Knowledge Base

3D Printing in Packaging Industry

Introduction to Packaging Industry
Packaging is an age old industry. Since ancient times, products have been wrapped in different materials, ranging from leaves (when paper was not yet manufactured), to glass, wood and metal foils.

There are a few basic purposes of packaging:

  • To protect the product. This is especially true of food material. Unless it is packaged properly, most of the edible items will perish due to oxidation and spoiling. Most of the food items we buy in the supermarket today are wrapped in protective plastic that protects it from spoiling and increases its shelf life. To date, protection and preservation of whatever is inside the packaging material is the most important application of packaging.
  • To protect an item from wear and tear, especially while transporting. This is another important use of packaging. Most of the items you buy are not manufactured where you stay; they are outsourced from other cities, states and even countries. With liberalisation of economic policies in India, it is now quite common to get products that are manufactured in U.S., U.K, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and other countries. Electronic gadgets, household applications, high end medical equipment and many other items are brought to India from air and sea. To survive such vast distances, it is necessary to package them properly in order to ensure that they are not damaged in transit.
  • To make a product attractive. Most manufacturers use fancy packaging as a ploy to attract customers. Attractive packaging is one of the ways to entice a customer, especially for products that are highly generic. Say you want to purchase a set of jars to store spices. If all the other parameters (shape, size and cost) remain same, you are more likely to purchase jars that are packed attractively.

Introduction to 3D Printing
3D printing (also called as additive manufacturing), is a printing process that brings to life a digital design in the physical world. In additive manufacturing, successive layers of material are deposited under computer control on special platforms to create an object. These objects can be of almost any shape or geometry and are produced from a digital 3D model or other electronic data source. As a technology, digital printing has been around for quite some time now, but commercial use of 3D printing is a relatively recent phenomenon. 3D printing as a viable option to traditional manufacturing has really taken off in the last decade or so.  Today, there are many different printing technologies like Stereolithography, Fused Deposition Modelling, Digital Light Processing, Selective Laser Sintering, Selective Laser Melting and Laminated Object Manufacturing that allow printing a wide range of objects. Big Area Additive Manufacturing, one of the newest entrants in the 3D printing field allows printing of huge components. Indeed, it won’t beexaggeration to say that from a small pin to an entire house, it is now possible to 3D print almost anything. 3D printing gives the opportunity for a product under development,  an  architect  model,  or  a  machine  part,  to  be  created  and  evaluated  before  its  real production. In some cases, it can be used directly, if the material fulfils the criteria that a final product requires for its usage.

3D Printing Material
One of the most salient features of 3D printing in India and elsewhere is the choice of printing materials it offers. From food to metal and from cellulose to plastics, the availability of raw material for 3D printing is indeed awe inspiring. Stratasys, the pioneer of FDM & PolyJet printers in the world, literally offers hundreds of raw material for use in their 3D printers.

Thermoplastics or industrial grade production plastics are one of the most commonly used raw materials for 3D printing. They can be melted and solidified repeatedly, without losing their properties. Other common plastics used as raw material include Polyastic acid (PLA), Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and Polyvinyl Alcohol Plastic (PVA).Some other 3D printing material includes powders, resins or photopolymers, metals and ceramics. Advantages of 3D printing in packaging

While 3D printing has been around for many years, industrial use of 3D printers in India, Singapore and other countries for packaging has just started to get traction. 3D printing of packaging provides many advantages over conventional packaging methods. Much of this is because of improvements in 3D printing technology.  While the earlier 3D printers were quite expensive, innovations have afforded leading 3D printing companies – Stratasys for example – to offer excellent 3D printing quality at an affordable cost. One of the biggest advantage 3D packaging provides is in terms of speciality packaging. Let us say you plan to celebrate your 25th school reunion with a special, custom designed memento. The memento will have your school colours, and each of your batch mates will have their own name printed on it. In addition, it will be presented to you and each one of your friends in an attractive, custom designed box that will bear the group photo and the year of passing out from the school. Since it is the 25th year, it is a special occasion and all of you are willing to go the extra mile to create the souvenir. It is just not possible to get this done by conventional means, as the price to create one die for 25 mementos and the packaging will be inordinately high.  Instead, a custom designed and 3D printed memento and a 3D packaged box will do the trick, as it is possible to manufacture even a single object using 3D printing. Or take the case of a limited edition some high end pen manufacturer introduces. Usually, the limited edition pens are restricted to only 1000 – 2000 pieces. What is more, they are packaged in a special, custom designed box. While trading, collectors of such pens insist on the original packaging as it too has a ‘limited edition’ value. 3D printing and 3D packaging provides ideal solution to such manufacturers. And as the demand for such niche packaging rises, and 3D printers become more affordable, it is becoming a genuine option for packaging designers and brands. Yet another example of usefulness of 3D packaging is for conferences and events, which are usually a one-off thing.

Another advantage of 3D printers is the array of 3D printing material available for printing today. As environmental awareness grows, there is a steady but growing demand for sustainable packaging material. Some such environment or bio-compatible materials includes celluloid fibres, paperFoam, bioFoam, bio-thermoplastic elastomers and other such innovative packaging material. 3D printing, with its inherent advantage of adaptability and scalability, can play a huge role in making commercial use of such environment friendly material in packaging.

Challenges
3D packaging has opened up new vistas for innovative packaging ideas. However, one of the most important constraints is the cost. While the prices of 3D printers have come down, mass 3D packaging is still not as inexpensive as traditional packaging.  But as consumers demand more and more personalisation in the products they use, 3D printing companies like Stratasys, Solidscape, etc. will certainly innovate to fulfill these demands. Stratasys 3D Printers such as J826™, J835™ and J850™ 3D printers are especially great for vivid realistic packaging. It will be most interesting to watch the progress of 3D packaging in the future.