Some future perspectives on packaging, design and the supply chain

Much of the current thinking about the pandemic and its longer-term economic impacts suggests that, in many areas, trends which were already underway before the beginning of the year will be intensified and accelerated. These may relate to internal company issues such as the prevalence of home-working, for instance, but there are also elements tying in more closely to the supply chain, including the use of automation and the adoption of e-commerce.
Organised like the rest of the Conference by the enterprising team at Monterrey University, Mexico, the keynote speeches and webinars that opened the online event provide precisely the range of diverse material and viewpoints you would expect from an international forum of this kind. All presentations, including the different streams of Conference proceedings, are still available online for the rest of the year, of course, for those who have registered.
In her keynote speech, Diane Mollenkopf of the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, highlights possible (and probable) changes to food supply chains in a post-Covid-19 world.

While other manufacturing sectors saw, for different lengths of time, complete shutdowns in production, the picture with food and drink has been more complex. Grocery retail and online ordering of all types have done exceptionally well during the crisis, while the restaurant and food-service sector has languished under the burden of fixed costs with no revenue.
Agility in food and drink
“In terms of supply, it’s not easy to shift product from the restaurant and food-service channel to the retail channel, principally because of packaging and logistics issues,” says Mollenkopf. She cites the example of bread-making flour, where domestic demand spiked as families started baking during lockdown. In many flour mills, the ‘fixed automation’ of bagging lines made it extremely difficult to redirect volumes away from systems filling 15kg or 20kg kraft paper sacks for industrial bakers and towards 1kg and 2kg retail bagging operations.
Two types of ‘mismatch’ in the supply chain, between supply and demand and around the availability of labour, recur as themes throughout her presentation. These in turn overlap with one of the four longer-term trends identified by Mollenkopf: technological innovation.
“One of the biggest areas of change in supply-chain management in recent years has been in the underlying technologies that allow the flow of information, product and finance across a network of organisations," she says.
These technologies span both physical and digital innovation, she points out, and can operate both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer (B2C) arenas. Examples include drones, robotics, 3D-printing, driverless vehicles and wearable technologies. As an example of the importance of this type of innovation for supply-chain efficiency, Mollenkopf cites Kiva Systems.
“Amazon was so enamoured of the Kiva robotic picking system that it purchased the start-up company a few years ago,” she says. As well as fulfilment technology, she also suggests that agriculture could become an important area for robotics, as labour shortages pose severe challenges in some settings.
“But in the food industry, some of the more exciting innovations are in the B2C space,” she states, putting the Internet of Things (IoT) at the top of this list. Commonly-discussed examples include ‘smart’ fridges. These can communicate with and monitor ‘smart’ packaging to check on the need for reordering, use-by dates, and so on, potentially alerting both the consumer and the retailer. “In this way, the IoT becomes part of the wider e-commerce phenomenon,” says Mollenkopf.
It is significant that these themes arise in a keynote presentation for the 2020 Conference, with its Industry 4.0 focus, because the IoT, active and intelligent packaging, smart tags and flexible (as opposed to fixed) automation all relate back to how the factory of the future will - or could - function.

Four areas of change
Mollenkopf discusses technological innovation as one of four ‘big-picture’ trends and issues in supply-chain management, the other three being: global supply chains becoming more regional; food safety and security concerns; and well-being outcomes.
“There is a growing move towards more regional supply chains and even reshoring production activities in home markets,” she explains. “Much of the ability to reshore manufacturing is due to automation and technological advances.” This is as true for food manufacture as for other sectors.
In terms of managing food risk, the key watchwords, she says, are: visibility, relating to an ability to ‘see’ up and down the chain; traceability, monitoring provenance but also conditions (such as temperature) in the supply chain; transparency, requiring communication of data to stakeholders (including consumers); and integrity – which is in many ways dependent on maintaining the first three criteria.
When it comes to well-being outcomes, Mollenkopf points out that in the famous ‘triple bottom line’, ways of meeting societal and environmental goals are too often overlooked. In fact, fostering well-being is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “What role do packaging organisations play in fostering such outcomes in their own network and in the supply chains where they operate?” she asks.
“Covid has demonstrated the fragility of the supply chain across a multitude of locations and societies,” her presentation concludes. “But it has also demonstrated the agility of the supply chain in responding quickly.”
Referring back to the four ‘big picture’ themes of change, she says: “Each of them will impact, not just on the type of packaging required, but also on the attributes and capabilities of that packaging.”
Design for the 21st Century
The centrality of the UN’s health and well-being SDGs to packaging systems and design, in environmental sustainability and beyond, is underlined in another keynote presentation, this time from Srini Srinivasan of the World Design Organization (WDO).
His discussion includes several examples of new approaches to materials sustainability in packaging for the 21st Century. “Unfortunately, where we stand today, more than 50% of product managers and producers of solutions are unaware of the new methods of sustainable packaging design,” he says.
The slightly better news is that, of those responding to this research, over 50% have designed or adopted a refillable design. In fact, Srinivasan adds ‘refill’ to the traditional ‘3Rs’ of the waste hierarchy: ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’. Just under three-quarters of respondents said that they try to use this hierarchy as guidance in their own packaging choices, he reports.
As others have done, he highlights the way in which consumers in many markets are taking a growing interest in the packaging around the products they buy. “They are looking to see specifically how the packaging was made, and the origin of the materials,” he says. “And in many cases they are willing to pay more for an eco-friendly product.”
The issue of promoting well-being may seem rather distant from much of the packaging on retail shelves, but as Srinivasan emphasises, consumers are increasingly well-attuned to one of the most straightforward instances of this altruistic impulse. “Shoppers are also looking for key messages, such as contributions to a charity,” he says. “They are willing to pay a little more money in support of good causes.”
As Mollenkopf also points out, up to now, ‘health and safety’ has largely been interpreted in quite a limited fashion. But today, definitions need to be expanded outwards to take in stakeholders up and down the supply chain.
Certainly in mature markets, as Srinivasan acknowledges, ‘product safety’ is largely a given, or at least an expectation. But there are other types of ‘safety’. “We need to find the right balance between product safety, human safety and ‘earth safety’,” he argues.
Whether it is in the choice of packaging materials, the pack’s functionality, how it collects and communicates data up and down the supply chain or how it facilitates increasingly automated handling across that chain, it seems that the pandemic has made the demanding near-future for packaging R&D even busier.
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