If you’ve picked up a carton of eggs at the supermarket or plucked your new cell phone from its box, you’re familiar with molded fiber packaging.
It’s an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic, made from renewable sources such as recycled paperboard, newsprint, bamboo, sugarcane, or other plant cellulose fibers. Also known as molded pulp, it’s 100% recyclable and biodegradable, and while it might seem like a recent innovation, it has been around for more than a century. “Molded fiber has historically been subordinated to plastic, and as a result, the industry hasn’t really developed much technologically,” says Joseph Grygny, founder and executive director emeritus of the International Molded Fiber Association. It’s used to provide protection when shipping household appliances, wine bottles, and consumer electronics such as computers and monitors. But all these items require a different shape to hold them, and molded fiber packaging is not traditionally quick to make.
Environmentally friendly tooling
The process required to make molded fiber packaging has changed little in 100 years. First, a metal tool mirroring the desired shape is manufactured and drilled with hundreds of holes. Then a metal screen is created around the mold and manually affixed to its surface. A vacuum draws the slurry onto the screen, which keeps the pulp fibers on the outside while allowing the water to flow through it and the rest of the tool.
Now, HP is using its Molded Fiber Advanced Tooling Solution to create custom tools that shape the fiber pulp to the right specs for the product it’s meant to protect. Customers can create a customized mold and screen leveraging proprietary HP innovations in digital manufacturing software and data intelligence, including a new digital design platform, along with HP’s industry leading, industrial 3D printing technology. “Traditionally, making molded fiber — especially creating the metal mold — was very expensive and time consuming,” explains Grygny, who has been consulting with HP on the project. “With HP’s new tooling, there is no machining, no drilling, no manual labor.”