The landscape is shifting when it comes to package design.
For some time now, change in the packaging sector has been driven by developments in materials or processing machinery, according to Peter Schmitt, managing partner of Wilmington, Del.-based consultants Montesino Associates. Perhaps a materials company would tweak the properties in its formulation or some aspect of its calendering or extrusion line, see better performance in processing or speed or other properties, and then go to the market in search of a suitable application.
But now the focus is shifting to the consumer, Schmitt said, meaning that manufacturers increasingly are asking: “What’s the user going to do with the package, and what can we do to make the package work better for him or her?”
Take, for example, what Schmitt calls “the war between rigid and flexible packaging. Do you want a bottle or do you want a pouch? It’s becoming more about creating a package that’s easy to open and easy to re-close.” Stand-up pouches, which are exploding in popularity, are a great example of this.
“It’s interesting because they stopped worrying about whether it was rigid or flexible – it’s kind of both – and so the idea is to make the package more user-friendly, in a number of ways – in the space it takes up, in how you open it, how you close it, all of that,” said Schmitt.
This trend is going to be disruptive, he suggested, because the user-centered approach doesn’t fit the mindset of a lot of polymer companies, or sometimes even their design engineers. “But if we’re going to get there,” Schmitt said, “the package is going to have to serve the user rather than the producer.”
Nowhere is this trend likely to have a bigger impact than in healthcare and medical packaging, in part because nowhere are the stakes higher.
Dr. Stephen Wilcox, founder and principal of Philadelphia consulting firm Design Science, explained:
“In my world which, these days, is primarily that of medical devices, there’s also another dimension to the increase in elderly product users. Usability is actually mandated by [the] FDA. This focus on ‘human factors’ began with devices and has now migrated to drugs as well, which means, for all practical purposes, pharmaceutical packaging. [The] FDA requires procedures, such as product testing with users, to assure that drugs, particularly device/drug ‘combination products’ (e.g., prefilled syringes) are adequately usable.
“The goal is to assure that neither the safety nor the effectiveness of a drug is compromised by a packaging design that contains usability problems.”
Wilcox acknowledges that user-centered design, which has been regularly applied to products for several years, is now increasingly being applied to packaging, as well. “Packaging long has been a key tool for enhancing the desirability of products, he said. “What’s different is the growing focus on usability as well.”
Wilcox said he believes this trend is driven, as in other areas, by a need to get out of the commodity category as products begin to converge. “Patents run out, manufacturing techniques get mastered by rivals, proprietary technology gets copied, etc., so companies look for another way of differentiating their products.”
Charles Austen Angell, a designer in Portland, Ore., agrees. Angell, founder and CEO of 8-year-old Modern Edge, Inc., noted: “Much of this trend is driven by a shift in generational value and social dialogue regarding what is valuable and meaningful. The millennials are the first generation to choose work balance over income level. But it is a mistake to interpret these lower income goals as an opportunity for commodity pricing.”
Millennials and an increasing number of other consumers, contends Angell, are willing to pay more for the experiences they desire, in part because they no longer are willing to accept sub-par commodity experiences.
“This means that [the] commodity market is going to become tighter as the gulf between commodity and premium value increases. The big brands understand this – and have a clear mission to maintain a premium value position.”
This tendency for up-and-coming consumers to be less tolerant of less-than-optimum user experiences can manifest itself in other ways, as well. Consider the aging of the population.
“As consumers get older,” says Wilcox, “particularly consumers with money, usability issues with packaging become a bigger issue. Most of us have probably watched as an elderly person in the next seat on a plane or a train tried without success to open a package of, say, peanuts or potato chips. The boomers are simply not going to tolerate this disdain for the challenged user.”
Returning to the high-stakes issue of drug packaging, Schmitt gave as one example the development of MeadWestvaco Corp.’s Shellpack Renew package, sold via WalMart and other retail pharmacies. The package features a tear-resistant, recyclable outer paperboard carton, an easy-slide blister and an integrated calendar for patients to easily track their medications.
Developed based on feedback from pharmacists and patients, Shellpak Renew packaging has a smaller footprint requiring less shelf space, and includes color-coded spine labels to help distinguish among drugs, as well as easy-open, child-resistant push buttons.
The package actually is more expensive than a simple bottle, Schmitt said, but it is both child-resistant and senior-friendly, and instead of doing something to the polymer in the blister pack, MWV used design to produce this type of advanced package.
A senior technical official with Dow Chemical Co., meanwhile, has his own take on the intersection of materials and design. Dave Parrillo, global research and development director for Dow’s Packaging & Specialty Plastics business, sees materials as having the power to enable user-centered design. In a June 1 telephone interview, he said that Dow sees its customers wanting to have broader conversations about such topics, and expecting their suppliers to be fully versed in design and other aspects well beyond basic materials data.
He offered some real-life, creative examples from Dow’s product portfolio. Two years ago Dow worked with converter Printpack Inc., to create a more sustainable frozen chicken package for Tyson Foods. Together, they developed the first 100 percent polyethylene stand-up pouch with a PE reclosable zipper. It was Dow’s ability to create a film formula suitable for freezer conditions in an all-PE format that made creating the fully recyclable stand-up pouch structure possible. The product rolled out first in Mexico and since has been launched in other markets, including in Argentina last year, where it is being evaluated for use with liquids.
Also last year, Dow commercialized its PacXpert packaging technology, which now is available in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Many converters around the globe license it.
Billed as an innovative alternative to traditional rigid packaging, PacXpert Technology has a flexible, lightweight design that enables various sustainability benefits. It addresses a common consumer concern by allowing users to extract all of the content, whether dry or liquid, from the package. It therefore reduces content waste by achieving a better product yield and also requires less overall raw material during the manufacturing process when compared to rigid packaging alternatives. Additionally, empty packages can ship flat.
European licensee O. Kleiner uses PacXpert to produce a novel-looking, yet user-friendly, flexible stand-up pouch that is cube-shaped. While it is flexible, its also is shelf stable and can stand equally well upright or on its side.
“Ultimately, we’re supplying the materials to converters,” Parillo said. “But the expectation is that, if all you can talk about are the basic materials, and you can’t bring material innovation coupled with design, then you’re going to be history.”
To which Design Science’s Wilcox adds: “At any rate, these are interesting times for packaging design. It’s a pleasure to see methodologies that have been applied to other things now being applied, increasingly, to packaging.”
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