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Plumbing Marvels: Retailer Relies on 3D Printing to Serve Plumbing Customers

Nearly anything is possible when it comes to plumbing parts at Bonnets and Stems in Tucson, Arizona.

Like MacGyver getting out of tough situations with the creative use of tools, third-generation owner Bruce Nevins and his coworker, Tatjana McCombs, listen to customers’ problems, parse through their memory of plumbing parts and find the right part in his collection. And if they don’t have it, they use one of the store’s 12 3D printers to create a custom part.

“When thinking about 3D printing parts for any situation, it’s a no-brainer because of the quality, precision and speed at which we can make the new products,” Nevins says.

Along with creating custom plumbing parts, Nevins uses the 3D printers to manufacture everything from automotive parts to classroom kits for origami.

“We don’t restrict ourselves to plumbing,” Nevins says. “It’s our bread and butter but there’s nothing better than a new challenge. Tatjana even designed the parts and made a special housing for a Volkswagen van”

From Hobby to Sales

Nevins had been interested in 3D printing long before he took over his family business in 2010. 

 “I’ve been following 3D printing since its inception,” Nevins says. “I had friends making toys but I wanted to make something people could use.”

When he took over the store, the cost of 3D printing was prohibitive. But five years after he started running the store, his vision finally became financially viable and he began creating custom plumbing parts. Not long after, he hit a roadblock, as the materials were not suitable for plumbing parts.

“Fortunately, the materials started to improve and the printers started to become more available and affordable,” Nevins says. “3D printing software is also open source, which means anybody can use it and make improvements to it, making it exponentially better over the years.”

Now, his store has over 750 square feet dedicated to 3D printing equipment, including 12 printers. 

Three Ways to Implement 3D Printing in Your Store

3D printing allows your store to provide a unique service for your customers to set your store apart from the competition, but knowing where to start can be a challenge. 

  1. Connect to your operation.
    Learn as much as you can about 3D printing and how it could improve your customers’ shopping experience. Is there something unique about your area where 3D printing can fit in? How can your business blend 3D printing with products you already sell?
  2. Educate yourself.
    LinkedIn and YouTube both offer countless courses on 3D printing and can be a great, and free way, to learn more about 3D printing and how it could fit into your operation.

  3. Join together.
    Seeking partnerships with local educational outlets that are already well-versed in 3D printing is a great way to get guidance when entering this space. Many colleges and high schools have 3D printing clubs and classes that could provide your store with opportunities to partner and help initiate your endeavor. 

Doing What Others Can’t

Nevins says he gets calls from homeowners from around the U.S. daily. When Nevins asks how they found out about his business, almost all of them tell him they found the business on home renovation websites. 

Through the community connections he built around Tucson, Nevins organically grew his business nationwide by being the person who can do things others can’t.

Nevins says he inherited his mother’s knack for understanding plumbing and shares that knowledge with customers to build loyalty along with sales. 

“The technicians who come to our store may not have a lot of experience or training, and for a long time, my mother was the person they would fall back on,” Nevins says. “She could identify anything because she knew the industry. I’ve become that way too, where if I’ve seen a part once, I know what it is.”

Advantages of 3D Parts

3D-printed custom parts provide a more cost-effective alternative to conventional parts. For his custom parts, Nevins uses two types of plastics. Polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) plastic filament is durable but flexible. PETG is a good option for plumbing because of its heat resistance, ability to take an impact and resistance to solvents. Polylactic acid (PLA) filament is another type of plastic Nevins uses, which is a strong organic plastic but has low impact resistance and low chemical and temperature resistance.

Availability Is the Best Ability

Nevins prides himself on being available almost all of the time. He answers help requests via phone, social media and even a text-only number he has specifically for homeowners and plumbers as a direct line of communication.

“Our text-only number is extremely useful for homeowners to send pictures to us so we can identify parts,” Nevins says. “If they need help identifying a part, they can text us
seven days a week, 20 hours a day, and somebody from the shop will see it and answer it.”

Through this free service, Nevins has been able to assist plumbers who are out on job sites by using pictures to solve their problems.

Nevins says last year he received a text late at night on the weekend from a plumber at an apartment complex with over 450 units that had no water. One of the shower cartridges ruptured and shut off the water in the entire complex. Nevins walked the plumber and the owner through temporary solutions over the phone and was able to stop any more problems until the next morning when the plumber came into his store.

“When the plumber came in the following day to get spare parts to mitigate that problem in the future, he was shocked that I would help him so late,” Nevins says. “I told him, ‘With 450 units, that’s over 1,000 people with no toilets and no showers. It’d be cruel not to help.’”

5 Plumbing Merchandising Tips

Whether you make your plumbing parts in-house or order from a manufacturer, merchandising effectively is key to helping your customers find what they need.

  • Keep bins full

  • Keep bins organized
  • Straighten bulk items

  • Dust fixtures and faucets

  • Removed damaged packages

About Jacob Musselman

Jacob is the content coordinator for Hardware Retailing Magazine. A lifelong Hoosier, Jacob earned a B.S. in journalism and telecommunications with a minor in digital publishing from Ball State University. He loves making bagels, going to farmers markets with his wife Hannah and two dogs and watching Formula One.

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