PACK EXPO International looked different this year.
It’s not that the world-class, four-day event that attracted over 50,000 people looked all that different. Rather, my vantage point was different.
I joined Gartner earlier this year as an analyst in supply chain planning after over 25 years working for major consumer packaged goods companies in packaging engineering and R&D.
Reflecting on my first PACK EXPO in the analyst role, I recognize that I was able to experience the event more holistically this year.
The expo, which occurs in Chicago every two years, features over 2,500 top industry suppliers, with over 100 industry and educational presentations. This year, it took place in October.
I set my focus on trends, challenges, and technologies to optimize both the consumer experience and supply chain performance.
Packaging may not be a topic many business leaders spend a lot of time thinking about. However, packaging is important because it not only is the vessel that protects our valuable products, it is the main interaction with consumers and drives the experience from the first moment of truth to final disposal.
Anyone who has walked the show knows there are endless applications on display ranging from filling equipment to palletizers, label and print applications and just about every piece of packaging equipment that exists. In addition to the equipment suppliers, packaging material vendors were on hand to provide the latest technologies in flexible films, rigid containers, cartons, shippers and associated applications such as artwork management and packaging specification systems.
By far the most talked about issues and opportunities discussed over the four days were e-commerce and packaging sustainability. By my unofficial observation of the attendance and overflow crowds for presentations on these two topics, they are among the top concerns for the packaging and supply chain community.
E-commerce poses specific challenges in that the distribution channel, price points and expectations of the consumer differ greatly from traditional retail. Suppliers were on hand to offer solutions to today’s issues, preparing for what’s next, and creating the strategy for long-term success in e-commerce.
Here is just one example of today, next and future solutions for liquid shipments in e-commerce to address product leakage during shipment.
Today: A corrugated equipment supplier presented a unique solution for a shipping case that secures bottles in a way that suspends the bottle by the neck. This prevents a cap or closure designed for retail from leaking due to the cap breaking or backing off during shipment.
Next: A rigid plastics supplier presented ways to modify closures through unique redesigns to prevent leaking in e-commerce. This solution involves new tooling for molds and may require adjustments in production to apply the new cap. However, the benefits of reducing secondary packaging and additional labor will pay off with growing volume.
Future: Solutions were shown to replace the current packaging formats for heavy liquids, which are commonly rigid plastic bottles with alternate formats such as large pouches with reclose features. This is a dramatic shift in materials and manufacturing practices but suitable for the e-commerce consumer and distribution network.
Packaging sustainability also poses challenges for today, next and future solutions:
Today: Companies are making improvements in packaging sustainability often through reduction of materials or replacing plastic materials with paper cushioning. Many suppliers were on hand to provide fiber-based materials to replace or reduce plastics where possible.
Next: The move to recyclable plastics is real, but faced with many challenges. A global film supplier spoke of the move to recyclable films, which today requires manufactures in the U.S. to shift to all polyethylene structures. This material is gaining popularity with the growth of store drop-off programs for recycling plastic films and pouches.
Future: The challenge of getting the barrier performance of multi-layer films in a recyclable structure will take time. Technical developments in this area include orientation of films, improving seal quality, and increasing barrier properties.
My new vantage point as a Gartner analyst brought me to a significant realization. No longer can we as packaging professionals and supply chain leaders focus on individual business and packaging priorities. If we grow in e-commerce by adding protective packaging, we decrease margins and increase our negative impact on the environment.
Growth initiatives and speed to market will require the use of external manufacturing now more than at any time in the recent past. Technologies such as packaging material specification management systems and artwork management systems will enable rapid growth but with control and visibility of materials, artwork and enable tracking of sustainability commitments. Collectively we need to be more tactical in how we develop and implement packaging using the latest technologies to optimize supply chain processes and ultimately deliver business and consumer expectations.
John Blake is Gartner’s Research Director for Packaging, Label Artwork Management and Product Lifecycle Management.