NelumBox: A 3D-Printed Mini-Fridge Revolutionizes Logistics
- German manufacturer Tec4med has developed NelumBox, a 3D-printed temperature control solution that eliminates the need for disposable styrofoam boxes.
- This results in far less waste when transporting temperature-sensitive products such as medicines, organs, and blood.
- In addition to its use in the pharmaceutical industry, NelumBox also has the potential to change e-commerce and cold-chain food transportation.
Back in 2014, Martin Voigt, a mechanical-engineering student, was temping as an onboard courier accompanying and monitoring temperature-sensitive shipments across several continents. Then, somewhere over the Atlantic on a flight from Brazil to Switzerland, it occurred to him that a better cold-chain storage solution was necessary.
For years, the standard had been to lay the goods (often blood samples) on cold packs or dry ice in disposable styrofoam boxes. Once the samples reached their destination, the boxes were thrown away. If the flight was delayed, so, too, was delivery, and the limited lifespan of the ice packs increased the risk that the samples would become too warm to be used. No alternatives were available: No boxes ran on electricity, and none were designed for repeat use.
Storing Medicine Like Food in the Fridge
Seven years later, Voigt is telling his story from the perspective of a businessman who recognized and exploited a gap in the market, joined forces with the right people in the right place, and worked on an idea until it became feasible. In 2017, he founded Tec4med Lifescience GmbH with Nico Höler and Julian Poths. The company develops digitalized, sustainable cooling solutions and now comprises 17 employees.
“Nelum is another word for lotus,” says Höler, CEO of Tec4med. Just as the plant can clean itself and keep dirt at bay using the lotus effect, the box regulates itself to a custom temperature. Any external influences such as temperature fluctuations or unexpectedly long transport times simply roll off the NelumBox like water or dirt off the leaves of a lotus flower. “The box is essentially a mini-fridge,” Höler says. Featuring two lithium-ion batteries that last up to 48 hours, the NelumBox can charge at any power outlet. Once plugged in, it can run indefinitely.
Tec4med is currently developing the NelumBox primarily for clinical trials and the pharmaceutical industry, but interest in this active cold-chain solution is growing among rescue services in the United States. “This is where we see the greatest demand,” Höler says. The box can be used both as a stationary and a mobile solution. The cloud stores its data on internal humidity, temperature fluctuations, movement, and battery status, which allows remote documenting, controlling, and monitoring.
There is also an integrated lock in case the box and its contents are stored at the patient’s home, but the patient is not supposed to have access to medication inside. “The person treating the patient can unlock the box using a card, apply the patient’s medication, and put it back in the box,” Höler says. “This means there is no need to transport the box between the study center and the patient’s house. It can simply remain there.”
3D Printing for Sustainability
Without computer-based tools, Tec4med’s founders quickly reached the limits of what was possible when designing a box that would produce less waste and function independently.
Then, they discovered Autodesk Fusion 360. “It allows us to visualize and simulate components and the box itself, as well as to test product versions for customers without having them physically in front of us,” Höler says. “We can also work beyond our limits as a single company, collaborate with external partners, and make data available to suppliers via the cloud, keeping everyone on the same page.”
Tec4med manufactures the cooling system components and the aerodynamically optimized housing grille with 3D printing. “We use it to build the grille without tools and without reworking,” Höler says. “And there are technical reasons, too.” This approach made it possible to optimize the cooling system’s component dimensions.
The NelumBox measures 35 x 35 x 22 centimeters (13.78 x 13.78 x 8.66 inches), has an internal volume of about 5 liters (1.32 gallons), and weighs 10 kilograms (22 pounds). The company’s long-term plans extend beyond the medical sector. Tec4med believes there is huge potential in cold-chain logistics in general, particularly in e-commerce and especially in food transport.
Basically, a grocery store would rent out boxes on a subscription model. Customers would then buy their groceries online and put the box on their doorstep. The digitalized box would know the delivery arrival time and start the refrigeration process in time to keep all the food inside cool throughout transport. The deliverer would simply unlock the box, put the food inside, and lock it again. The customer would then receive a cell phone notification of the delivery.
A lot has happened since Tec4med was founded four years ago. The company has ambitious plans, and with support from Autodesk’s Technology Impact Program, those plans are becoming more ambitious all the time. Tec4med aims to revolutionize the industry, and in fact, it may already have done so.