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Nimble, facile, flexible:How packaging survives

Packaging has been called a chess game without checkmate-never ending, always evolving-reflecting the changing demands of product manufacturers who, in turn, are trying to satisfy the needs of the consuming public.
FILED IN:  Controls  > Strategy

Glass plastic paper and metal will still be the cornerstones of packaging in the year 2001. But shifting socio-economic patterns are changing the mix of packages and services-and the ways they are delivered-long before we reach the 21st century. As we look ahead it becomes clear that some evolving packaging business structures and relationships present unprecedented challenges and opportunities for packaging managers and the suppliers who serve them. The current downsizing environment among packagers is a fertile breeding ground for delayering plans and any number of out-sourcing and out-tasking programs. In its quest to cut out unnecessary costs corporate management has dissected every corporate organizational structure and tried partnerships strategic alliances joint ventures coalitions and federations. Packaging managers have not escaped the cuts. Many managers today are working with smaller staffs and relying more heavily on their suppliers and not merely for quality equipment and materials delivered on time. In these tight economic times packaging suppliers increasingly are being asked to be packaging advisors coaches and consultants. Packaging demands are not changing. But with packaging staffs and engineering departments reduced or eliminated more packagers are coming to rely on a handful of vendors to "be their packaging departments." Thinking 'outside the box' For packaging suppliers the opportunities to grow in such a business context are extraordinary but challenging. These opportunities demand leaders willing and able to think "outside the box" put themselves in the customer's place and focus single-mindedly on eliminating everything that adds cost and time. Like all manufacturers packaging suppliers are learning that even as business picks up after an extended slow period they have to change their working habits and procedures and become more nimble facile flexible. In some cases the cuts their customers are experiencing mean they must beef up their engineering and technical positions to handle the product-and package-development projects being farmed out to them. Here's how this "Brave new World" of manufacturing was described in a recent Wall Street Journal article: "Customers are treating their suppliers almost like their own employees-vendor sales representatives have desks next to the factory floor. Their badges let them roam wherever they choose attend production-status meetings stop by the research lab and click computers onto sales forecasts. Then they can write a sales order for which the customer is billed." A growing number of major corporations are now doing business this way. And packaging managers called to participate in this new packaging paradigm are reevaluating their suppliers not just on their skills as producers but in terms of their ability to counsel. Packagers are pushing beyond "partnerships" to work with suppliers willing to invest in their operations to create seamless organizations where it is often difficult to tell buyer and seller apart. The business alliance announced between Mobil Corp. (Fairfax VA) and Continental Plastic Containers (Norwalk CT) in which CPC goes beyond merely producing and supplying bottles to assume broad responsibility for Mobil's motor oil packaging (see PW April '95 p. 8) could well be the wave of the future. In the future more large multinational packagers will do business with a nimble coterie of packaging suppliers able to follow their customers into whatever markets and with whatever packaging expertise is best suited to the market. Making packaging choices will be a shared experience. Smaller packaging suppliers will prosper by their geographic positioning and by developing technological niches. In some cases they will prosper as sub-contractors to larger vendors. For their part more smaller customers will form cooperatives to improve buying power. Distributors broadening services Container distributors the quintessential container-service providers have for some time been in the forefront of this emerging new packaging business structure. Once merely bottle washers and resellers today's distributors are often networked internationally sourcing containers and components from Europe and the Far East warehousing them and delivering them-just-in-time-to large and small packagers alike. Kranson Industries (St. Louis MO) a leading distributor is adding flexible packaging-preformed pouches films and even equipment-to its traditional rigid container product offerings. And as noted elsewhere in this issue (see p. 14) same-day-shipment from a full-color catalog of 3 packaging items-complete with pricing detailed size charts and a toll-free telephone number-is the newest business twist from Berlin Packaging (Chicago IL). Labeling changes cutting into your production line efficiency? A number of distributors already include container labeling and decorating in their list of offerings and several are currently thinking about adding digital process color printing capabilities. While what we are suggesting may change almost everything about the way you do business we believe packaging's future belongs to suppliers who are willing and able to provide any packaging expertise-whatever whenever and wherever the market demands. Survival in the packaging business-whether you're a buyer seller or developer-will increasingly require you to be nimble facile and flexible.

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