kayak maker, Melker of Sweden, this concept is taken quite literally as they leverage large-scale 3D printing to transform ideas into full-size, seaworthy prototypes. Rapid prototyping with 3D printing has become a game-changer across various industries. It offers an efficient and cost-effective alternative to traditional methods like injection molding and CNC machining. CEO & Creative Director of Melker, Pelle Stafshede, attest to the advantages of this technology, highlighting that it allowed them to develop a new kayak for the North American market in just six months, a process that typically would have taken two years.
The decision to explore 3D printing wasn’t just about speed; it was also driven by a need to create a kayak that catered to the North American market. Traditional kayak development involves creating an expensive metal mold that can cost between $5,000 to $10,000. Any design changes necessitate new molds and prototypes, resulting in time and material waste. With 3D printing, the constraints of traditional manufacturing are circumvented. Iteration becomes nearly limitless, enabling Melker to fine-tune their designs without constraints. One might assume that producing numerous plastic prototypes through 3D printing could have environmental downsides. However, Melker has turned this notion on its head. Their commitment to sustainability is evident in their choice of materials. The prototypes are 3D printed using a polymer derived from off-cast fishing nets infused with wood fiber – a byproduct of Sweden’s lumber industry. Notably, the prototype is not discarded but instead repurposed as material for the next iteration. This eco-friendly approach extends to their final products as well. The kayaks are manufactured using injection molding, predominantly from bio-based materials containing natural flax fibers and cork. These materials epitomize the Swedish identity of sustainable production, which, as Stafshede notes, may not be at the forefront of American consumers’ minds just yet. Still, he anticipates that sustainability will become an increasingly important factor for consumers worldwide in the coming years. Stafshede’s goal is to shift to 100% plant-based materials for their kayaks, making them entirely recyclable. Upon returning to Sweden from their North American market research, Melker’s designers rolled up their sleeves to create a new kayak specifically tailored to the North American audience. The result is the Värmdö, a kayak that differs significantly from the company’s traditional Swedish-style sea kayaks. It’s wider, shorter, and lighter, with added comfort features such as extra padding and a customizable-fit cockpit. North America boasts the world’s largest kayak market, expected to grow by 3.6% annually over the next decade due to the increasing interest in adventure sports and water-related activities, particularly kayaking competitions.
The 3D printing technology employed by Melker to bring their prototypes to life is similar to the desktop 3D printers hobbyists use for creating small figurines and lampshades. However, Melker’s scale is much more significant. This approach, known as robotic arm additive manufacturing, involves melting plastic that is then extruded layer by layer through a nozzle attached to a robotic arm. These layers follow a path determined by a digital file. Melker partners with the Research Institute of Sweden (RISE) for their 3D printing needs. While RISE offers access to high-tech equipment and experienced engineers, Melker bears the costs. Even without government funding, Stafshede underscores that 3D-printed prototypes are remarkably affordable, especially when compared to traditional manufacturing. While large-scale 3D printing is not yet widespread as a service from 3D printing companies, it’s a trend on the rise. A select few companies produce equipment compatible with standard robotic arms, allowing for 3D printing on a more substantial scale. Stafshede envisions a future where 3D printing plays a more significant role in kayak production. The technology could enable local production and mass customization, offering customers personalized kayaks. However, for now, it’s primarily used for prototypes. The innovative approach of Melker highlights their dedication to sustainability, innovation, and the great outdoors. Stafshede says, “Making the best products is crucial for saving the planet.”So, the next time you take to the water in a kayak, you might just be enjoying the result of cutting-edge 3D printing technology.
As the outdoor industry continues to evolve, staying ahead of the game is crucial. Investing in innovative and sustainable production methods can be a game-changer for your business. Kayak manufacturer Melker demonstrates that innovation can go hand in hand with environmental responsibility. Stay mindful of the latest trends and technologies, and embrace change to meet the growing demand for eco-friendly products. The future of outdoor sports belongs to those who champion sustainability. For more updates on 3D printing, sustainable design, and innovative solutions, stay tuned with Melker of Sweden. Together, we’ll paddle towards a more sustainable and exciting future.