Jabil Inc., relying on its experience in both electronics and packaging, wants to change the way people shop.
The St. Petersburg, Fla.-based company is known in the plastics world for its Jabil Packaging Solutions division that designs and creates unique products for its brand customers.
But the $19 billion firm is much more than a plastics packaging company, and it is looking to leverage its electronics expertise in conjunction with online retail giant Amazon.com Inc.
A new smart packaging approach from Jabil allows the company to tap into the Amazon Dash Replenishment Service (DRS) Solution Providers program.
Dash is a program where consumers can simply press an internet-connected Amazon Dash button at home to reorder a wide variety of products such as laundry soap, snacks, pet food, beauty supplies and even pingpong balls.
But Jabil is looking to take the Dash program a step further by building sensing technology directly into packaging that will monitor usage and automatically reorder products when necessary.
Think of it this way: a Dash button without the button.
Amanda Williams is a senior unit business manager at Jabil Packaging Solutions and deeply involved in this smart packaging effort. She readily admits she needs her coffee in the morning.
So, Williams has created a system in her own home that includes her favorite coffee, a French press and a coffee container that's sized just a little too small on purpose. And a Dash button. Once her container is empty, Williams knows she still has a couple of days' worth of coffee still in the package. That's when she hits her Dash button and orders more that will show up just in time.
But now, Jabil said it has the technology to build unique smart packaging to measure consumption of liquid, dry goods and even sheets such as baby wipes in their containers.
"That basically solves, in one fell swoop, the whole problem that I have this setup hacked together to do. I don't have to have a specially sized container and push the button at just the right moment. I'm just going to go through my package of coffee, and when I get down to two days away from needing more coffee, it will place the order. It will just automatically show up," Williams said.
Joe Stodola, a vice president at Jabil Packaging Solutions, explains it this way: "Moving the Dash button right to the consumer package, so instead of having a button that you have to press to execute or reorder, that package starts to participate in this data stream."
Jabil's smart packaging can be created to utilize either Bluetooth or Wi-Fi for connectivity. Consumers can be alerted when it's time to order, or shipments can be made automatically based on customer preference.
"This is really the way forward for our ability to work with Amazon and the DRS protocol to allow an end-to-end capability where we can take any brand company's products that are going to be sold in the form of a consumable," Stodola said.
"We zoomed in pretty hard on auto replenish last year as something that had a lot of potential," Williams said, thanks to megatrends including the rise of electronic commerce and subscription purchasing models. Shopping habits of millennials, which are becoming more of an emphasis to companies as that generation gains more buying power, also are an important consideration.
There are many ways technology can be employed to create smart packaging, Williams said.
"I want to be careful about over constraining your imagination about what the hardware should look like. I think our most mature proof of concept is something that detects liquid levels. It's a durable and consumer system," she explained.
Think of it like the razor and razor blade model.
A smart package might cost a bit more than traditional packaging in the short term, but there would be savings as those packages will be reused as refills are ordered.
Possible systems also could involve dispensers or even handles with built-in sensors that clip on to bottles, Williams explained. Technology could be built into labels that run along the length of a container.
"Our goal is to continue making it even easier to integrate DRS into products and shorten time-to-market for brands, and in the end, bring a seamless and unique shopping experience to customers so they never have to worry about running out of everyday essentials," said Dean Seifert, general manager of Amazon Dash, in a statement.
While the retail market is obviously huge for Jabil's new technology, Stodola said that there are broad applications away from home. They include providing replenishment services to places like restaurants, businesses and even industrial settings. Anywhere consumables are, well, consumed is a potential target.
On the home front, automating the purchase of items allows people to unclutter their minds just a bit, Williams said. And that can leave room for more important thoughts.
"I think there's a huge value to the consumer for this because the cognitive overhead of constantly keeping track of the inventory in your home, doing the shopping planning your list," she said.
In a business setting, automated reordering on an as-needed basis will improve efficiency.
"When we talk about the overhead of managing your stuff," Williams said, "... it's actual man hours that cost money."