Little did he know, though, that his tinkering would turn into more than a hobby.
Booen, of Grand Forks, is making a splash in the 3D printing world with Coby Manufacturing, producing a line of outdoors products that range from accessories for ice fishing electronics to rod holders, one-wheel skateboard accessories and parts for personal watercraft.
All of this from an 8- by 11-foot room in the upstairs of his Grand Forks home.
“As 3D printers got more affordable, I figured it’s a fun hobby, and I love gadgets,” Booen said. “I’m always making things, I’m always buying new gadgets.”
It all started nearly four years ago, when a buddy asked Booen if he could make a plastic “arm” to extend the transducer of an ice fishing flasher farther away from the hole. A transducer is the part of the electronics that sends an electrical pulse down the water column and converts the signal to an image or mark on the depth finder screen.
Transducer cords are notorious for getting stuck on the edge of the hole, and the “arm” Booen created with his 3D printer alleviated that problem.
At his friend’s suggestion, Booen promoted the transducer arm by posting a photo on a couple of internet ice fishing forums.
Pretty soon, dozens of anglers wanted one.
“They were insanely popular beyond what I ever would have thought,” Booen said. “That kind of got things going.”
Spurred by demand for the transducer arms, Booen began buying more 3D printers as the technology improved and became more affordable. That led him to launch Coby Manufacturing, a name that’s basically a cross between his first and last name; family members helped with the naming, Booen says.
“I didn’t want my first name, everybody does that,” Booen said. “I wanted something different, and so we just kind of combined the two, and that’s where we ended up.”
Soon to mark its third year, Coby Manufacturing has come a long way from those early transducer arms, Booen says. It’s almost like a third job for Booen, who works for a company that calibrates oil tanks to make sure they meet safety standards, and also maintains rentals for a local property management company.
“It turned into such a big demand, I decided I’d make a business out of it,” Booen said. “We started with just one thing, and now I think there are 75 different items on the website.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon before the COVID-19 pandemic put the country on pause, Booen showed off his 3D printing operation. A dozen printers of various sizes and capabilities lined the shelves of the small room, whirring and humming as they created some of the products his company offers.
“They’re always running – driving my family crazy,” Booen said with a laugh.
When designing an item to print, Booen starts by creating a file in a 3D computer program and entering the specifications, such as the shape and type of plastic being used, into software that’s specific to each printer.
In lay terms, Booen says, the 3D printer basically is a computerized hot glue gun.
“All it does is take your solid materials, heat them up, it comes out of a nozzle, and different motors move everything around to lay the plastic out into a shape,” Booen said. “You can even set the detail – turn it way up or way down, put it on a memory card, put it in the machine, press start and there it goes.”
Once he makes an item, Booen says he’ll often go back and change settings or other parameters to improve the product.
“There are probably a thousand different settings you can get into,” he said. “I’m still learning some of them, but the main ones, there’s probably about 40 things you’ve got to make sure and set correctly, and they vary from machine to machine.”
It’s a slow process, and a typical printing job can take several hours, depending on the product, Booen says; a transducer arm, for example, takes three to four hours.
Plastic and printers
The plastic comes in filament form on reels of various colors. Booen uses four types of plastic, all with varying degrees of flexibility, durability and ease of use.
“There are probably 20 or 30 different materials out there, too,” Booen said. “I run just kind of the four basic ones that I kind of stick with, depending on what the item is.”
Because the printers can run at temperatures of more than 480 degrees F, Booen says he’s constantly replacing parts and upgrading plastic parts with metal parts that hold up better under the heat.
Booen’s most expensive printer cost about $1,200, he says, but there are machines on the market that can cost $8,000 or more.
“There’s so much technology above and beyond even what I do,” he said. “What I do hardly scratches the surface of 3D printing. I’d love to get into more of it, and as the company grows, I certainly will be expanding into different materials and features.”
Booen has produced parts for companies in Nebraska and Texas and has worked with ice fishing manufacturers to develop accessories for their products, especially those related to fishing electronics.
“The thing with this 3D printing world is anybody can recreate anything, and if you’re going to sell it, you’ve got to watch out for the patents and things like that,” he said. “Nobody offers what I offer, and that kind of corners the market for me. If there’s something else out there, I try to stay away from that.”
The internet and Facebook are his best marketing tools, Booen says, but despite his location, North Dakota and Minnesota aren’t his strongest markets, especially for products not related to ice fishing.
“There are a few customers in Minnesota and North Dakota, but a majority of it is a lot farther out,” he said. “The (personal watercraft) and those one-wheel skateboard parts, that’s worldwide. I make those parts and send those parts out all over the world.”
Booen also does custom projects, such as recreating parts no longer on the market, or designing products and gadgets for his boat or fish house.
“The biggest thing I’ve found is that you have to keep innovating, and that’s where the website has grown so many different products,” he said.
That’s especially true with ice fishing and other outdoors products.
“One thing gets old, and you’ve got to have something new – especially with anything outdoors,” he said. “They love gadgets, they love whatever’s new. So if you’re making something new, they’re going to buy it. There’s no doubt about that.”
Booen coordinates all of the shipping from home and says his “little homegrown shipping center” gets busy, at times.
“There are websites out there that make it so easy for you to keep track of everything,” he said. “It’s all online, everything I do. The only thing I’ve really used local-wise is merchandise for hats and shirts and things like that.”
He might need more space soon, but for now, Booen says he’s enjoying the ride.
“I never would have imagined I’d be where I am in just two years,” he said. “I thought trying to grow it on my own was going to take a lot longer.”
Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to [email protected].