08/15/2013 05:28 EDT | Updated 10/15/2013 05:12 EDT

How We Designed and 3D Printed Our Product in Under 4 Weeks

I work for an ad agency, and focus on digital engagement. I do not think of the digital world as just apps, social media and web sites. I believe that objects and interfaces play a huge role in the modern digital experience. This is why I'm really excited about 3D printing and the huge potential it has. It sure has gained some momentum these days with all sorts of people getting involved. UK supermarket Tesco, UPS, eBay and many other companies has really started investigating how it can be used in retail.

So, one day I had an idea that could work well for our client, TELUS. Why don't we deliver a truly unique experience for customers by printing phone cases for them? Sounds simple, right? Well, it was damn tricky and I wanted to share the story of how we made a practical 3D printing application happen.

Let's get a 3D printer

After client approval we jumped in and selected to use Makerbot's Replicator 2 printers for the task. They are hobbyist tools but part of the idea was to produce something that people would feel is accessible to them. Now, this introduced a challenge. This is for hobbyists and is not the best quality 3D printing out there (more expensive equipment gets better results but you can't just move those printers around). So we started by suggesting an online play with social engagement and some gifting. Oh no, the client wanted to go big. They were excited and we were on a wild ride. They wanted to put them in their new retail stores and gift custom cases when people sign up for new mobile plan with a new phone.

Selecting hardware that was accessible to consumers was key to make this compelling but tough to tame. We worked with a local expert, John Biehler, in Vancouver to get things set up and circumvent any issues. These printers can be a little tricky to set up and some parts do break so bringing in expertise was critical for us. This felt like a brave new world and we liked it.

Get to the design and prototyping

We had to build a product that was practical, good enough quality and evokes an emotional connection with the TELUS brand. We are an ad agency, not an industrial design shop, so we worked with an industrial design agency to take our designs and make them into 3D models to fit the phones

We had to be iterative with this design process and be quick with changes and retesting. I mean someone else could beat us to this idea. The immediacy was a very exciting part of this process. I would say that we had 10+ iterations of design testing before we decided on a couple of custom themed cases to fit the iPhone 5 and Samsung S4.

It was very quickly becoming apparent that we had changed course on what this project was. We were in the product design business. Back in the day it would've taken months, if not years, to build a practice to do this work. We had achieved it in less than four weeks. This highlights how the power to make things that enhance your life is now in the hands of the consumers.

Let's create engagement and desire

We decided to create engagement and interest through our social media channels. We started on Facebook with a time-lapse video followed by a teaser of the cases to see if people would bite. We saw requests for the cases and requests of where people could get them. What was heartening about this was that we had created a product really quickly and could gauge desire and need without spending a fortune and hoping that people would love what we built. This feedback was a huge part of qualifying that what we had created was the right thing after all.

We then installed them at new stores we got a huge amount of interest from passers by; customers and even rival providers came to see what we had done (a couple even tried to buy the cases from us). I'd say that's a great start and the #TELUS3D buzz has begun. Quietly, we were a world first in terms of a Telco actually deploying this technology and engagement in this way.

We are at the first stage of our journey with 3D printing and we've proved that there is a demand, so we'll have to think about where we take this to next. Because 3D printing platforms are so flexible, the sky is the limit. What's great is that we started quickly and executed. You can too.

This is a call to arms to all brands to start embracing this technology and do something useful with it that not only enhances your brand and inspires everyone to get involved.

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