It’s Time To Put Analytics Into Packaging

A great cup of coffee, with a sleek designed cup, is a great combination, but when paired with an un-safe lid, it’s a partnership doomed for failure. Yet, everyday a coffee drinker’s experience is dampened, both literally and figuratively, by this mismatched coupling. Clearly, the next generation of disposable coffee and tea lids must confront the problem of unintentional spillage, which reportedly occur hundreds of times a day. This happens when ordinary consumers, wishing to enjoy their cup of coffee, believe they have applied it to their cup, only to find out it wasn’t really secure, seated, and thus sealed, thereby resulting in unintentional spillage. Indeed, you need look no further than The New York Times’ 2011 feature article, “A Changed Starbucks. A Changed C.E.O.,” in which Starbuck’s Founder and Chief Executive, Howard Schultz, reported that J. Crew’s CEO, Millard Drexler, had personally emailed him to report that the lids at his local Starbucks in Manhattan kept spilling coffee on his shirt.

Recently, news has been brimming with reports of spilled hot beverage claims.  These news reports and articles focusing on the deficiencies, inherent in past lid designs bolster the demand for a better fitting, more secure and safer lid fit. Even mainstream media is focusing on beverage packaging issues. The main focal point in the excellent, 2013 New York Times article, “Who Made that Coffee Lid,” is the focus on the consumer’s interaction with the lid. Which actually defines the hot beverage drinking experience, rather than the cup.

The take-away from this article appears to be that, with all of the manufacturers battling to “one up” the other’s cup design, the war will actually be won by the individual who delivers a safer more secure drinking experience. This, in turn, means attention will finally be focused on the true defining element in the packaging equation: Who can provide the consumer a safer, more intuitive, and more secure lid? Simply changing to a new cup will not resolve the horrible safety problem hot beverage drinkers are presently experiencing with existing single-use lids today.  In order to resolve the problem, it is vital to generally understand just how design choices in new packaging products are promulgated, given the green light and ultimately projected through the manufacturing cycle into the market.

In a recent study, entitled “The Product Mindset,” Underwriters Laboratories (“UL”) seeks to untangle and classify the global product ecosystem to gain deeper insight in the variance between manufacturer and consumer attitudes. In a category relevant to this article, UL polls the two groups on product safety, resulting in an extremely wide divergence between the manufacturers’ “perception” that they are improving in product safety, and the consumers’ belief that manufacturers value sales over product safety.  On scale of most (“1”) to least (“7”), manufacturers ranked the need to improve product safety as a “4,” while consumers scored the goal as a “2.”  Clear metrics demonstrate the camps are misaligned when it came to assessing consumer confidence in product safety. In fact, 84 percent of the manufacturers polled believe consumer confidence in product safety is increasing, while 58 percent of the consumer group disagreed, believing instead that manufacturers tend to value sales over product safety.

The import of the UL 2013 study, while mainly applicable to electrical devices and components, is clearly transferrable across many industries, including the food and beverage packaging sphere.  Up until recently, new food and beverage packaging innovations arose to fit within specific existing machinery. As run under Kaizen or Six Sigma methods of process improvement, machinery and process drove design criteria.

As an example, within the hot beverage packaging field, innovations in forming machinery and plastics resins allow for faster cycle times, production of larger volumes of hot beverage lids in less time.   This methodology drove design choices, which may not have resulted in production of the safest product.  Thus, what appeared to be a drive to improve the overall process might have resulted in the decision to opt for a design. Which may be practically suited to the manufacturer’s current machinery capabilities, yet may not be the safest design choice leading to a product that is functional with the potential to cause injury or property damage.

As a matter of product liability law, a manufacturer need not insure against all possibilities of personal injury or property damage.  Indeed, in most jurisdictions, a manufacturer may defend against a claim of negligent design by demonstrating that, at the time the product was designed and then produced, it had selected a reasonably safe design as compared with comparable product design choices known at the time.  And, as a defense to a product liability claim, the manufacturer and its insurer may very well succeed.  However, given the growing force and power of the “blogosphere” – i.e., the “Wired Court of Public Opinion” delivered up by the Internet, one can see that this process-driven method of product design may fail to meet a growing higher level of expectation in the lightening fast information world of today’s consumer.

With the advent of spectacularly new design aids, such as commercially available 3D printers and, for the first time ever, a real-time tool-oriented thermoforming quality control monitoring system, best design criteria can now be successfully married with process driven manufacturing. This will result in both a safer design produced within an efficient manufacturing process serving to close the gap between consumer product safety expectations, and a manufacturer’s real world process delivery program.

With our own independent thermoforming engineering laboratory, headed by our Technology President, Mark Strachan, SPE Chairman/President and Thermoforming Engineering Professor, Penn State College of Technology, we have even created an entirely new terminology entitled “Packaging Analytics.” And, in 2014, we will co-host, with Penn State College of Technology, the very first “Packaging Analytics” conference in the World.  We hope that this annual conference will attract the best and brightest in the packaging world, with the intent to launch more innovations and applications aimed at providing a more scientific approach to the design and manufacture of food and beverage packaging; bolstering safer design decisions within accepted methods of processing improvement.

David is the C.E.O. of uVu Technologies. He is also founder of “Packaging Analytics™,” which strives to foster advancement in packaging technology as a science.

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