1 September 2014

compostable versus biodegradable

Having added a couple of examples of bioplastics – see colourful moulded potato starch and water-soluble packaging peanuts – it's worth noting the difference between compostable and biodegradable. 

Compostable means they fulfil US and EU standards (ASTM 6400 and EN 13432, respectively) for degrading in composting conditions (more than 90% must be converted into carbon dioxide, water and biomass within 90 days), whereas biodegradable simply means the material can be broken down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass by micro-organisms within a reasonable length of time.

Image of ecoflex® granules (a partially bio-based polyester used in packaging applications that is fully biodegradable) courtesy of BASF.

26 August 2014

metal-coated fabric

Woven fabric is lightweight, flexible and relatively inexpensive to produce. Adding a thin layer of metal converts a commodity plastic filament – in this case polyester – into a multifunctional material whose properties are both technical and decorative. For example, whereas the reflective properties of metal coatings are used for thermal insulation, here metal-coated and colourful yarns are combined to create bright and dazzling apparel fabrics. 

water-soluble packaging peanuts

Starch-based bioplastics contain 70% or more white powder starch (a naturally occurring ingredient found in plants, such as potatoes, maize and rice). The higher the starch content, the more rapidly the bioplastic will break down; high starch content bioplastics, such as this loose fill packaging (also known as packaging peanuts), will dissolve in water in 15 minutes or so and are fully compostable. See also colourful moulded potato starch.

Image from The Manufacturing Guides

23 August 2014

colourful moulded potato starch

A truly sustainable alternative to plastic packaging, PaperFoam is produced from a mix of white powder starch, wood fibres, colouring and some proprietary ingredients. It is energy efficient to produce as raw material – requiring less energy to make than petroleum-based plastics – and derived from renewable sources. Similar to injection moulded wood, this material can be formed using conventional mass-production equipment. It is already used to package a range of products, from delicate electronics to supermarket food.   

Image from The Manufacturing Guides

3 October 2012


Materials that stretch sufficiently without breaking, such as paper, leather and metal (precision embossed metal), can be embossed and debossed. Pressure is applied using metal tools to form an indent, known as deboss, or raised surface profile, known as emboss. With the addition of steam it is possible to shape thin sheets of veneer (structural and decorative wood veneer).

Image from The Manufacturing Guides

28 September 2012

waterless printing

This technology is similar to offset lithograph, which is the most widely used mass production printing process (precision embossed metal,luminous yellow, transfer-printed porcelain). What sets it apart is that the environmental impacts are significantly less. Compared to conventional offset lithography the reproduction quality is very high and can be more accurate, harmful emissions are reduced by 95% and water consumption is virtually eliminated. The use of water is replaced by a silicone coating on the printing plate. The image areas are etched away, making this an intaglio process, similar to rotogravure. 

23 July 2012

journeys fuelled by ideas

Journeys Fuelled by Ideas: a Pecha Kucha at Made in Brunel 2012, London. Visit the website

9 June 2012

ripple of wood

Rotary cut birch veneer is used to produce engineered timber (similar to plywood) and lightweight laminated wood furniture - check out structural and decorative wood veneer. Veneer produced in this way is typically 1-5 mm thick, depending on the application. And the sheets can be very long, because the veneer is cut as a continuous piece from around the circumference of the tree (like unraveling a roll of paper).   

Before the wood is formed and laminated, it is pliable and easily damaged. But when it is bonded with adhesive, the wood composite is an entirely different material: laminating improves strength and resistance to warpage, shrinking and twisting. Applying a simple curve to a structure further improves its strength characteristics - see also lightweight laminated wood and bending wood veneer.

26 May 2012

intaglio print cylinder

Every dot of colour, on every printed page, has to be carefully worked out as part of the printing process. High volume print runs, such as glossy magazines, are reproduced with rotogravure. This process is capable of printing 14m of paper every second.

The print cylinders are engraved with precise cells, making this an intaglio process. During printing, the ink is collected in these cells and from there it is deposited onto the paper. A cylinder is required for each of the four colours, plus any spot colour - see luminous yellow. Afterwards, the cylinders are re-polished, so they can be used all over again.  

24 May 2012

transfer-printed porcelain

Beautiful graphics, such as the Runo Summer Ray design by Heini Riitahuhta for Arabia, are reproduced on ceramics by transfer printing.

Ink is printed onto a decal, or bat. This is placed onto the surface of the piece. During firing, the high temperature causes the inks to be drawn into the glaze to create a smooth and durable finish. 

The ink is transferred directly, so the quality of reproduction is determined by the printing process. In the past, the decal was made by copperplate printing. Nowadays, digital printing, screen printing and offset lithography are all commonly used, depending on the volume of parts being printed.  

