How experimenting with 3D printing could help your product lead the field

* 3 min read

As the Paralympics gathers pace, it's clear to see how technology is fueling incredible performances through state-of-the-art prosthetics. But there’s a new technology developing that's more accessible to people with upper limb differences, and that’s 3D printing.

Here, we take a look at how this new technology is helping people around the world, and what these experiments could mean for the packaging industry.

All over the world, there are groups of dedicated volunteers pushing the boundaries of 3D printing to help others. Designing and making functioning hands for people with upper limb differences, Enabling the Future volunteers are showing how this relatively accessible, relatively cheap technology can create practical, functional solutions without years in R&D.

These volunteers embody the same 'yes I can' attitude Team GB are showing in the Paralympics; instead of looking at the limitations, they’re pushing the technology to the limits of what it can achieve to pave the way for more permanent solutions. And it’s an attitude brands and retailers can learn from to make their NPD and insight process work smarter.

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So far, 3D printing has had little impact on packaging in terms of what ends up in the customer’s hand. But as with printed limbs, printed packs can show what the potential result can be before you spend big bucks on your end product. After all, it's something you might have to live with for some time so you need to get it right.

Why spend money tooling up for a new shampoo bottle shape only to find it slips out of your hand when it’s wet? Why pay for (and wait weeks for) expensive merchandising mock ups when you can print a pack, complete with shelf-ready graphics and text in minutes?

Of course, there are caveats when it comes to 3D printed packs, just as there are with printed limbs; they're light, take a fair bit of ink to produce and probably won’t stand up to wear and tear the way a traditionally moulded product would. Add to that limitations in terms of mass production, and that probably explains why not many brands are using 3D printing to produce their on-shelf packaging yet.

But it’s ideal for testing pack shapes with full functionality, printed with complete design and text, making it a powerful tool for customer research, merchandising planning and honing your pack design. And if you’re not happy, you can start again in as long as it takes to redraw your design.

That’s not to say 3D printed packs aren’t in circulation. 3D printing has scope for helping smaller brands achieve their sustainability goals, by using compostable and recyclable inks on small-run product packaging. US cosmetic brand, Anita’s Balm are using 3D printed pots for their skin cream, as founder Anita Redd didn’t want to think of her packaging sitting in landfill. It also gave the brand the freedom to experiment with the shape of their pot, redrawing and printing it again if they didn’t like the initial results and trialling different parts and functionality to enhance the consumer experience.

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Of course, there will be more commercial applications as the technology progresses, with rumours of glass printing in the pipeline. Pair this with the trend for personalisation and you’ve got a potentially powerful marketing tool - after all, what whiskey connoisseur wouldn’t pay big bucks for their personalised bottle of single barrel malt?

But in the meantime, for packaging, as with prosthetics, 3D printing offers limitless opportunities for innovation and experimentation with relatively low risk, giving brands and retailers the confidence to say 'yes I can' when pressing the 'go' button on their next big launch.

We’ve invested in our own 3D printer and, along with 3D rendering software and holographic technology, we're looking at how these new technologies can help our clients innovate and stay ahead of the competition. If you want to know more about what we’re working on, drop us a line at hello@sunbrandingsolutions.com or call 01274 200700.