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Additive manufacturing: a challenge loaded with opportunity

One of the wonderful things about working in product and process development is having the opportunity to twist an idea on its head. You might take something the pharmaceutical industry thinks is commonplace and bring it to fast-moving consumable goods, or vice versa. Sometimes, that’s about using the same thing differently and sometimes, it’s about realising that in trying to solve one problem, you’ve created the means to solve another.

Our recent research into the direct-to-consumer opportunity shows that one trend in consumer products - and increasingly in the consumer health and pharmaceutical industries - is personalisation. The idea is, rather than a company selling a million identical things, they sell lots of individual things – or your thing. This has the benefits of higher margins (no middle-companies), building a two-way relationship with the consumer and incentivising the move towards e-commerce.

Find out how consumer goods companies and retailers are responding in a direct to consumer world

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The challenge with capitalising on these benefits is that mass customisation is extremely hard. Imagine you want to make 10,000 chocolate bars or packs of crisps per day, each with a customised flavour, packaging or even shape? Doing this with conventional manufacturing methods isn’t easy. It either massively increases cost as you would need a phenomenally complicated packaging operation, or drastically lowers efficiency as you would have to frequently stop to change patterns and materials. This isn’t just a challenge for our friends in food. If you want to put down a controlled (variable) volume of active pharmaceutical material, or vitamins, or put two incompatible detergent ingredients in the same ‘shell’, it’s the same.

The solution? Customise at line speed.

One of our clients could produce customised products but ended up with a lot of waste. Initially, we created a line that linked a high rate glue depositor to a deposition system via some laser targeting. This sort of worked.

But then we realised there are knock-on benefits from this. When we joined up this approach with a range of materials, we had a system that:

  • put an exact amount of material just where we wanted it (without sacrifices to throughput)
  • allowed material addition via ‘printing’
  • let the operator change the product in real time.

Direct-to-consumer, personalisation and sustainability in one go. Not a bad result.

While this is an extremely specific example, there are plenty of other cases of, and approaches to, applying additive manufacture to enhance base products made with ‘standard’ manufacturing techniques. This does mean we need to better understand and control the materials interactions, supply chain and packaging, but in doing so, we reduce waste, create a broader range of products and meet the needs of increasingly demanding consumers.

Consumers’ expectations of brands are increasing – it’s no longer enough to make a product. The experience around the product is becoming more important and will continue to do so. At the same time, brands are rightly embracing the idea of sustainability and waste reduction (and not just for cost). Reinventing some parts of a manufacturing process to embrace additive methods helps with both. It’s hard to do, but it’s worth doing.

Contact the author

  • Richard Claridge

    Richard Claridge

    PA applied physics expert

    Richard is an applied physicist based at our Global Innovation and Technology Centre in Cambridge. Richard uses a broad physics base to identify and accelerate new to world technologies to market by applying his scientific understanding to the core technical need.

    Insights by Richard Claridge

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