Computer-Aided Design for Packaging

Using design software, package designers can select materials and create and evaluate packages, all without manufacturing a single item.

by Greg Erickson

The computer technology that enables aerospace engineers to design and test aircraft wings has moved into the field of packaging. Package designers today can render three-dimensional, rotatable drawings of thermoformed trays and other containers and subject them to the hard knocks that often reveal structural inadequacies. With a thicker flange drawn here and a supporting rib sketched there, the virtual package is again ready for testing. When the design and engineering team members are confident that the customer's requirements have been met, they can whisk their design off through a modem for immediate review and approval.

This paperboard package for physician samples was designed using Dimensional Impressions's Score! CAD system. The design can be resized in a matter of minutes to accommodate different quantities and configurations of products.

The prototype, which in years past might have been formed in a one-of-a-kind machined metal tool, is rapidly becoming almost obsolete. Certainly, the need to fashion more than one extremely expensive prototype only to have it be rejected is fading fast. Now, thanks to computer-aided design (CAD), when the time comes for the final package to be thermoformed, the software that drove its on-screen design can be used to drive its manufacture in partnership with advanced tool making machinery.

The benefits to such a CAD-driven environment are quickly adding up. Possibilities include a reduction in package-development time from four months to four weeks, a substantial reduction in R&D costs, and packages that have been so well tested that failure is a near impossibility.


Because CAD software is typically designed for disciplines other than packaging, engineers may be reluctant to invest in it. John McEleney, vice president of the Americas at SolidWorks Corp. (Concord, MA), a provider of three-dimensional CAD software, agrees that many of his customers are in product design rather than in package design. But, he says: "All of the trends that are happening in product design are happening in packaging. Part of what our software does is allow a lot of what-ifs. You can say the package is so high by so long by so deep; then you can change those dimensions and see if that leads to an improvement."

Laura Bendon, marketing specialist at SolidWorks, says one of the biggest benefits of using CAD software is getting the job done right the first time. "Before this kind of software became available, a manufacturer would have to make a prototype and only then find out that it wasn't going to work. With our software, a firm can animate the design on-screen and see how it's going to function. Engineers can test the computerized package with heat, flexing, and weight load to see if the product is going to work in the package."

Interestingly, packaging consultants may be CAD's most adamant supporters. A provider of full-service packaging design services to the medical device industry, Robert C. Vincek, principal at Robert C. Vincek Design Associates (Sussex, NJ), says: "We use CAD to develop all types of packages: paperboard cartons, cases, flexible packaging, thermoforms, and molded components. New software allows rapid exploration of many design alternatives and identification of design flaws prior to the fabrication stage. This reduces time-to-market and cost to our clients." His firm currently relies on software by Autodesk (San Rafael, CA) but are in the process of evaluating other products.


Layering is the term used to describe the placing of entities together in logical groups. On a computer, a designer can separate these logical groups into separate views. Donald Barcan, president of Donbar Industries Inc. (Long Valley, NJ), a medical device package engineering consulting firm, says: "Ideally, you're working with a computerized drawing of the medical device itself. Then by importing this into the software, you can use the layering technique to build the package around the device in as many steps as required. The package can be form fitted to the required shape of the device. Layering affords the opportunity to change a particular section without having to change the whole drawing."

Work is also cheaper and faster. Scott Fredrickson, product development manager at Prent Thermoforming (Janesville, WI), says that those are the two biggest objectives of his customers. "Manufacturers of medical devices want to be able to reduce costs and cut lead time that might be months down to weeks, but the last thing they think about is packaging," he says. Product-development professionals often come up with something new and revolutionary and only then, mere weeks before their to-market deadline, start to fret about the package that will contain it. Fredrickson says that's changing, at least in the medical device field.

"Our customer can give us an electronic model of his product while it's still in development," Fredrickson says. "We're developing our thermoformed tray while they are developing their product. On some packaging projects we've reduced our development time significantly." Fredrickson says one major factor in the reduction of lead time comes in the client-approval process. "It used to be in the early design stages that the marketing person at the device company would have to look at a 2-D blueprint and imagine the final package. Not many people are good at that. Now the marketing people are looking at a 3-D rendering with shading and the product in place in it." That alone improves communication and eliminates time-consuming modifications, he says.

Marty Shampoe, project engineer at closure manufacturer and injection molder Erie Plastics (Corry, PA), says CAD software has proved invaluable in generating new ideas. "We have presentation software that we use to give customers a good feel for what we can do. For business development purposes, we can develop success criteria together with the customer, then go back and work up the design on the computer. We can meet again the next day and show them what they wanted—put real meat on the bones of a project."

There's also another approach. Says Shampoe, "Sometimes the customer doesn't have a specific project in mind, and we take an idea and help make it real."

Adds Barcan: "You can end up experimenting with something you never thought of before. The tinkering is part of the development process."

Dimensional Impressions (Encino, CA) specializes in software for designers of paperboard folding cartons and corrugated shipping cases. Bill Schreiber is the company's vice president of marketing and business development. "Typically," he says, "designers would come up with a half-dozen concepts. Now they can create many more concepts on the screen. They can go back and change things knowing that the measurements will be exact—they're accurate to 16 decimal places." Says Prent's Fredrickson, "By conceptualizing on the computer, we can give customers three or four variations or six to eight variations if that's what they want to see."

When modifications are needed, Barcan says, they come quickly and easily. "For example, if you're talking about a catheter, we can look at thermoformed trays and various ways of restraining the product. We can look at what happens to cost in materials when we add different fitments or package the product straight or curled in a spiral."


There's yet another benefit of CAD software. Since the design is electronic, it can be sent electronically back and forth between designer and customer. McEleney says, "Today, we can send designs from here in the United States to a molder in Hong Kong over the Internet." Fredrickson says he's done the same. "We do send drawings back and forth but with very strict security so there's no breach."

In the end, a prototype does get fabricated. But by the time that happens, just about every imaginable glitch has already been worked out of the package by computer-aided design.

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