How 3D printing empowers packaging operations

By Lisa McTigue Pierce in Optimization on October 15, 2014

3D printers have been used for years to make packaging prototypes. But the new frontier for 3D printing is a bit more industrious, as packaging engineers figure out how to use it to help their manufacturing operations. This is one of the hottest areas in 3D printing, according to Mike Littrell, president of CIDEAS, a successful 3D printing and finishing firm. “3D printing won’t replace manufacturing 100%, but it can certainly aid it,” Littrell says.

Here are three ways packaging lines can use 3D printing to save time, materials and money:

1. For making/improving packaging machinery parts. There are several examples of this.

• If parts are no longer available on some of your older machines, consider making them yourself. Engineers can use 3D scanning to reverse engineer an obsolete part, create a CAD file and then make the part on a 3D printer.

• In most cases, 3D printed parts can be produced much faster than on a CNC (computer numerical control) machine.  Engineers can use 3D printing to quickly create a temporary part, fixture, jig or mold to keep the manufacturing line running while the permanent part or mold is machined. Although I say “temporary,” some of these bridge parts/tools are quite robust. At CIDEAS, they currently have custom-made ABS/M100 and polycarbonate parts aiding their own production operations—without failure—for more than 12 years.

• Because 3D printing can build complex parts without the same design constraints of an injection molded one, these parts can be creatively engineered to save material, which also saves costs. One example from CIDEAS is a closure chute made from ABS plastic for a capping machine. It was designed to be built with a sparse lattice of material internally, leaving the exterior surface of the part solid. It is still strong enough to withstand the rigors on the packaging line, yet saves a significant amount of material. Multiply this by the number of ultra-high-molecular-weight (UHMW) parts on a packaging machine and you (or your machinery manufacturer) may realize substantial savings.

Making your own packaging machinery parts, molds, jigs, fixtures or other tools “on demand” also reduces your parts inventory and all those associated costs. And might just help you make a critical product launch date.

2. For accurate scale modeling. Virtual simulation only goes so far. Engineers can create to-scale models of packaging machines to more accurately gauge the spatial layout of a new packaging line/plant.

3. For package design verification and testing on the line. Creating a porous mold used for thermoforming, for example, allows packaging engineers to more quickly create various pack designs for testing to see how minute changes may improve the flow of the package on the filling line.

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