Innovation, One Cup of Coffee at a Time

Jack Zhang with his coffee stirrer.

Fourteen years ago, I was introduced to the wonders of high quality coffee while studying in Italy. As I soaked in Italian culture, I regularly enjoyed artisan espresso and cappuccinos in small neighborhood shops. The silky smooth caffeinated tastes of Italy inspired me to start a company that sold espresso machines. When brewing my own coffee, I’ve always run into a basic problem that coffee lovers everywhere lament daily – throwing away slightly stale coffee to brew a brand new pot for just one fresh, aromatic cup. While that single cup of coffee is a wonderful experience, it must be brewed by expensive machines.

You also have to plan to make coffee; you can’t always grab coffee wherever you are. Earlier this year, I tried using a single-serving coffee bag, but the effect was lacking. Unlike tea bags that soak up the water and release their flavors, my coffee bag defiantly floated atop the hot water. When forcing the bag down with my fork my eureka moment came – why not pack a filtered straw with coffee grounds and stir in the flavor? And so, my mini coffee tube was born, combining the three functions of a container: filter and stirring tool into one simple and easy to carry device.

Armed with an idea, I set about designing the concept using 3D modeling software. Though the computer model was relatively easy to make, creating a physical prototype proved challenging. I needed advanced manufacturing technology like a milling machine and an injection molder, each of which can cost thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, I read in a newsletter about a fabrication lab that was opening up in Chicago just down the street from me. My wife and I walked into GE Garages at Chicago Ideas Week and everywhere we turned, there were the advanced machines I needed to bring my coffee tube to life, including CNC milling machines, laser cutters, 3D printers and even an injection molder. The space was a wonderful modern garage, a true “fab lab” space for makers to test and demonstrate advanced manufacturing equipment, share their latest ideas and connect with others in the community.

GE Garages was my first immersive contact with the maker community and opportunity to share ideas and collaborate with Garages experts. I joined a 3D printing skillshare class and worked with one of the on-site experts to modify my prototype rendering into something that could be recognized by the available printers. We then loaded my design and printed the first physical prototype. My mini coffee tube was real and I held it for the first time. After a short two hours of rapid prototyping with the 3D printers and CNC machines, I had two types of coffee tubes: a one-time use filter and reusable mini coffee tube. The reusable coffee tube is perfect for the busy coffee or tea lover who requires high quality taste with very little prep time. The mini tube can be used with any mixture of loose tea or coffee grounds, opening up a realm of possible tastes.

I am now working to make the reusable mini tubes available in stores across the U.S. The kit will include a coffee tube (made of stainless steel, aluminum, or bamboo), rolled filters and a funnel for easy filling. One-time use tubes will come in two sizes: a slim tube for mixing of ground coffee, flavors, sugar or cream. Larger diameter tubes will be filled with different flavors of coffee to satisfy any range of tastes.

With my prototype in hand, I plan on filing a patent for my mini coffee tube and hope to market it to the masses. Thanks to in-person collaboration and access to advanced manufacturing technology, I am one step closer to bringing the mini coffee tube to a store near you.

Join MAKE Executive Editor Mike Senese for a Google+ hangout on air tomorrow at 8:30am PT about GE’s “3D Printing Design Quest” and the role of the maker community in innovation. The design quest challenged GrabCAD’s community of makers to redesign an aircraft engine bracket. 

Participants include: 

• Steve Liguori, GE Executive Director of Global Innovation 

• Hardi Meybaum, GrabCAD Chief Executive Officer 

• Jordan Husney, Undercurrent Strategy Director

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