Image from The Manufacturing Guides, courtesy of Arabia Finland

18 April 2012

debossed fabric patterns

Elegant debossed and contrasting patterns are reproduced on the surface of fabrics with lasers or by chemical etching. Just like plastic and paper – check out glowing plastic patterns and precise paper models – many types of textile, including leather, natural and synthetic fabric, can be precisely cut and engraved with lasers. Synthetic textiles are typically made from polyesters, polyamides (nylon) or a combination of the two.

Alternatively, chemical etching can be used to selectively dissolve patterns into fabrics. For example, devoré is the process of dissolving or "burning out" the plant fibres (cellulose-based, such as hemp and cotton) from a textile that includes plant and animal fibres (protein-based, such as wool and silk), or synthetic fibres, to produce a decorative pattern or surface texture. The chemicals do not affect animal or synthetic fibres, so the weave or knit combined with the etching pattern will determine the finished appearance. 

5 April 2012

luminous yellow

High-speed printing processes, such as offset lithography and rotogravure, reproduce full colour graphics from a set of four "process" colours: cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black), collectively abbreviated as CMYK. All of the colour groups can be reproduced from CMY and K is added for improved contrast and deeper blacks.  

Special colours, such as a very specific shade, metallic or fluorescent (see also fluorescent and reflective), that cannot be achieved with a mix of CMYK, are reproduced using spot colour.

2 April 2012

metalised plastic packaging

The striking metallic finish on plastic packaging, lighting and automotive trim is created by vacuum metalising – see also TieGuan Yin Tea packaging. It is used to produce a bright and reflective appearance on three-dimensional parts and is less expensive than manufacturing the same part from solid metal.  

The process is carried out in a vacuum chamber, where almost pure aluminium is vaporised and condenses on the surface of the parts. It is locked-in and protected by a topcoat, which can be coloured to create the look of gold, silver, chrome, anodised aluminium (see also bright anodised aluminium) or other metal.

Image from The Manufacturing Guides

28 December 2011

precision embossed metal

Traditional metal packaging, such as this tinplate (tin-plated steel) biscuit tin, is printed first and then embossed. High quality reproduction is achieved, because the registration between the offset lithographic print and the embossing is very precise (metal is stiff and so can be very accurately registered in the tool). Pressure is applied to form an indent, known as deboss, or a raised surface profile, known as emboss.

graphics and packaging production (the manufacturing guides)

Graphics and Packaging Production is the new book in the Manufacturing Guides series due to be published by Thames & Hudson January 2012.

Thames & Hudson UK and Thames & Hudson US

29 November 2011

industrial craftsmanship: metal spinning

Spinning is a sheet metal forming process used to produce rotationally symmetrical parts, like hemispheres and cones. Undercut profiles and parallel-sided parts – like this base of a Mathmos Lava Lamp made from a single piece of material – are possible with split tools (can be taken apart to be removed).

Spinning is used to form aluminium. Anodising is used to protect and add colour to the surface of this material. See also bright anodised aluminium.

Image from The Manufacturing Guides 

4 September 2011

cheese basket

The challenge of packaging and producing food has created some of the most beautifully efficient and practical design (see also chestnut leaf packaging and bright metallic packaging). This handwoven basket mould is used for cheese-making in Greece. The rigid structure maintains its shape under pressure and the open weave allows for excess moisture to drain away. This helps to produce a cheese with the correct density and texture.

25 August 2011

tubular weaving

Industrial tubular weaving is a computer-guided process that has similarities with basket weaving. The warp and weft are interwoven to create a dimensionally stable, seamless structure. In this case continuous strips of polyethylene (PE) are woven into a tube, which will be filled with animal feed and sealed to form sacks. PE is a lightweight and very tough material, see also ballistic material or humble milk carton? Suitable materials other than plastic filaments include natural fibres, high performance materials (such as carbon and aramid fibre) and metal wire.

15 August 2011

die-cut graphics

Another nice example of die cutting (see also die-cut dinosaur and die-cut designer flowers). In this case the process is used to profile sheets of black and white polyethylene (PE) plastic. The graphic pattern fits together seamlessly to form the slippery underside of a snowboard. Graphics produced in this way will not wear away like print on plastic. 

Image of World Wide Weapon snowboard by K2

31 July 2011

die-cut dinosaur

Die cutting is a versatile process. It is used to cut all sorts of sheet materials including paper, plastic (see an example of tyvek in die-cut designer flowers), card, wood, fabrics, labels and composites. Mainly used in the mass production of cartons and boxes, here it has been used to profile a flat-pack dinosaur in birch plywood.

The cutting action is between a sharp cutting rule and a steel cutting plate, and therefore results in clean, accurate cuts.

Image from MPFDP