Brace yourself, this update is relatively long and not very happy. TL;DR - 3D printed parts are flammable, so we can't use them, so we have to switch to molds, which will ultimately delays us to shipping in the summer. There should not be any more UL surprises as we now have the official report from them detailing all of the concerns, but we will be shipping around July instead of May - we are deeply, deeply sorry for this. Read on for the info, the plan, the details, and some good news at the end!
Well, this sucks.
We first ran into UL in September of 2014, at their facility in Long Island. We'd been scheduled to go for a tour with the rest of Maker Con, but had brought our prototype anyways in the hopes we'd somehow be able to get 5 minutes of time to talk with them about getting safety certifications. We would be launching on Indiegogo in a few months, and had been advised that UL will only certify final production units - not just prototypes - but had figured they'd give us a good idea of what that would take, so we could estimate the time properly.
To our surprise, we were the only ones that showed up with the tour. We met some of the staff, saw some amazing things, and even got to sneak into the EMC chamber for a quick pre-test! The overwhelming advice we recieved was that it was better to get started early and avoid delays, as it could take a long time to get a product certified - especially a brand new one. We had a look over our prototype and immediately identified some areas of concern - namely, the grinder and the fact that it got really hot inside the unit. Could it shred someones hand off? Could it light on fire? Would it cause electrical problems with your household wiring?
Over the next 16 months, we worked with them to address those concerns - slowly at first, then more progressively as we (finally) got ready for production. As per our previous schedule, we sent it off for review in early February - and the certification process began. Thankfully, almost everything passed this first review - the grinder is definitely safe, it will not light on fire or burn down your house or shock you electrically. A few minor issues came up - our AC wiring section needs to be doubly insulated from areas that aren't connected to our (earthed) chassis to prevent shock. This turns out to include everything, as the AC wiring could touch the circuit board which could short to pretty much anything - the LCD screen, the button panel, the fan and fan duct, etc - and all of those aren't electrically connected to the earthed chassis. Thankfully, this is a relatively minor change - we just need to use thicker wire insulation, and block off the back of the circuit board.
Our first official report back from UL! Parts have been blurred for confidentiality reasons.
A few of our components also weren't spec'd to the standards required - during the past year or so, our categorization switched from "appliance" to "technology equipment", so things like our snap discs (which regulate our heater in case of a control system failure) need to be re-sourced - this is again a pretty simple issue to fix, as it basically means we pay slightly more for a slightly more reliable snap disc.
Then came the big ticket item, and boy is it a big one. UL will not allow any 3D printed parts in a production unit, unless we get ourselves certified as a 3D printed part *factory*, and go through annual inspection and compliance. Not only is this a major cost increase, it takes an incredible amount of time, and would have delayed the product to non existence. We just don't have the man power or resources to become a 3D printing factory that's certified to UL standards.
The reasoning behind this decision on their part is that, in theory, a fire could start inside our unit. If it stays there, that's somewhat OK - ProtoCycler will be damaged, but you'd still be safe, and your house would still be standing, fire free. But if the fire is able to escape the inside of ProtoCycler, it's no longer safe. It could, in theory, burn down the building it's residing in. I'd like to stress that this is an extremely unlikely scenario - there are so many other UL mandated controls in place to ensure temps are kept within spec, etc, that it would be almost impossible to actually start a fire inside the unit. Nevertheless, unless we can conclusively prove it's physically impossible, it's a safety issue, so we have to ensure fire can never escape the inside of the unit.
This brings us to the 3D printed parts. As some of them form part of the metal "fire enclosure" made up largely by our metal chassis, they need to be rated to one of the highest flammability safety standards. If they aren't, they could theoretically catch fire themselves, and transfer the fire to the outside. This means items like our fan duct and LCD mount must be certified to these flammability standards. Similarly, any plastic used on the inside of the unit could catch on fire and then feed the fire, causing it to blaze hotter - so they have to be certified as well, just not as strictly.
Some of our 3D printed parts - Clockwise from top left, the spooler assembly, fan duct, and LED mount.
