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Firm creates custom cremation urns with 3-D printers

MINNEAPOLIS – Pete Saari, a veteran technology marketing executive, got an idea three years ago from an article about the fast-growing cremation industry.

Pete Saari is a partner in Foreverence, a small design and manufacturing business that uses 3-D printing to make individualized funeral urns. (Courtesy of Foreverence)

Pete Saari is a partner in Foreverence, a small design and manufacturing business that uses 3-D printing to make individualized funeral urns. (Courtesy of Foreverence)

Saari was less than impressed with standard urns sold through the funeral industry. They range from the veritable box to different vases and containers and materials available for up to several hundred dollars.

He thought there might be a market for higher-cost, individualized urns that said something about the deceased. And he knew how they could be made.

So in 2014, Saari, then working in the 3-D printing industry, and a partner started Foreverence, a small design and manufacturing business that has started to get traction with its customized urns that sell for an average $2,500.

The designs range from a replica of a red 1971 Chevrolet Chevelle convertible, complete with a box of 8-track tapes in the back seat, to a 22-inch tall Space Shuttle Columbia urn that holds the ashes of a former NASA engineer.

“We have a great deal of respect for funeral-service professionals, but they don’t exactly embrace change and new ideas,” said Saari, who’s going with a direct-to-consumer model. He’s trying to hit people with targeted marketing who are working on end-of-life planning and to affinity groups such as car clubs, travel clubs and boating organizations, as well as the Foreverence website.

Saari and his partner founded the firm on the belief that there was a market for a higher-end, customized urn that memorialized the deceased in an industry dominated by standardized products that typically sell for a few hundred bucks or less.

“We didn’t think traditional urns offered that expression of an individual’s legacy that some families want,” Saari said. “We couldn’t see that anybody was making customized urns.”

It didn’t hurt in January when CEO Saari, 49, got noticed in the entertainment press when he showed up at the funeral of Motorhead musician Lemmy Kilmister in Los Angeles with a family-ordered black urn shaped like Kilmister’s trademark black cavalry hat, including his Ace of Spades tattoo and the lyrics “Born to lose, live to win.” The urn will be on permanent display at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood.

Talk about free advertising that yields benefits.

Foreverence, which is based outside Minneapolis with eight employees, including two designers and a machinist, shares a computer-aided design file over the Internet with customers that is tweaked to customer satisfaction. Foreverence uses a 3-D Systems’ ColorJet Printer to create the finished product that is made of a ceramic-like material that is layered into shape.

Foreverence, which in January also made its first appearance at the huge Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, in cooperation with big 3-D Systems, says it’s one of the first 3-D printing companies to make a consumer product. Most design and produce prototypes and small batches of parts and products for industrial-design firms that serve various industries and manufacturers who take the molds to produce industrial and consumer products.

Co-founders Saari and Wally Danielson, former owner of a small medical technology company, have invested about $200,000 and are raising an unspecified amount of additional equity capital to fund expansion. Saari projected revenue this year of $750,000 based on current order flow, and $5 million in 2018.

“As you can imagine we are working with an extraordinarily large addressable market,” he said, with an eye to aging baby boomers as well as pets. “We’re not exactly talking about moving mountains … to reach our goals. And nobody was really making customized urns (for individuals). Every boring urn was called ‘customized.’ Blue vase or green vase. I thought, ‘Why should people just buy off-the-shelf products?’

“Our mission is to build a world-class company, but we also realize that we’ll likely be an attractive acquisition target … probably within three to five years.”

To be sure, Foreverence is aiming at a growth market.

The Cremation Association of North America says the cremation rate has nearly doubled over 15 years, from 25 percent in 1999 to 46.7 percent in 2014.