Phoenix, Arizona

Owner and founder Antonio Gutierrez invented a new product for his saltwater aquarium, then launched an additive manufacturing business based on his idea.

Gutierrez didn’t originally set out to start a business. Instead, he was trying to create a substitute for the spin stream in his home aquarium. The spin stream was supposed to randomize water flow, simulating water movement in the ocean. “Problem with that is it’s a mechanical device that’s got gears, so it would always stick or get dirty and you had to clean it constantly to keep it functional,” he says. He envisioned a nozzle with a spiral in it that would create a vortex flow pattern.

3D printers had come down in price to just $200, just Gutierrez bought one and tried to make his invention a reality. His first idea didn’t work as intended, but he soon came up with a design that worked well.

Spontaneous Company Creation

Gutierrez realized that there was a market for his product when he tested it at a local fish store. “Someone else was standing there and said, ‘Hey, what is that?’ And I just off the cuff said, ‘It’s a Random Flow Generator,’” he recalls. He sold it for $20 on the spot.

Gutierrez and his family set up a website, and they brought their products to a small trade show. Within a few hours, they sold out their inventory. Encouraged by strong demand, they invested in more printers and scaled up the business.

Vivid Creative Aquatics’ flagship product, the Random Flow Generator, contains a five-vane helix with each vane connected to an eductor. These vanes form channels that randomize water flow from a central jet. “It almost acts like a five-channel nozzle where only one channel is active at a time,” Gutierrez says. “So if you could imagine holding a hose at this end and turning it on, and it’s bouncing around and gradually going in every direction, one direction at a time, that’s what this nozzle does.” The direction and intensity fluctuate thanks to turbulence from internal micro-ridges, and no moving parts are needed to direct the flow.

The company manufactures other aquarium accessories, too, including plastic tweezers, display mounts, and vacuum attachments.

Most of Vivid Creative Aquatics’ business is wholesale through distributors in North America, Europe, and Asia. About 20% of sales are direct to consumers.

Revenue has increased every year, with an especially large jump in 2020 during the boom in pet supplies. Since then, it’s stabilized to a respectable 10% to 12% growth a year. Sales have been a bit softer in 2023, perhaps due to inflation and economic uncertainty. Gutierrez always sees a temporary slowdown over the summer, but this year it’s happened earlier than usual.

Vivid Creative Aquatics’ 2,400 square-foot office is divided into three equal sections: a manufacturing environment where the printers are housed; an area for QC, packaging, and inventory; and a front lobby for displays and demonstrations.

Upgrading Printers for American Quality

The company has 36 fused deposition modeling 3D printers. Gutierrez buys inexpensive hobby-grade printers, then upgrades them with $50 to $60 worth of additional parts. “Most of the parts deal with what we call the hot end, which is the part that actually extrudes the plastic,” he says. “In general, hobby-grade printers don’t have direct drive and they don’t have all-metal hot ends. And so we would upgrade those things to a more capable extruder and hot ends.”

Gutierrez tries to source materials from the U.S. as much as he can. It’s often not possible to find filament that’s produced in the U.S., but he sources all packaging components—like inserts and clamshells—from U.S. companies.

Vivid Creative Aquatics doesn’t face much direct competition from other manufacturers because its top product is one-of-a-kind. “Our main competition really is just people making their own parts,” Gutierrez says, particularly as 3D printers are more widely adopted.

But an advantage of buying from Vivid Creative Aquatics is that Gutierrez has done the work of figuring out how to attach components to aquariums that don’t always have standard fittings.

The company emphasizes customer service. “We take our reputation very seriously,” Gutierrez says. “We try to make sure we treat every customer the same way we would like to have been treated when we were just hobbyists.”

Challenges: Securing sufficient quantities of raw materials is a challenge. Gutierrez used to make his products out of rigid plastic, but he launched a new version using a stiff rubber-like material. Sourcing it has proved difficult, and he often faces long wait times. “Last month I bought pretty much every available spool of that material in the entire U.S.”

Opportunities: Gutierrez designed the Random Flow Generator to work in water, but the same concept can be applied to any fluid, including air. He’s working on a similar product to direct airflow in small grow rooms and grow tents.

“If you want to grow tomatoes or whatever else you might want to grow, one of the challenges is creating a nice breeze or air movement around and through the leaves and things like that, to give the plants enough stress to make them grow properly–but not so much stress that they put too much energy towards their stalk and not towards their fruit,” he explains. His new product solves that problem by distributing air randomly, producing air movements that resemble the breezes plants encounter in nature.

Needs: The 3D printers regularly need to be repaired or replaced. Also, Gutierrez is considering opening a line of credit or seeking another funding source. So far he’s opted not to borrow money to grow the company. “That might be something we need to change, going forward, to make it through the slower periods. I haven’t decided that yet, but that might be something we need to look at a little closer,” he says.