Interview: How HP’s Acquisition Boosts 3D Printing for Eco-Friendly Containers

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HP has acquired Choose Packaging, an Edinburgh, Scotland-based startup that makes paper containers that can be used instead of packaging for drinks, laundry detergent, make-up, or food. Key to the products is a special, plant-based barrier material that can make molded fiber containers waterproof. The resulting packages are also recyclable and could even be compostable.

To fabricate the molds for its products, Choose Packaging has relied on HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) 3D printing technology. The acquisition, therefore, builds on top of HP’s existing molded fiber tooling service, whereby 3D printed tools are used to quickly make molds that are both higher performance and less error-prone than conventional counterparts. These molds can then be used for egg cartons, trays, and packaging.

In charge of HP’s sustainable packaging unit is Mariona Company, who has been working on the molded fiber solution for over two years. Previously, she was Business Development Director of Applications for HP’s 3D Printing business and a key player in HP’s additive manufacturing efforts. We spoke to Company about the acquisition and what it means for HP.

“[We hope to focus] on growing the technology, ramping up the new tooling solution and then accelerate sustainable packaging,” Company told 3DPrint.com. “With this acquisition, we’ve decided… to take a leading position in the market, helping a specific vertical, tooling as a service, take a step forward. We’re now offering both commodity and custom molds. Now, we can do containers and bottles as a turnkey solution.” 

Molded fiber is more sustainable than plastic and can be made from a wide array of natural and/or recycled fibers. Company further elaborated, “By leveraging our [3D printing] technology, the mold tooling enables an embossing and a nice surface finish. It also lets us do this molding process at scale.”

With this acquisition, the company can now offer quick, inexpensive, high-performance molded fiber packages for a wide array of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs). By extending the use of molded fiber, the company aims to ultimately save 150 million tons of wasted plastic and disrupt the $10 billion fiber packaging industry. I think that this is absolutely brilliant.

HP’s 3D printing service for molded fiber tooling perhaps seemed a bit esoteric when it came out. Yes, it was faster than conventional mold tooling and less expensive, too, but was this really such a big market? Sure, producing tools with fewer errors, with the ability to swap out 3D printed tooling quickly, was also advantageous to the production process. And optimized holes could also mean quicker turnaround and a further reduction in flaws. With the decline in popularity of styrofoam and increased environmental awareness, molded fiber was growing and set to grow more. But it was hard to see it expand beyond egg cartons and the like.

Now, with Choose Packaging’s solution, HP can extend its lineup and offering to billions of different packs and containers. What’s more, now it can supply the entire manufacturing solution. Many companies are becoming serious about reducing waste and polluting less. Consumers are also increasingly worried about the impact of the things that they buy on their surrounding ecosystem. By being much more sustainable than plastic through the use of renewable and/or recycled material, molded fiber packaging could allow consumers and big brands to worry less.

Company alluded to the fact that new products could leverage HP’s 3D printing technology, its Indigo label business, and even its 2D latex printing division. In turn, the firm could transform into a sustainable packaging giant.

“Theres a lot of synergy with HP’s 3D printing business, our 2D packaging technology, and more,” Company told 3DPrint.com. “And with all of our technologies we can now help create a better planet. Right now we’re seeing growth in every single product category. From cup carriers to consumer electronics packaging. There are also new applications nascent. With this acquisition we’re now an alternative solution to plastic in many areas..” 

The beauty of sustainable packaging is also a lovely corporate message to be espousing right now.  Usually this kind of talk from a large corporate has my eyes roll back, but Company is sure that, in this case, good business and healing the planet overlap:

Plastic is great material. It’s too good. The end of life for plastics is a problem. In total, only nine percent of plastic is recycled. All over the world, in India, the US, Europe, I see a need for an alternative solution. Molded fiber is that solution. It is a recyclable alternative to plastic, a responsible alternative with zero percent plastic. Even if it it ends up in landfill or outside, it will be less harmful. Ultimately, we hope to make it so that it is home-compostable, as well.

As you can see, the packaging looks very different to what we’re used to seeing on laundry detergent shelves in the supermarkets. I really think that HP could market this with a kind of “Prius effect”, whereby their differentiated appearance and texture could reassure the consumer that they are making the right choice. What’s more, a comforting texture and memory could mean that consumers will be drawn to these distinctive bottles time and time again across categories, driving the adoption of molded fiber bottles throughout a variety of lines.

Of course it won’t all be smooth sailing. Company conceded:

“There are challenges, and we’re working on all certifications needed, qualification and scalability. The opportunity massive but it will be challenging. HP is fully committed to leading this transformation, this is not something that will be greenwashed. We’re working with fiber based processing companies, looking at all the elements from fiber to landfill.” 

Therefore, HP is looking at how to crack open the market with customers and pilot programs.

For this to happen, we have to offer a viable solution for addressing the market. We’re talking about billions of bottles. and a $10 billion market. For now our bottle product is nascent. We’re helping brands to pilot it. In the future, we’re going to make sure that it meets spec. Ultimately, to be a viable product it has to be cost competitive, on spec, and scalable. Then, we have a truly responsible solution for plastics. One that can go beyond egg cartons or the cup carrier towards FMCG products, liquids, detergents. They could all switch to a fiber based solution,” Company said.

Pilot customers include a Choose client very familiar to us in the 3D printing industry: chemical giant Henkel. Additionally, there’s one of Choose’s early pilot clients, Accolade Wines, which you may know from Hardy’s. Owned by the Carlyle Group, Accolade is one of the largest winemakers globally.

Sandy Mayo, Chief Marketing Officer for Accolade Wines, said of the acquisition, “At Accolade Wines, we put innovation and sustainability at the heart of everything we do in our mission to be the world’s most innovative wine company. We are excited to see Choose join a recognized leader like HP who puts these topics at the top of its agenda. Consumers are demanding more sustainable alternatives and we look forward to continuing our work together to be the first wine company globally to deliver 100% biodegradable packaging across some of our leading brands including Banrock Station and Hardys.”

Berthold Schreck, Vice President of R&D Packaging and Processing for Laundry Care at Henkel, stated. “Henkel drives active progress towards a circular economy by creating smarter packaging for the benefit of people and the planet.Choose and HP bring together a game-changing combination of packaging technologies and we are excited to collaborate to develop new sustainable packaging solutions and reduce plastics in our consumer goods products.”

As a full acquisition, the Choose Packaging team will become HP employees, but stay in Scotland. Company noted that HP wants to maintain the firm’s agility and startup mentality, but “use HP to enable scalability”. HP will still have to expand this solution and drive adoption, but, if they do, they may have found themselves a very exciting long-term business to be in.

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