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Teri Maltais

In the Cambridge English Dictionary, the word generation is stated as being, “a period of about 25 to 30 years, in which most human babies become adults and have their own children”. Perhaps a generation ago, we most often thought about the word in this context. Today’s definition is technology-centric, “a group of products or machines that are all at the same stage of development.”

In manufacturing, next gen technology is 3D printing.

A recent PwC survey concluded that two-thirds of industrial manufacturers, particularly in aerospace and automotive were already using 3-D printing with the global market expected to grow by 45.7% in 5 years.

3D printing hasn’t (fully) caught on yet in Packaging.

But according to a Packaging Digest interview with 3D printing expert Paul Palovich, Vice President of Printing 3D Parts, Inc.,  the packaging industry hasn’t fully realized the value of 3D printing yet but that’s not because the value isn’t there.

“Having an accurate, production representative container prototype available in weeks, instead of months, and with no tooling costs is a major savings in time and money in the overall packaging design process. Marketing studies and design reviews can be conducted months before they are done with the current process. Since 3D printing is “lights out” manufacturing, necessary revisions can be incorporated overnight,” says Palovich. 

Beyond basic prototyping, we think the smart application of 3D printing in packaging is actually embedded sensors. Specifically, innovative sensors and 3D prototypes converging to improve the process of light-weighting.

Beyond basic prototypes, 3D replicas with embedded sensors will drive light-weighting.
In the 1950s, the average beer can was more than six times as heavy as they are now. The sleek, feather-weight cans we know today are a result of decades of advancements in light-weighting, the practice of reducing the gauge of aluminum on cans and lowering tolerances.

The practice of light-weighting is a priority in canning and bottling plants today but even with basic 3D prototyping, designs cannot be tested for performance on the line without producing samples.

Until now.

From CAD drawings, 3-D replicas that are the exact size and shape of the container design (critical for precise measurements) are embedded with sensors which detect all pressures, speeds, spin and scuffing with a Bluetooth transmitter that sends real time data to the line operator’s tablet. Areas of issue are pinpointed making for quick fixes. When testing new containers on a line this is invaluable.

In the future, the weight of the containers can also be duplicated using the light-weight plastic from which the 3D model is produced. This is very cool stuff, is it not? (For a more detailed look at 3D try by Christopher Barnatt)

So, new size or shape container…no problem. New lightweight container…no problem. Sensor technology has and continues to change production levels in plants by reducing damages, reducing testing time and reducing down time. And now 3D printing is taking sensor technology to the next level. If your plant is not taking advantage of “decisions by data” now readily available to you, the next generation of producers might just be passing you by.