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Reflections on IoPP Packaging Summit 2010

The event was a rallying reminder that packaging is a diversified, powerful tool.
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The recently held (May 18-19) annual event presented a line-up of capable speakers from the user and supplier sides of packaging. My apologies are offered up front to the speakers who don't receive individual mention; for, I could not attend all sessions. All speakers, however, are to be commended for their devotion to the furtherance of packaging. Each session that I attended was informative, to be sure, but also thought-provoking. Some of those thoughts I'd like to share.

Terracycle

The conference began with a keynote presentation by Tom Szaky, CEO and co-founder of Terracycle, the company that invented the category of liquid fertilizer made from worm poop. Szaky's delivery style, suitable to his claim-to-fame, was in equal parts entertaining, funny, and irreverent. His kinship with the audience, however, rested on that product's packaging: post-consumer PET soda bottles, emblematic of Szaky's views about what constitutes waste and garbage. Those views have been further pursued through a Terracycle program in which post-consumer packaging (Capri Sun drink pouches, for example) are converted into products.
 
From a sustainability perspective, what is gained by converting used packaging into other products? To claim that it diverts the material from landfill overlooks the fact that the packaging remains in recognizable form, just combined with other materials; therefore, an end-of-life reckoning is out there. Not only might the packaging eventually end up in a landfill, but it might take its fellow component materials with it, if separation proves economically unfeasible. On the landfill issue, then, rather than divert, maybe the more accurate descriptor is delay. Consider too that the collection process does not lend itself to economies-of-scale, particularly in the area of transportation. Another consideration is the trend among municipalities to invest in waste-to-energy incineration as an alternative to landfill.
 
Coke

Sally Potter, Senior Manager, Research & Innovation Support, The Coca-Cola Company, was generous with insights into the company's twin challenges of standardization and specifications. Over the generations, and around the world, the Coke bottle (and not just the iconic contour one) has taken on a plethora of sizes, each requiring its own specification. Additionally, each size is a specific stock keeping unit (SKU). Reducing the variation of the packaging increases bargaining leverage regarding pricing and reduces the specification burden.
  
Few companies are in the class of a Coke, the world's most valuable brand, and have little prospects for joining; regardless, there's a lesson that applies universally. Whatever point a company occupies on the continuum from local to global, its packaging should reflect cultural and regional influences, but in balance with costs and productivity concerns. And if there's a lesson-1A, it's that there's a position on that continuum where the packaging department should be a centralized function, if said balance is to be achieved.

Designers

There were several presentations by package designers. riCardo crespo (that's how he capitalizes his name), for example, spoke about his tenure as Worldwide Creative Director, Mattel Toys, exampling a Hot Wheels project. Jackie Delise, VP, The Zunda Group, presented on a Degree deodorant project. Although there were the expected differences in project management styles, there was a common theme of the value of teamwork, within the design organization and between organization and client. Furthermore, both subscribed to the notion of a brand being many things but reducible to one: a promise.

The package design industry never has been short on creativity, an intangible that's necessary but not sufficient for a successful project. Lending guidance to that creativity has many pitfalls, but one that's always lurking is the self-fulfilling fallacy. The client, through a design brief, says that the product has characteristics x, y, and z. The designer comes back with a design and explains how the various elements convey characteristics x, y, and z. The client accepts, not realizing that what matters is how the elements work as a whole, gestalt, in other words. That's where consumer input can be invaluable.

Chrysler

Camille Chism, Packaging Engineer, Chrysler Corporation, gave a polished presentation of how the automaker utilizes returnable containers as a path to sustainability. An automobile merely is an assembly of numerous parts, many of which arrive at the assembly plant in returnable containers, within a closed-loop system. Her knowledge of returnable containers not only comes from the job but also from having made them the subject of her graduate thesis, some of its findings incorporated into the presentation. Chism highlighted the factors that determine the size of a returnable container inventory as well as those that impact the accounting and administration of that inventory.

Far from limited to industrial applications, returnable containers are used in food & beverage, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and electronics, among others. Then too, companies involved with certain pallet exchange programs face many of the issues associated with returnable containers. It comes down to this: no matter how seemingly specialized a packaging application, it bears some relation to others. That should be kept in mind when hiring packaging professionals. Experience in the hiring company's industry need not always be the best requirement, for there is something to be said for knowing the discipline from a different perspective.
  
Suppliers

Scott Lamb, Director of Consumer Packaging for International Paper, emphasized his company's diversification into services that extend beyond materials. Actually, it's a trend across members of the supply chain, with material suppliers offering design services, design houses offering consumer research, and so forth.
 
One-stop shopping (or close to it) has intrinsic appeal; however, the payoff is not automatic. There are at least two considerations that a client should entertain.  One is that of core competency. A major reason why a client does not do something in-house is that it frees the client to concentrate on its core competency. By that same philosophy, is the supplier's diversification close enough to its core competency that the supplier consistently can deliver quality? Another consideration is the potential lack of objectivity relative to how one service unit within the supplier company evaluates a sister unit.
 
Microsoft

Actually, I did not attend the presentation given by Jeffery Loth, Structural Packaging Manager, Microsoft Corporation, but we did converse at lunch. We spoke about the criticism leveled against the retail packaging of software, typically a book-size carton containing a single disc. There is a marketing/display rationale for what otherwise seems to be over-packaging, but some consumers are not receptive to that explanation. Fortunately, an increasing percent of software is purchased by online downloads, said Loth.

But there's another intersection of packaging and software: the computerization of packaging machinery and packaging operations. The gains can be sizable, involving quality and productivity along many dimensions. And as to package design, software can facilitate every level, from the primary package to the unit load pattern.
 
Kudos

A parting shout-out goes to the companies that sent attendees. The companies deserve commendation, particularly in these belt-tightening times. They know that it's good business sense to invest in their packaging professionals.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax; [email protected].

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