Packaging suppliers are creating innovative products to move forward in a global market.
A key, in this market, may be to learn to think inside the box. In the case of beer, for instance, an innovative new product is flat beer, packaged in a bag-in-box system, which is then taken to a tavern or point of distribution and recarbonated.
``It's a revolution in the beer business,'' said Ben Miyares, vice president of industry relations for the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute in Arlington, Va. ``The soft drink people said, `What took you so long? We've been doing post-mix forever.' But it couldn't be done with beer.''
Or think of the breakfast cereal Cheerios, which has relied on the cardboard container for years. Parents would portion dry Cheerios into bags or other smaller containers for their toddlers.
Now, General Mills decided to target its tiny-people niche market with a blow molded canister and a dual-dispensing closure.
Both innovation stories are good news for plastics packaging manufacturers. But in the complex world of the packaging supply chain, innovation is a constant effort, according to several sources.
All parts of the packaging supply chain are collaborating to get the most innovative products to market and grab consumers' attention.
``Very often, to make an impact at retail, packaging becomes theater,'' Miyares said during a Feb. 28 presentation at Packaging Strategies in St. Petersburg. ``Packaging is a medium, probably the most effective medium for the marketing of products. We will see the evolution of packaging, the likes of which will make your head spin.''
It started long ago, the process of innovation. But now it's become a necessity, an all-hands-on-board effort to push ideas through until they hit the market successfully.
``That's what innovation is for, essentially, to create more value, which creates more productivity,'' said Jeremy Leonard, an economic consultant based in Montreal with the Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI, an Arlington think tank.
``You have to remember that productivity is not synonymous with cost cutting. Cost cutting improves productivity but innovation ... if you can push that through to the bottom line, then you've increased productivity. So, we need to redouble efforts to increase innovation and drive it through.''
At design firm Jones Packaging Inc. in London, Ontario, officials used to define innovation as coming up with good ideas. ``Now, we're very clear that if we are not producing it and, most importantly, getting repeat orders on it, then we have not been successful,'' said Kathleen McKnight, director of client innovations for Jones Packaging.
It seems all parts of the plastics industry are stepping up their efforts. At color concentrates maker Clariant Masterbatches North America in Holden, Mass., for example, officials have spent time evaluating the level of opacity in one bottle vs. another for a product launch for Procter & Gamble Co.'s Herbal Essences brand, evaluating exactly how to grab the consumers' attention at retail space.
When it comes to the chemistry of color and plastics, for example, how do you ensure that the color of a naturally glossy PET matches the color of a sister bottle that is formed out of high density polyethylene, which is naturally matte?
Or, how do you convert the amber-glass look of old-fashioned apothecary bottles to plastic containers? That's what Clariant was challenged to do in a project for Innersense Organic Beauty LLC in Walnut Creek, Calif.
``Amber is a complex color ... requiring an exact balance of several deep organic tones,'' said Carolyn Sedgwick, packaging segment manager for Clariant Masterbatches North America.
``Hit it wrong and you end up with something like green pea soup or mashed turnip. With the Innersense project, there was that extra level of complexity. We needed to hold this specific color space across several different packages from multiple vendors. We were dealing with materials ranging from clear transparent PET bottles to semi-opaque [low density] PE tubes and translucent [polypropylene] caps. Every one of those materials responds differently to color.''
What's become important in personal-care goods is the message that the package sends, according to Scott Collins, spokesman for Clariant. Just a few years ago, an exciting color was enough to establish a shelf presence. Now, the color of the package needs to work with the color and scent of a product inside, with the shape of the packaging and even with the labeling.
``It's not about function, it's about good design,'' Sedgwick said in a March 7 telephone interview.
At color concentrates maker Ampacet Corp. of Tarrytown, N.Y., officials are working with customers like Jergens and Shell Oil globally. Ampacet has issued color intelligence reports during the past two years.
``In the past you saw that color was being used to jar your visual field. As a result, you've now got shelves that are filled with visual chatter,'' said Linda Carroll, Ampacet color insight manager, in a March 8 telephone interview.
``Now, you have to push through that cacophony,'' she said. ``You have to connect with the consumer on multiple levels.''
In addition, as color becomes more critical in the innovation process, the firm is adding a new triple-layer blow molding machine in its Belgium color development lab to work with molders that are doing monolayer but can do multilayer. The process will allow molders to build more color depth into a bottle, said Doug Brownfield, Ampacet strategic business manager.
Among converters, paying special attention to the ``mavericks'' in the organization is often the way to cultivate innovation.
Chief Executive Officer Bill Hickey of Sealed Air Corp. said he is constantly on the lookout for corporate mavericks, those employees who keep the corporation infused with energy and new ideas.
``Oftentimes, mavericks are overlooked in corporate culture,'' he said. ``I think one of my key responsibilities is to protect the corporate mavericks.''
He said his company gets half of its innovative thoughts from outside the company - ideas and technologies that come from colleges, universities and third-party research labs, for instance.
``Globalization is also changing the rules of the game,'' he said. ``Innovation has become borderless. We essentially have found tidbits of technology in Europe, in Latin America, in China, in the U.S., and one of the strengths that we believe our organization has as we expand our global footprint is the ability to make innovation a borderless event.''
Leonie Walsh, general manager of technology and innovation for Visy Industries of Melbourne, Australia, said one of the biggest blockers of innovation often is leadership.
``It's not just the people that are leaders, but it can be things like the bureaucracy within the organization,'' she said during a presentation March 1 in St. Petersburg.
``It can be the hierarchal levels; it can be the way the organization is aligned. In Visy, we basically have a culture of innovation, but even so, some of the divisions are more innovative than others.''
In order to encourage innovation, there has to be a level of collaboration not only within the company, but among customers.
``Innovation tends to be in the domain of the commercial and marketing people, but really innovation is across the whole company. The talent within the organization is extensive and I believe in most cases, untapped,'' she said.