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  May 31st, 2022 | Written by

How Is Technology Disrupting the Packaging Industry?

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Packaging is no longer something that merely protects the item inside. It often helps to engage the consumer through interactivity, offers an eco-friendly feature, or has desirable material characteristics. All these improvements are largely due to advancements in packaging technology. Here are some of the latest advances made possible with tech that will likely remain impactful for the foreseeable future

Better Interactivity Courtesy of Augmented Reality

When a customer looks at shelves full of packaging, their gaze could land on dozens of possibilities before deciding which product to purchase. The package isn’t the only thing influencing them, of course. Maybe they’ve bought a certain brand before or got a recommendation from a friend. However, the packaging often plays a role, especially if it has bright colors or advertises a limited-edition design. 

Marketers have to continually push the boundaries to keep customers interested. Some do that by building augmented reality (AR) features into the packaging. A person usually only needs a smartphone to make the technology work, making it easy for them to see it in action. 

General Mills recently produced AR cereal boxes that turn into a drum machine or synth once someone points a phone at them. Placing pieces of cereal at certain places on the box determines what results people get. Each box also comes with five sound packs. 

In another case, edible products company Wana Brands released an AR package to promote its new cannabis product line. The technology, which takes people into a 3D animation experience,  works with both Android and iOS phones. Consumers activate it by scanning a QR code. They can then learn about several flavors of edible gummies, watch a YouTube video about them, or view the details for specific batches. 

Sometimes, the AR experience happens in the supermarket. Bothwell Cheese recently showed what’s possible in advertising its new line of lactose-free items. People scan a QR code on the packaging and see a floor-anchored hologram of a cheese chef appear in front of them. He goes through the lactose-free assortment and explains the benefits of those products. The brand launched this technology in hundreds of Canadian supermarkets. 

Improved Sustainability Through Creative Solutions

Ongoing scientific research warns that major changes must happen soon in society to stave off a widespread climate catastrophe. There are no easy solutions, but packaging specialists have investigated numerous ways to focus on sustainability. Sometimes, that happens by changing materials. For example, more than 400 organizations signed the New Plastics Economic Global Commitment. It signifies their intention to use 25% more recycled packaging by 2025. However, some sustainability efforts are happening now. 

Pacific Northwest grocery chain New Seasons Market recently changed the packaging for its private-label pasta, switching from the previous clamshell option. The new package uses 91% less plastic and will eliminate more than 120,000 clamshell packages from the waste stream each year. 

Scientists are also working on various possibilities in edible packaging. A biopolymer made from seaweed and a chemically modified material made from sea creature exoskeletons are some of the options under consideration. In most cases, the idea is to create an edible film to cover many foods sold to consumers. 

An Irish cafe even began using edible coffee cups made from a wafer-like material when its owners were looking for more sustainable ways to operate after the COVID-19 lockdowns. The consumable material tolerates a half-hour of heat before starting to dissolve. 

Chanel has also introduced its first refillable beauty package to the United Kingdom market. The products include no outer box, and the glass jar is lighter with a bio-based lid and inner pot. People can switch out the internal container for a refill when needed. That’s a sustainable decision that will save them money, too. The refills cost £13 (approximately $17) less than buying a completely new product.

Better Packaging Decisions Guided by Artificial Intelligence

It’s not always easy to figure out details like what size of box to use or the amount of bubble wrap to keep products safe until they reach their destinations. However, packaging technology is reducing the associated guesswork. Artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms draw conclusions humans couldn’t easily make without help. 

Getting Rid of Excess Packaging

Most people can probably recall occasions when they’ve ordered a relatively small item from an e-commerce site and noticed it arrived in a too-large box or surrounded by far too much padding. AI could help prevent such instances. 

Amazon’s data scientists created a statistical model that predicts the best ways to package particular products. It led to a 24% reduction in product damage while lowering the shipping costs by 5%. Amazon made $11.19 billion in sales during the 2021 Prime Days event alone. That suggests any significant progress it makes with packaging, via AI or otherwise, would have a notable impact. 

Logistics brand DHL is also using AI to improve packaging workflows and limit excess. It has an algorithm that provides real-time suggestions. Dietmar Steins, executive vice president of Global Solutions Design at DHL Supply Chain, explained how it works. 

“Based on the products, volumes, and sizes in question, the software not only suggests the optimal size of the outer packaging, [but] it also provides individual, visual instructions on how to ideally utilize the space inside the box. It’s highly intuitive ⁠— and not unlike the well-known computer game Tetris” 

Removing Packaging Plant Bottlenecks

AI also excels at analyzing data from connected sensors to alert people to issues they might otherwise miss. Leaders at Singapore-based Federal Packaging are working with a tech company regarding options for using  AI to predict downtime and other problems during box-production processes. The algorithm needs six to 12 months of information from the factory’s equipment before it will work. However, the payoff should be worthwhile.

“When we have data on our machines, we will know very quickly if there are abnormalities detected by the AI. This gives us more time to act earlier on any issues that occur, on top of actions that we have already taken,” said Lau Chee Herng, Federal Packaging’s chief vision officer.

These are just a couple of the ways AI has expanded what’s possible in the packaging sector. As more companies test its capabilities in real-life use cases, other brand decision-makers should feel encouraged to give it a try, too. 

Packaging Technologies Push the Industry Forward

When you think about advancements such as perforated strips that make shipping boxes easier to open or detergent bottles with built-in pour spouts, it’s easy to see that the packaging industry has achieved continual improvements over the years. The technologies detailed here are among those that will undoubtedly spur further innovation.