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Packaging trends to watch in 2011

Last year we asked automation consultant John Kowal to present 6 trends to anticipate in the coming year. Here's what Kowal, who is now packaging market development manager at B&R Industrial Automation, for another round of trends.

1. Slow economic rebound and new technology spur 'value' packaging machines

The trend was already evident at PACK EXPO: provide certain key packaging machine capabilities at a price point that makes them affordable to a new group of customers.

By morphing control into the touchscreen panel, with smart software control of AC drives and using new fabrication techniques, Omega Design Corporation has created a new value-priced niche for bottle unscramblers.

It's targeted at life sciences customers who don't require full servo functionality but do want to take advantage of Omega's patented, self-adjusting rotary pocket system.

In a similar game-changing move, Extreme Packaging Machinery introduced a 100 cpm servo shrink wrapper costing significantly less than conventional designs.

To accomplish this, Extreme's engineers also streamlined mechanical fabrication, and then replaced pneumatic cylinders, temperature controllers, PLC, HMI and all their separate software packages on its new wrapper series.

OEMs such as Extreme Packaging are reading the market to bundle functionalities that meet specific price points and application requirements.

2. Especially in a weak economy, some innovations are irresistable

Among the most sensational new packaging technologies introduced at PACK EXPO was Ilapak's fresh pizza vacuumizing system. It takes all but about 0.5% of the oxygen out of a fresh pizza prior to modified atmosphere packaging. And that turns a 1 to 2 day refrigerated shelf life into several months.

It's already a hit in Europe, turning local pizza makers into regional players, regional players into EU-wide brands, and store brands into high volume operations.

Everyone knows that a slow economy spurs dining at home. Yet, frozen pizza remains one of the most competitive and heavily discounted categories. Fresh pizza is the perfect opportunity for a new differentiator.

The potential to reshape consumer expectations, capture market share and recapture margins should have pizza makers beating a path to Ilapak's door in 2011.

3. It's an interpack year: anticipate innovation

Some people just don't believe it, but it's true. The European packaging machine industry follows a circadian rhythm based on the 3-year interpack fair cycle. It's not that they won't introduce innovations in between. But they use interpack to launch their major new platforms which are multi-year R&D programs.

You don't hear much pre-show buzz because they want to save the unveiling for the big event. That doesn't mean key customers aren't already field testing the technology in question a year or more in advance of the show. And that means more often than not, the show machine is a production machine rather than a prototype.

That's why, if you do one thing this May, go to interpack in Düsseldorf and see what's on the horizon. Register for interpack, book your air and your hotel as early as you can, and expect to be shocked by hotel prices. But don't let that stop you. Go.

4. Productivity and sustainability are causally related

If a machine operates more efficiently, it's greener than one that's down or that creates more scrap. Likewise, a safe machine is a more productive machine. A machine that's easier for the operator to learn to run is likely safer as well as more productive. A machine that's secure and doesn't get the Stuxnet worm is more productive and, therefore, more sustainable. It's also inherently well suited to FDA-regulated environments.

You get the picture. For far too long we have siloed the operations, production, quality, IT, safety, and sustainability functions. We need to converge and use tools that look at the vital signs of packaging lines more holistically.

PackML will enable this connectivity, along with greater use of industrial PC-based human machine interfaces (HMI) to run these applications moving forward. So packagers, consider requesting a stop at your headquarters on the PackML World Tour.

5. Leverage more consumer technologies to help you run your machines

Compared to all the money that goes into developing mobile devices for the masses, dedicated industrial hardware suppliers can afford to invest very little in R&D. The market is just too small. But when control systems piggyback on consumer electronics innovations -- like the Intel Atom® processor, the latest touchscreen technology, WiFi and web communications – industrial applications emerge much faster. At Pack Expo this year, we saw a number of demos that take advantage of innovations in the consumer electronics field. The other great thing is that these technologies aren't proprietary to a particular control supplier, making it easier to tie into all the machines on the line. That's especially true if the machine builders support the PackML standard.

6. Whatever you know about packaging in China won't be true a year from now

A rapidly emerging middle class is creating a market dynamic of upscaling in Chinese consumer goods marketing. That always means accelerated demand for more sophisticated packaging and packaging machinery.

At a recent PMMI export conference, featured speaker Xiaoguang Hou asserted that these changes are creating a window of opportunities for North American suppliers who have largely not participated in the world's fastest growing market. If you are a packaging machinery builder, seek out contacts that can help you participate in China. PMMI would be a good place to begin.

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