20 Oct 2017
Drone-friendly Packaging and Alluring Labelling Rock Pack Expo 2017
Lighter and smaller is the message for companies looking to be drone-delivery ready, while the key element for contemporary labelling could be spelling just what a product lacks rather than highlighting any of its actual ingredients.
From drones to flexible pouches, this year's Pack Expo was the largest to date, ably showcasing all of the latest innovations in the packaging sector, including technology updates, new equipment and bespoke materials. For 2017, the Las Vegas-based show was further bolstered by the arrival of the Healthcare Packaging Expo as a co-located event.
Clearly bullish about the future of the sector, Jorge Izquierdo, Market Development Vice-President of the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI), the US trade body that organises the Pack Expo, said: "The forecast for the packaging machinery market continues to be robust. We anticipate the expansion of a number of major market segments, including pharmaceuticals and food/beverages.
"These developments are being driven by a number of different factors, most notably population growth, the surging demand for automation and an increased move towards machinery optimisation. The continuing rise of e-commerce has also played a significant role."
Overall, Izquierdo's optimism is largely borne out by the official figures. According to the PMMI's State of the Packaging Industry Report 2017, the total value of the sector is now some US$10 billion. Of this, domestic shipments of packaging machinery account for $7.73 billion, with the figure expected to exceed $8.8 billion by 2022, representing a compound annual growth rate of 2.2% over the next five years.
Drones Take Flight
Similarly looking to the future was the Ohio-based Workhorse Group. Once solely a specialist manufacturer of the kind of electric delivery trucks favoured by UPS and FedEx, the company has now expanded into the drone sector. In its operational model, an existing fleet of vehicles act as hubs for these remotely operated flying delivery aids, which can be used to autonomously drop off packages along the vehicle's route.
Something of an evangelist for these robotic delivery agents, Elliot Bokeno, one of Workhorse's Senior Managers, said: "Drone delivery is a reality and companies will have to take their likely deployment into account when designing packaging. Overall, packaging will need to be smaller and more lightweight if it is destined for drone delivery."
This year, the company was particularly keen to promote its HorseFly drone, a 6kg unit capable of carrying loads of up to 4.5kg. While it has been designed to run at speeds of up to 88 kph, its recommended cruising speed is 40-55 kph. Designed to be housed on the roof of a truck, the drone can be programmed to deliver a package, return to the vehicle and set itself to recharge.
As it receives real-time weather and air-traffic updates, the HorseFly will ignore any dispatch commands if the local environment is deemed too windy or too unsafe for any other reason. The addressee, meanwhile, can track the drone in real time via a smartphone app and watch as the delivery is made to any designated destination.
In recent years, the development of a drone-delivery system has become a priority for a number of US companies, including Amazon and 7-Eleven. Despite this, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is yet to approve the commercial use of such systems, although it has permitted the concept to be tested in certain locales.
At present, Workhorse is hoping its paired truck-and-drone approach will prove more palatable to the FAA than the many standalone drone systems currently in development. As a sign of the technology's potential, UPS alone claims it could deliver savings of up to $50 million a year if each of its drivers could abbreviate their routes by as little as 1.5 km per day.
Maintaining that adopting the HorseFly would be comparatively straightforward for many delivery companies, Bokeno said: "It is really just an enhancement to any existing fleet. In the case of UPS or FedEx, which are already out on the streets every day, it would be far more efficient and cost-effective if the drone could work in tandem with their drivers."
Snacks That Pop
Moving into the food sector and changing consumer snacking habits are seen as creating new possibilities for the packaging industry, at least by David Walsh, the Membership and Communications Vice-president of SNAC, the international trade association for the snack industry. Outlining the emerging opportunities on offer, he said: "At present, growth is being driven by a number of key trends, including better-for-you, clean label and protein snacks. In short, consumers are looking for snacks that not only taste good, but that also pack a nutritional punch.
"Despite what many think, this trend actually extends well beyond the millennials. In fact, the baby boomers and even the generations that preceded them are also inclined to seek out better-for-you snacks."
As part of this trend, Walsh believes that certain meals are now being superseded by snacks, particularly those of a more meaty nature, such as jerkey or meat sticks. In fact, following the introduction of more exotic flavourings – most notably teriyaki and chipotle – the meaty snack sector has enjoyed 3% growth over the past year.
Similarly adventurous flavours have also driven growth in the potato-chips category, with many manufacturers now using basil-infused oils and other herb flavourings as part of the production process. This has seen such potato-chip offerings as rarefied as Moscow Mule and Korean Barbeque arriving on supermarket shelves.
Despite significant growth in both the meaty snacks and potato-chip sectors, it is popcorn that must take a bow as the fastest-growing snack category. Now perceived as a healthy, low-calorie snack, popcorn sales enjoyed an explosive 16.9% growth last year.
Walsh believes there has also been something of a change when it comes to labelling, with many consumers just as keen to know what's been left out as what's been put in. To this end, packaging highlighting such claims as "low-sodium", "sugar-free", "non-genetically modified" or "gluten-free" clearly boosts sales in the current market. He also notes that details of any genetically modified content may soon have to be included on US food labels, a requirement set to be specified by incoming Bioengineered Food Disclosure legislation.
Pouch and Paper Packaging
Another emerging technology set to transform the way products are packaged is flexible pouching. Consumers are said to be willing to pay a premium of up to 75% for products contained in this innovative resealable and environmentally friendly packaging.
One company looking to take a lead in the flexible-pouching sector was R A Jones, a Kentucky-based manufacturer of automated packaging systems. According to John Minagawa-Webster, a Product Portfolio Manager with the business, parents, in particular, have embraced such pouches, lured by their suitability for on-the-go use and the fact that they can be accessed without the need for any cutlery. This has seen their use extend across a wide range of products, including yoghurts, sour cream, condiments and alcoholic beverages.
Highlighting the global ubiquity of such pouches, Minagawa-Webster said: "We've seen a number of different territories adopting them in quite different ways. In Asia, they are widely used for personal-care products and detergent refills, while in Latin America they are employed as motor-oil packaging. Whatever the sector, however, it always allows brands to maintain their image, especially in instances where space is at a premium."
As well as flexibility, recycling continues to be something of a bugbear for the packaging industry. Looking to tackle this particular problem head on, Bosch, a Stuttgart-based supplier of filling and packaging solutions, has pioneered the use of dust-tight, fully recyclable sealed paper packaging.
Said to be ideally suited to a wide range of products, including sugar, grains and flour, the company's paper-based system is said to seal just as effectively as a comparable plastic package. Bosch has also partnered with Billerudkorsnäs, a Swedish pulp and paper manufacturer, to create a paper product that can maintain its shape while also being stretchable – attributes that make it suitable for use in standard vertical form fill machines.
Commenting on the challenge of matching the throughput and efficiency of plastic with a paper-based product, Marcus Velezmoro, one of Bosch's Senior Sales Managers, said: "While shifting from plastic to paper has an obvious appeal for many businesses, we had to ensure we delivered the required performance levels in order to make it cost effective."
Pack Expo 2017 was held from 25-27 September at the Las Vegas Convention Center. The event featured more than 2,000 exhibitors and attracted 25,000 domestic attendees, as well as 5,000 visitors from 125 countries and territories.
Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas