As one of the corporate and creative world’s most booming industries, product packaging and printing is constantly changing its nature, becoming more innovative and diverse with each advancement. With printing processes such as offset, flexo, and digital printing, manufacturers and businesses are able to design a package print which is durable, protective, and visually appealing for a relatively substantial cost which sees positive results. But what about new and experimental technologies like 3D printing? Does this highly sophisticated and versatile development of the printing process have the potential to revolutionise the product packaging world, or at least one stage of the process? Critics may argue that until the technology becomes more mainstream, the method may be a little too mad – at least, cost-wise. But it’s also a technology which could be worth looking at for businesses.
The World of 3D
It’s not just riveting cinema action anymore – 3D has ventured into the homes and businesses of aspiring designers and developers, with some even patenting their own economical version of the printer, and leading national institutions holding their own exhibits on the technology. But how exactly does 3D printing work?
The technique itself is fairly straightforward, creating a solid image by process of accumulation or additive process, whereby differently shaped layers of material are laid down on top of one another. This varies from the subtractive processes of traditional printing methods which rely on cutting or drilling to reduce the material. The 3 main types are extrusion, granular, and light polymerised.
Beginning with virtual blueprints in STL, PLY, VRML or WRL file formats, which are created with software such as computer aided design (CAD) or animation modelling software, the images are divided into cross-sections and the machine binds these successive layers together on a build bed or platform. These are laid down using liquid, powder, paper or sheet material components which are then fused together to create the desired shape and size (determined by printer and X-Y resolution in dpi – dots per inch – or micrometers). The time taken to print the model can range from hours to days, dependent on the project, with additive systems resulting in greater versatility and quickest production time vs. injection moulding which provides a more economical method. During the final stages, sometimes additive processes are combined with subtractive processes which remove additional material creating a higher level of accuracy.
Due its incredibly adaptable nature and capability to print not only various shapes and sizes but print several colour combinations at once, 3D printing is quickly becoming the new alternative for businesses across the globe, commonly used for prototyping and distributed manufacturing in:
- Architecture and construction (AEC)
- Industrial design
- Art and sculpture
- Automotive and mechanics
- Engineering (most specifically civil)
- Medical industries
- Geographic information
- Food industry
- Fashion, footwear, and jewellery as well as several others.
With increasing accessibility to 3D printers and the freedom of open source 3D printing, more customers are able to effectively reduce costs in their business due to saving money on not using other printing techniques which may require several different machines and processes to produce one type of object, as well as the ability to print out solid objects which would otherwise be expensive to purchase.
Re-energizing the Art of Packaging
Inevitably, 3D printing provides the perfect venue for the creation of packaging, particularly flexible packaging. This field alone hails a large number of companies which specialise in developing software toolkits for businesses that use flexible packaging blueprints, modules and templates. A business can benefit from not having to combine traditional printing techniques, maintaining machines, or contracting printers, as well as saving on labour and resulting in a quicker turnaround time and more profit. Businesses might question the quality of the product, asking whether the product will be safe and durable, as well as aesthetically appealing and marketable. These demands are met by customising 3D printers themselves as well as incorporating the concerns of a 3D printer into the initial design process.
There is a massive selection on the market which specialises in 3D printing machines, ranging from entry-level basic functionality to high-end, state of the art technology, catered to industry leaders and designers with new prototypes frequently developed. Though initially high in price, supply and demand is bringing it down gradually and as more packaging design is integrated into its function, more improvements will be made and will become accessible to businesses of varying sizes. In fact, this technology could eventually replace flexographic and offset printing in the future, if not make a considerable impact in the competition.
Eco-friendly? Getting there.
Like much of the new technology which is making waves across the packaging industry, 3D printing is becoming one of the more sustainable practices by reducing carbon footprint and using recycled materials and components which are treated carefully and meet regulation standard. By being able to produce an entire package, it saves the amount of resources which would typically go into the traditional printing techniques due to its ability to replicate other material, as well as eliminating the need to acquire and transfer materials between two different printing styles. Most impressively, it also places considerably more capabilities into the hands of small businesses, who can produce their own packaging and in turn make a profit – a viable investment for years to come.