The problem is that 3D printed parts aren't certified for flammability at all. Unless we get certified as a factory, UL has no way to guarantee that our 3D printed parts will consistently adhere to the flammability standards. This means no fire certification, which means no safety certification. And, after our last setback where we discussed the possibility of foregoing certification for these initial units, we got a flood of feedback from people saying that they purchased ProtoCycler specifically because it's the only extruder on the market with certification. If we decided to abandon it, they'd have to cancel their order, so they'd much rather wait for us to get it right as they had been so far. We suspect the majority of our customers feel this way, which brings us to this (hopefully final) setback.
So, based on the feedback, we have one major task left - replace all of the 3D printed parts with something else. There are quite a few of them - while the vast majority of ProtoCycler is machined or sheet metal for quality, reliability, and safety, there are a number of parts that don't need to be metal and, to maximize cost saving, were 3D printed. Somewhat obvious are the fan duct and LCD screen mount, as well as the LED mounts and almost all of the Spooler system. Our hopper mount, parts of the spreader, and a host of other parts are also all 3D printed. The original reason for this was two fold - first and foremost, it reduced cost, a lot, over injection molded or machined parts. But it was also pretty cool that, if anything plastic ever broke on ProtoCycler, you could ProtoCycler it back into shape! And, as some have already found out, it helped us get around some interesting issues like universal spool mounting. If your spool didn't fit our mounts, you could very easily print new mounts that would fit.
Of course, now none of that can happen, because we can't have any 3D printed parts. We've given ourselves a month to do this, and are already roughly half way through it which is good news (hence the delayed update - we made use of the long weekend to write the update as for once we weren't scrambling on the phone with manufacturers or suppliers for the day). Some parts will become injection molded, some will be laser cut from plastic sheet that's pre-certified for fire resistance, and some will be switched to machined or sheet metal. At the end of that month, we're manufacturing a second sample run, and re sending it off to UL - with the proper wiring, properly certified components, and no more 3D printed parts. They then have it for 4-6 weeks, while we finish manufacturing everything non UL critical (a lot of which has already been done for this round), and then as soon as we receive approval we manufacture the rest and send them off as soon as we can. This results in the following timeline - you'll note it's almost the same as the last one, but with everything shifted forward 2 months. The one exception is the extra delay between beginning sample MFG and being able to send it off, which now takes longer as there is added tooling to produce (i.e. the molds):
Oct 20 – Final Design complete – Round 2, December 15th – sent off, End of Jan, confirmed by MFGs - Round 3, April 3rd - sent off
Oct 21 – MFG begins – Round 2, End of January - Round 3, April 13th
Nov 4 – Initial Test units ready for assembly & Nov 9 – Initial Units Complete (For UL + Testing) – Round 2, Start of February - Round 3, May 18th
Dec 7 – UL Testing Complete – Round 2, mid March - Round 3, June 29th
Dec 18 – 1st Run Units Complete + Shipping – Round 2, mid April - Round 3, mid July
Jan 8 – Campaign units Complete + Shipping – Round 2, early May - Round 3, early August
As with our previous delay, we are extremely sorry for this set back - but I can assure you we have been and will continue to work as hard as we possibly can to keep everything on track and ship out everything by August. To speed things up, we'll be hiring over the summer to help us with assembly and keep things running as smoothly as possible. And, as a silver lining, there shouldn't be any further set backs from UL or manufacturing as we've now had a "dry run" of both with this being the only major setback! The rest of fulfillment has also been progressing well - we've gotten our shipping worked out for everyone who's currently ordered, and we've gotten through a few revisions of the packaging samples. Even our filter is remarkably clean after countless of extrusion!
Some high density foam keeps ProtoCycler safe for it's journey! Extra space gets filled with goodies like pellets, the manual, etc.
The nozzle / filter / breaker plate assembly. We did clean the plastic out of this one so you could see the screen, but there's very little debris caught in it for almost 100 hours of extrusion.
Given that the next few weeks for us will be extremely busy to get everything back to UL as quickly as possible, e-mails might take even longer than normal to respond to, though I will try and get back to the twice monthly updates. Please reach out with any questions or concerns, and forgive me if it takes a little longer than you'd like to get a response back - we're not ignoring you, just trying to get everyone's units out as fast as possible!
Thank you all again for your patience with this. While it's largely out of our hands at this point, it still sucks to see something you've been waiting for for over a year get delayed a little more. We couldn't be happier to have your support while we go through all this, and hopefully you're excited as we are to be almost past the "unexpected surprises" segment of everything!
Take care for now,
-The ReDeTec team