3D Printing the Future of Packaging?
Three dimensional printing has, believe it or not, been around in some form since the 1980's. Though to this point, much of the work of this technology has been for prototype purposes, the useful application of 3D printing seems primed to expand. In the medical field, for example, the technology has moved from prototyping to actual production of medical devices to, just recently, the production of pills. The advancement of 3D printing has far reaching implications and potential in many different areas of life in general, including the packaging industry.
Sticking with the pharmaceutical example, keep in mind that packaging machinery currently produces and prepares millions of pills for groups of patients. These pills are shipped to retailers, doctors, pharmacies and others, who in turn distribute the pills to the necessary patients. In most cases, the pills are mass produced and prescribed in general doses, rather than in a dose specifically tailored to the individual patient. Three dimensional printing of pills has the potential to allow each and every pill to be hand tailored to a specific patient, while also being quickly and easily accessible. Imagine a simple printer at your pharmacy or doctor's office, able to replace the processing and packaging lines that now create, sort, fill, cap, label and otherwise prepare pharmaceutical products.
Of course, the technology would not be limited to just medicine or pharmaceutical products either. The ability of the technology to bond liquid and powder into a pill form provides evidence that 3D printing may be set to move into other industries with the potential to completely renovate the packaging process. Rather than a blow molding machine for bottles, imagine a printer simply creating the bottles at the beginning of a packaging line. The same thing may be true of closures, adding a printer to a capping machine to allow the machine to not only seal bottles, but create the closures as necessary. While some barriers, including both speed and cost as well as regulation and the potential for abuse, may be factors that currently prohibit the widespread use of 3D printing for certain packaging applications, it is not a stretch to believe that as the technology improves, the speed increases and the cost drops, that other uses will be found on packaging lines for these printing machines.
As the packaging industry continues to grow as well, do not be surprised if the 3D printer becomes a staple of the industry in the future, right next to filling machines, capping equipment, power conveyors and other equipment that can be found on a majority of packaging lines. The technology has now moved further into the packaging industry via the printing of pills, and there is no reason to assume that this will be the last stop for these machines within the industry.
Don't forget that PACK EXPO 2015 is right around the corner - held in Las Vegas, Nevada this year from September 28th through the 30th. Though 3D printers may not yet take center stage, PACK EXPO allows packagers to see all the latest equipment and innovation in the packaging industry. Liquid Packaging Solutions will be set up in Booth 3505 this year, and we welcome everyone to stop by and discuss current projects, the future of packaging or just say hello!
For more information on the FDA approval of the first 3D printed pill, see Jim Butschli's article in Packaging World.