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Tuesday, 02 February 2021 13:04

3D Printing Has Disrupted Packaging - Here's How

Ben Darling, Country Manager for ANZ, Stratasys Ben Darling, Country Manager for ANZ, Stratasys

By Ben Darling, Country Manager for ANZ, Stratasys:   It’s no surprise that 3D printing has forced several industries to change, and as the technology advances, its impact ripples outward into new areas. Much of the improvement exhibited by the 3D printing sector concerns the cost of obtaining and using a 3D printer, with $100 printers now empowering hobbyists at any level to become a “maker” themselves.

This disruption in the age-old manufacturing dynamic, whereby factories are the exclusive makers of goods, has now spread to the packaging sector as 3D printers also set their sights on the wrapping and boxing that these goods arrive in. As printing tech evolves, the tide continually rises towards a total sea change for the entire manufacturing industry.

What’s at Stake for Packaging?

The packaging industry ranks among the world’s largest, and is likely to a reach valuation of $1 trillion by next year according to data collected by Smithers Pira. 3D printing is normally considered to be firmly in the realm of products rather than packaging, yet innovations in the development of prototype packages and other areas have raised 3D printing’s value within the greater packaging industry to approximately $20 billion, per ID Tech Ex.

Machinery manufacturers, prototyping, customisation and personalisation, recycling, and other ideas adjacent to packaging are beginning to take a new shape thanks to 3D printing. These innovations are able to save enormous time and money for enterprise companies. In turn, printers, and consequently their capabilities, are being reworked to align better with the needs of the packaging industry itself.

Printers Support Manufacturing Uptime

To think of packaging, one might conjure images of an assembly line putting together cardboard boxes or other types of cartons and plastic enclosures. Consider that to create packages requires machinery, but also that 3D printing packages directly isn’t yet cost-effective enough to justify. Accordingly, a vital purpose of 3D printing in packaging is to quickly create cheap replacement parts for packaging machines.

As well as printing the packaging manufacturing machines themselves, being able to source spare parts for these machines on-site reduces downtime and increases profits. Packaging plants currently source parts from overseas in many cases, but this is a detriment to uptime. Instead of a parts catalogue, firms supplying these packaging plants are now starting to bundle relevant parts-printing software with the machinery.

Prompt Prototypes

With a new product comes a new package to store and ship it. This means that the packaging industry must keep up with an ever-expanding line of goods, and design cost-effective and creative ways to store them. Prototyping is the stage of this process that takes the most time and is likely the primary application of 3D printing in packaging, with the ability to progress from a CAD blueprint of a plastic bottle mold to a usable model within hours.

Being able to quickly prototype multiple packages for a product cuts lead times dramatically and therefore puts products on the shelf quicker. Unilever has already accelerated its consumer product prototyping efforts by 40% thanks to injection molds sourced from a Stratasys Objet500 Connex Multi-material 3D printer. For Unilever, this has resulted in reduced costs for product iterations while retaining high quality standards.

Also important is the notion that in-house manufacturing lessens the need to order parts and prototypes from abroad, which highlights a less direct but still measurable decrease in fossil fuel emissions stemming from cargo ships, planes, and commercial vehicles.

Filament a Focus for Recycling

Packaging is one of the worst culprits of worldwide pollution, but the incorporation of 3D printing into the industry has made it easier to recycle reclaimed packaging for future use. Filament used in 3D printers is an excellent final product for repurposed plastic trash that’s been cleaned, melted and extruded back into shape. As 3D printers are increasingly able to print with biodegradable plastics and polymers, the cost and environmental impact of green packaging dwindles.

For a company that manufactures goods (even if it’s packaging), less waste directly translates to a bigger bottom line. Moreover, reusing plastic waste isn’t the only reason that 3D printed packaging, molds, and parts are considered green. While many manufacturing processes are subtractive, meaning that they create something and then shave it down to size, additive manufacturing on a layer-by-layer basis substantially cuts the amount of material used.

Keeping a packaging line up and running efficiently is the chief goal for operators in the space, and so it pays to stay vigilant of new 3D printing applications. The technology is improving rapidly and is projected to alter the way packaging business flows look in a handful of years. Given a track record of superior accessibility, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness it’s not difficult to imagine a bright future for 3D printing’s role in packaging.

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