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Volatility Breeds Leaps Forward

I may have mentioned it here before, but one of the advantages of reading every issue of Packaging World from cover to cover is the speed at which I can pick up on trends or recurring themes.

Matt Reynolds1

Another theme walloped me over the head this month, and though it’s found in several of the stories within, it’s most succinctly—albeit narrowly for my purposes—summarized in Anne Marie Mohan’s expansive Robotics Special Report.

Robert McElmurry, Business Development Manager for Fanuc Fulfillment Group, advises that “[when it comes to e-comm packaging capabilities] the time is now.” Presenting during a Fanuc webinar titled “E-Commerce Fulfillment Solutions,” McElmurry said, “We’re seeing a ton of investment in this space, especially given current events, things have really transitioned at a rapid pace. … if you’re not acting in this space, or at least thinking about how you’re going to automate robotically, it probably means you’re behind, and it’s time to get started.”

E-commerce is naturally a charged topic at this pandemic moment, where the omnichannel is roiling and its constituent parts—retail, foodservice, institutions, and e-comm among them—are either adding or losing share. The new landscape on the other side of COVID-19 will require refitting, investment, and rethinking to match and serve the new omnichannel mix.

But e-comm is just one example of a larger sense among many brands that there’s fresh, previously unattainable opportunity to be found in the volatile marketplace we have today. As my PMG colleague (and apparent reincarnated California gold rush 49er) Jim Chrzan likes to say, “there’s gold in them thar’ hills.”

The sharp Michigan minds at brand packaging consultancy PTIS expand the range of this sentiment and spill an entire page of ink on where to find “good VUCA” (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). “Packaging is in a transformational state, driving disruptive innovation across the industry,” they begin in this recent Packaging World column, following with all of the platforms upon which this disruptive innovation can be founded.

So experts agree that there’s a chance for innovative, agile brands to be first movers on infrastructure, brand positioning, and hiring practices that will give them an advantageous spot in this fabled (and by now, cliché) ‘new normal.’ And are there resources for this kind of reinvention in such a high VUCA environment?

According to responses from our second survey surrounding packaging in the COVID-19 era, there seem to be. As charts and commentary in the survey indicate, much of the uncertainty that clouded crystal balls in March, at the time of our first survey, has cleared by June. When asked in March about their expectations for changes in capital buying due to the pandemic, 57% said it was too early to tell. That figure dropped by more than 20 percentage points to 36% in June, indicating that brands and packagers are really getting their footing in the new environment and are better equipped to make predictions. Also in March, 17% of respondents expected CAPEX to stay YoY neutral, and a meager 5% expected there to be an increase in expenditure. Those figures vaulted to 27% and 18% respectively by the time we asked again in June, with less than one in five brand respondents predicting that CAPEX will actually shrink in the coming year. This is an optimistic sign for transformational technology and machinery investments. And despite the possible economic fallout from the pandemic chaos, only a third of brands responding in June report a hiring freeze—half of respondents were under a hiring freeze back in March.

Taken together, the factors and expert opinions above indicate that there’s real opportunity once we’re through the looking glass. Forward-thinking brands have already begun planning and are laying the necessary foundation, via infrastructure, people, and technology, for what’s to come. Out of the pandemic crucible might come accelerated change, and revolution instead of incremental evolution. And as Fanuc’s McElmurry says above, if you aren’t already laying the groundwork, you may have to play catch-up

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