factory tour

Manufacturing a Plastic Hydroponic Planter in China

Design, Hydroponic Planter, Manufacturing

I’m currently on a week-long break from school for the Qingming (“Tomb Sweeping”) holiday, and have been using a good portion of that time to design. Yesterday, I hopped a train out to Dongguan to meet with my business partners Swen and Kelvin to discuss a new product for manufacture that I redesigned just this past weekend.

Zhangmutou station

Zhangmutou train station in Dongguan

The product we discussed is a powered hydroponic planter that will look attractive next to your laptop or on the kitchen counter. You can grow herbs for cooking or plants for decoration, all without soil and without having to change the water or control the light yourself aside from the flip of a tiny power switch at its base.

The initial planter (seen below) was engineered and manufactured as a prototype by the owner of a plastics factory in Dongguan (a Taiwanese man named Danny), but the planter had little charm in its initial form. It would look at home in a high school science room, but not next to a MacBook or Surface Pro (I prefer the former, while Swen defends the latter).

Hydroponic planter with light

Danny’s prototype

So, from the comfort of an outdoor cafe table in Guangzhou last weekend, I sketched and discussed the redesign with Swen and Kelvin over a few hours using WeChat, an ubiquitous social networking and finance app here in China that you really should know about if you don’t already.

Dodecahedron design

Final (initial) sketches on left

Settled on the first draft of a redesign, we met up in Dongguan yesterday to visit Danny’s factory and address any engineering/manufacturing challenges. Before this we stopped at their office to spitball ideas for a product name and drink some tea.  And some homemade rice wine. And a little rosé Kelvin really wanted me to try.

Swen and Kelvin

Swen on the left, and Kelvin on the right

Danny’s factory is capable of one- or two-shot injection moulding, using different plastics. Upon arrival, we toured the factory floor first and inspected the quality of various products currently being manufactured, including computer keyboards and mice, R/C drone parts, and the head to some kind of air (or hair) dryer.

factory tourfactory tour

ABS manufacturing

Boxing up computer mice

ABS manufacturingABS manufacturing

Before the moulding process, plastics are purchased elsewhere by the bag as tiny resin pellets (or grains).

IMG_1168

Danny showing Kelvin various plastics

Danny’s factory does its own tooling, producing the metal moulds (or dies) which are are then injected with molten plastic during the manufacturing process.

moulds in use

Moulds in current rotational use

During the tour, one young worker was busy producing a new mould with what looked like a CNC plasma cutter. Nearby was a CNC drill and an older lathe.

Depending on the strength of the metal used (aluminum, steel or beryllium-copper alloy), the mould has a pre-determined lifespan and must be disused after a time.

Exhausted moulds

Exhausted moulds awaiting… the afterlife?

After touring the factory floor, we went outside to see Danny’s little hydroponic garden in the alley, which he had rigged up using plastic pipes to deliver water to the various herbs and plants growing there.

Finally, we went above the factory floor to present and discuss my redesign of the hydroponic planter.

overlooking the factory floor

Overlooking the factory floor

In our WeChat exchanges, Swen and I had settled on a geometric form for the body that would be mostly transparent but with an opaque lower section to house (and hide) the water pump and wiring for a lamp. Overall… an elegant shape that should look nice.

Agreed upon some changes, we ended the meeting. Before I left the room, however, I noticed Danny’s large Dolce Gusto coffeemaker on one of the desks, as well as a few refillable coffee pods/capsules beside it. I immediately recognized the capsules, as I have one of these machines at school and had bought the same capsules on Taobao last year so that I could pack my own coffee grounds rather than only buying from Delonghi/Nescafé.

Danny told me he had just redesigned the pods. The new design provided a better delivery of boiling water to the coffee grounds, and a simpler and more efficient bottom section to clean between uses. The materials are safe and FDA-approved, and Danny has patented the new design. (The old design has been rebranded and redistributed quite a bit here in China and overseas, although I wasn’t clear if all of these were coming out of Danny ‘s factory or if other manufacturers had copied it. I will have to ask him.) As a parting gift, Danny found me two pair in brown and green.

I’ve downloaded Sketch-up and FreeCad in the past week, but haven’t learned to use them yet, so upon returning home I did a few simple tweaks to the hydroponic planter design using TinkerCad (don’t laugh) in order to test our changed specifications. Satisfied with the results, I emailed a few files to Swen and Kelvin before heading off to bed.

 

Swen and Kelvin will run the design through their engineer and then on to Danny. From this will come a manufactured prototype, hopefully in the next few weeks. After that, we will present the idea on Kickstarter for mass production and marketing.

Stay tuned!

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