Chicago — Caps and closures makers continuously work to remove cost out of their products, taking a fraction of a second off the cycle time or a fraction of a gram off the weight.
It's a competitive business where such changes can create significant savings — especially when molding machines are set up to produce millions of caps each year. And cutting cost creates a business advantage.
But the market is not just about competing in a commodity market where, all things being equal, price can reign supreme.
As associate director of the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, Laura Bix sees a market where cap and closure manufacturers can actually increase margins.
"Health care has some space — it's decreasing and declining — but that has some space for increased margin when you can add value," she said at the Plastics Caps & Closures 2017 conference in Chicago.
Bix and her research team spend their working life at Michigan State immersed in packaging with the mission of improving health. That includes studying how people interact with health care packaging, which might involve finding ways to make it easier for someone older to take their medicines or protecting children from accidental medicine ingestion, for example.
Creating packaging that reminds people to take their medicines and allows them to continue living independently has value. So does keeping children safe. And the health care packaging industry has an opportunity to take advantage of those opportunities.
"I think everybody really gets caught up in being price-sensitive over time. And I think too frequently in the packaging industry we box ourselves into a space where we are a commodity," Bix said at the conference organized by Plastics News.
"I really think there's a lot of potential, especially in health care, to add value because if you can keep somebody from living in an assisted fashion, you can save a whole lot of money that's justifiable for a few cents or even dollars more for a package," she said.
Bix pointed to the flow restrictors now commonly found in liquid children's medicine that require the use of a syringe for extraction as one example of where health care manufacturing stepped up to help solve a problem and create value.
Research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that most overdoes by children do not happen due to administration errors — misreading labels or caregivers providing too many doses.
Instead, the CDC found that the vast majority of children ended up in emergency rooms due to unintentional ingestions. Adding flow restrictors to bottles made it more difficult for juveniles to access and ingest liquid medicines.
Between the 1970s and early 2000s, emergency room visits by children under the age of 5 due to accidental medicine ingestion decreased substantially. But that started to change in the early 2000s when the rate started to increase.
Children under the age of 5, Bix said, were being admitted to emergency rooms at about the same rate as people ages 70 to 75 due to adverse drug events or injury due to medication. Research showed unintentional ingestions that were unsupervised accounted for the vast majority, about 90 percent, of the mishaps.
Seeing this trend, and the fact that other dangerous situations for children were decreasing, stirred a call to arms that included governmental, academic, packaging industry and health care professionals. The Protect Initiative was born about 10 years ago to address the issue.
Bix said a little more than 60,000 children are admitted to emergency rooms each year due to exposure to medication.
"That's roughly a bit over two busloads — two school buses full of children — each and every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," she said.
"The other concerning thing that catalyzed the CDC to move on this issue was when it looked at other industries where children had issues, like motor vehicle accidents, and saw the opposite trend happening in those," Bix said.
The development of flow restrictors, which fit into the neck of a medicine bottle and feature an opening for a dosing syringe tip, has helped address the issue in recent years.
That's the kind of value that health care packaging makers can use to rise above the commodity level, Bix said.