A waitress approached Wylen Ford’s table carrying food, silverware and a glass of water. She gave him a plastic straw for his drink. That’s how he got the idea.
A few years later, Ford is almost ready to start production of its first invention, TheStrawWasher. One of its first prototypes was 3D printed at the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library’s Digital Den.
TheStrawWasher uses hot water, microscopic bubbles and cogwheels to clean bundles of metal straws. Ford hopes this will help restaurants phase out plastic straws while saving money.
“The government is removing these plastic straws and banning them but not offering a solution,” Ford said. “That’s where I come in and help them.”
Ben Rutz, the library’s digital media coordinator, had just started at the Digital Den and was going through emails left behind by his predecessor. This is how he began to correspond with Ford.
The Den hadn’t even celebrated its grand reopening from COVID when Ford met Rutz at the library. The 21-year-old inventor had no 3D modeling experience, but brought in some design drawings in hopes of materializing parts of a machine that had never been built before.
Using the project as a learning opportunity, Rutz showed off Ford Tinkercad, a primarily educational 3D modeling website that would help the inventor create gears for TheStrawWasher.
After that first lesson, Ford went home and started studying the website. He estimates that it took him two weeks to learn 3D modeling. He also worked as a full-time plumber at Roto-Rooter while developing his machine.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 19½ to 21 now,” Ford said. “Coming straight home to work every weekend, every night, every day. I’m just trying to make it a possibility.
“He just raced with it,” Rutz said, adding that the two met a few times for lessons before Ford printed different gear options for his invention.
The Digital Den charges $1 per hour of printing and generally sets a maximum of 5 hours. However, when Ford submitted projects that would take 8 to 10 hours, Rutz worked out a schedule to help get parts printed while other customers’ projects were idle.
Essentially, Ford said his invention was developed in a 5-square-foot corner of his garage. He used a borrowed drill press, some hand tools and a Dremel to build the first prototype. The second prototype used 3D printed parts from the Digital Den.
Ford is now waiting to see if its third prototype will be its last. Although the third prototype is also 3D printed, it could not use the printers in the Digital Den – the plastic used in the library’s 3D printers is not able to withstand the hot water needed to clean the metal straws.
Once it has decided on a design, Ford plans to use an injection mold instead of a 3D printer to manufacture the product.
Hoping that the third prototype will be his last, Ford returned to the Digital Den to create a cache of photos and videos to market the product. Rutz used the camera and showed Ford how to use Adobe Creative Cloud software to edit photos and videos. They also used the library green screen.
Material shot at the library, as well as Ford’s first 3D model, can be found on its website, https://strawwashin.com/ and its social media sites, each named “OFFICIALWYCO”. He also plans to launch a Kickstarter that will showcase the photos and videos produced in the Digital Den.
“It’s really crazy to see someone who came in, literally knew nothing about 3D printing, and then designed something that they’re now trying to get into restaurants,” Rutz said. “I’m really proud of the guy and can’t wait to see what happens with him.”