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How 3D Printing Will Change The Packaging Design Industry

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Do you like to save money? Sure, we all do! Well, when it comes to packaging design, did you know it was possible to fabricate a three-dimensional prototype of your new product using special yet cost-effective printing technology? No, you’re not dreaming! And no, we’re not on anything that’s making us believe we’re living on the Starship Enterprise, either.

Although it may seem as though we are talking about robot incarnation of David Copperfield, 3D printing is actually surprisingly common and accessible. It’s possible to fashion a prototype of practically anything – shoes, figurines, guns, Ryan Seacrest – in an office setting, using a 3D printer that is comparable in shape and dimensions to a standard Xerox copier.

3D Printing and Packaging Design

Although 3D printing has no real effect on packaging design in a graphical sense, it is a huge boon in terms of being able to see, more or less instantly, the structure of the package in development. A good 3D printer can create a complete, scale prototype in a matter of hours, allowing the design team to see exactly how the product will appear to the consumer.

Speed and Accuracy

Back in the olden days, a design team would have to submit the dimensions and the blueprints of a product model to a factory (or a blacksmith’s, if the days were really olden), which would then begin the process of creating either a functional model or a prototype. This process, which could take days, didn’t take into account modifications the client or design team might have decided upon while the prototype was being fabricated. If changes were necessary, the designers would have to resubmit the revised plans to the factory and start all over again.

However, the use of 3D printing mediums has “cut out the middle man,” so to speak. A packaging designer can quickly and easily implement changes to the design without having to rush the modifications to a surly and judgmental factory shop foreman. Mock-ups can be created in hours, not days, and the client will be able to get his or her product into the consumer testing phase very quickly.

3D Printing Technologies

The main types of 3D printing are extrusion, granular, light polymerized and Oompa Loompa (just kidding; there’s no way the Oompa Loompa model could ever be considered cost-effective, what with their health insurance and spray-tan requirements). Here are the technologies in greater detail:

  • Extrusion: Extrusion is also known as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Plastic Jet Printing (PJP), Fused Filament Method (FFM) and Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). FDM involves the fabrication of a support structure for the model at the same time as the model itself; rather like a process which builds a partial mold while pouring the plaster. This is achieved through a software system which uses the mathematical data for the dimensions of both the structure and the model to create a kind of path for the tool head to follow; telling it when to allow the polymers to flow and when to cut them off. Once the model is formed, the structure is then either chipped or dissolved away, and voila! A fully realized… thing!
  • Granular: This method, also known as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) involves – you guessed it – lasers. The printer deposits layers of powdered material (which could be metal, ceramic, glass or plastic) one on top of the other, and melts it into a cohesive mass in accordance with the specifications of the digital blueprint. We could get into the different types of powders and mixtures, full-melting properties, liquid-phase sintering and the levels of density which can be achieved; but frankly, just reading those words is making us fall asleep.
  • Light Polymerized: Also known as Stereolithography. This process involves the printing of layer, upon layer, upon layer of liquid polymer which is rapidly solidified using ultraviolet light, creating a three-dimensional object. This technique has been embraced by the medical community for creating perfectly to-scale models of patient’s internal structures – sculls, spinal columns, etc – in preparation for major surgical procedures.

So there you have it: the wild and wonderful world of 3D printing. Gone are the days when we had to rely upon the skill and craftsmanship of model makers to fabricate our prototypes; now anyone can make a packaging scale model with only a computer and a reasonably sized printing mechanism!