Neil Farmer look at the future of 3D printing and its potential influence in the packaging market…
There has been a lot of talk and press coverage in recent months about 3D printing. For example in February it was reported that a surgeon had used 3D printing techniques to create a new pelvis for a man who had lost half of his original one to cancer. Similarly there has been much media attention about a boy in Sudan whose arms had been blown off and the attempts by the founder a Los Angeles startup company to build him a new arm, with the aid of 3D printers. All this is magnificent news, giving us hope for the future, due to the wonders of a newish technology.
I say newish technology because 3D printing has been around for some time. This fact has not stopped some impressive growth figures being recently revealed for the industry. Wohlers Associates in the US, one of the leading firms studying 3D printing, has estimated that sales of 3D printing products and services will approach $6 billion worldwide in 4 years. By 2021 they say the industry will be worth $10.8 billion. These are significant numbers by any standards, particularly as 3D printing had been on a much slower trajectory of growth over the previous 20 years.
I say all this because I attended a DMG Media Roundtable meeting about 3D printing earlier in the year at Stationers` Hall, London. The information provided and the presentations, by Print Research International and HK3D, were very professional and the general air of optimism for the industry was plain for all to see.
3D Printing-First Spirits Pack
As I mentioned to the speakers during their talk, Caskstrength Creative recently created a 3D whisky pack for Diageo, the first time 3D printing has been used for spirits packaging in the UK. The back label of each bottle contains a QR code, which links through to a website where plans for a bottle sleeve can be downloaded for a “print-your-own”, presentation case. For consumers without access to a 3D printer, the pack comes with 3D glasses which reveal a “stereoscopic” special effect. This is a great promotional and marketing concept and demonstrates how 3D printing will have a niche role to play in the future in the packaging industry.
3D Print and Packaging Design
The need for greater product differentiation at the point of purchase in the FMCG market has meant that new designs and innovations have to be produced more quickly and efficiently than ever before. As a result in our industry, use of 3D design and imaging, prototyping and sampling will all continue to grow. Virtual proofing, prototyping and the creation of new 3D shapes are all part of the shortening of the design process, including the creation of new moulds for plastics production. Companies such as FFEI of Hemel Hempstead with their RealPro and RealVue 3D Packagers are already doing much in this field. Dassault Systems of France has one of the most widely known software packages for 3D designers and innovators. There are many other companies in the market, as the presenters at the DMG Roundtable mentioned.
The use of 3D Print in mass-market Packaging Production
However this brings me back to my main point, which is, will 3D printing be able to provide a real alternative to conventional and traditional high speed methods of mass packaging production, for items such as cartons and corrugated? This is a big ask and one which the jury is still out on.
No one is denying that new ideas, new shapes and ingenious concepts can be created in a garage in someone`s house thanks to the wonders of 3D printing. Perhaps that is the great thing about the 3D industry-we are not sure where it will eventually take us or indeed what will be built. Certainly in medicine and science the opportunities seem endless. As for mainstream packaging production we must wait and see, with some reservations.