Intelligent packaging which can talk to the consumer and reinvent itself on the shelf is now on the horizon. Andy Gilgrist is news editor of Design Week

Packaging has been called the silent salesman, but it is beginning to find its voice. Packs which talk to the consumer in more than a visual sense are on the horizon – technologically feasible but, so far, not economically viable.

However, before every can of beans has its own microprocessor, designers and packaging suppliers are having to make do with gently pushing back the frontiers of packaging material technology.

At times it seems like little is happening and that no new materials are emerging. But except where premium products, such as cosmetics, are concerned, designers, brand owners and packaging companies are preoccupied with the cost of packaging.

Richard Ford, print consultant at design consultancy Design Bridge, says: “Prices are going through the roof. Material cost rises have been absorbed for many years but cannot be swallowed by economies in the supply chain any longer.”

This pressure on costs does have an upside, says Ford: “It creates the need for research and development to develop the perfect inks, the perfect plastic, the thinnest can.”

External political forces also have their effect. In Germany, for instance, there is now a ban on building any new plant for aluminium can production, says Ford. This is leading to significant development of steel can technology.

Similar work is going on in the UK, at British Steel Tinplate. The efforts are directed towards making steel cans lighter, capable of being shaped with more complexity, and a better canvas on which to paint a wider variety of colours.

BST marketing manager John May is, as you would expect, bullish about steel’s future in packaging. His company’s 5m-plus investment in its Packaging Steel Development Centre suggests steel has a lucrative future.

The centre works in four directions: the chemistry of the steel itself; the engineering of packs; the aesthetic potential of graphics; and the introduction of new features such as easier opening tops.

However, designers are yet to be convinced. Design Bridge design manager Nick Buckley says such efforts are yet to bear fruit.

In the canned drinks sector, one of the more refreshing developments in recent years has been the clear can, as used by the

Seltzer range, which was made possible by the development of PET blow moulding technology for larger bottles.

So it is another example of good packaging design emerging not from a new “wonder” material, but from refinement and development of existing materials. Buckley says: “It’s just a case of innovative thought and it’s down to designers to open those opportunities.”

It is a widely held view among designers that the packaging manufacturers absolve themselves of thinking of new materials in a brand context. It often falls to the design consultancy to push for technological solutions for packs, whether it be a shape or a material finish previously thought unobtainable.

Design consultancy Pethick & Money, which developed the M-Pak folding carton, has now launched a range of three fast-food packs using paper and carton board. No great packaging breakthrough, but they save 40 per cent on materials.

Another good example of a designer leading the way is Coley Porter Bell’s work for the Charles Worthington haircare range launched last year.

Coley Porter Bell and Charles Worthington wanted the brand to offer a combination of low price, quality product and a designer/hairdresser name. The design set out to emulate the upmarket beauty products’ use of quality materials but in a form safe for use in the shower and bath.

So it had to be plastic. But the design team, led by Coley Porter Bell creative director Kate Shaw, wanted an elliptical shape in HDPE, with a frosted glass look finish.

Shaw says she had to push the packaging supplier, M&H Plastics, to develop the shape she wanted. To M&H’s credit, it achieved it. Shaw also wanted the cap to be metal, “real aluminium instead of spray-coated plastic”, she says. “We were left to source someone who could do it. Manufacturers were not prepared to do it themselves.”

Again Coley Porter Bell worked with a manufacturer, in this case Roberts Capsules, for the desired solution.

The result, for the Worthington range, is a powerful and unique design. And it is this striving for a balance between uniqueness and protection packaging which drives much materials innovation.

But the onus is not just on designers to develop new materials and systems, says Design Bridge’s Ford: “Any brand or company looking to maintain a leading edge to its product and packaging has got to be constantly looking to innovate.”

Of all the elements in a pack design – shape, graphics and texture – shape is the current trailblazer. It is the area where brands can really differentiate – from Coley Porter Bell’s bottle for Charles Worthington to Design Bridge’s olive oil bottle for Komili. This lopped 30 per cent off production costs and added a unique feature of an olive-shaped grip.

So what is on the horizon? More photo chromatic or light sensitive films, for one. There is a saké in Japan which is packaged in different materials for different seasons. A frosted effect provides coolness in the summer. For winter, the bottle is made to look warmer. Theoretically, a material could be developed to make this change on-shelf, either automatically or in response to an external stimulus. It could even be done for different times of the day.

Michael Peters’ design consultancy The Identica Partnership has a joint venture with the technology-based Generics Group in Cambridge to look at the future of packaging materials.

Often it is a question of transferring technologies from other areas, says Peters. Identica Generics is looking at borrowing materials used in soft contact lenses for developing packaging which can be broken down in a domestic waste disposal system.

He believes it is realistic to expect packs whose graphics can be changed remotely by communication technologies either on shelf or at point of sale. Dynamic messages within the graphics are another step.

An example Peters cites of a development much closer to market centres on ice-cream. Brand owners who install their refrigerators in shops are often frustrated by the presence of rival brands in the same fridge. By including a very thin layer of minute glass particles in the packaging, and with specific lights installed in the fridge, the brand owner’s products can be made to literally outshine the opposition.

Five years ago it was tamper terrorism which was driving a lot of materials research. Martin Swerdlow, a project director at the Centre for the Exploitation of Science & Technology (CEST), explains that other issues came to the fore, such as counterfeiting, the need for supply chain tracking and the biggest problem of all, retail theft.

CEST conceived a solution which could be applied to the product or packaging and which could answer most, if not all, these points. The phrase “intelligent packaging” was coined (although it has been widely used by different people to describe different concepts).

CEST focused in on electronic article surveillance. In a crude form, it is the magnetic strip on the CD you buy from music shops. Swerdlow says: “What retailers wanted is for manufacturers to integrate them into the product or packaging as they do with the barcode.”

Whatever happens, CEST believes there needs to be common standards, “a ubiquitous system”, as Swerdlow puts it. But the anti-theft aim is mainly for the retailers only. There have to be other built-in benefits to give the manufacturers and the packaging industry a motive.

The solution will be “smart” packaging which incorporates a microchip with communication capabilities. Information about the product, its storage and transportation history, and much more.

Theoretically, if the price of technology can be cut and the economies of scale are sufficient, every can of dogfood could have its own chip. “This has implications for the packaging industry,” says Swerdlow.

What Swerdlow calls “micro-marketing” – planting information specific to individual consumers in each pack – becomes plausible and will have extra marketing significance via electronic home shopping. The smart packs will “get the products to think”, predicts Swerdlow.

CEST started a new research programme just last month, this time with military interests alongside its commercial partners, to look further into how packaging can help ensure the right stuff gets to the right place at the right time for the lowest cost.

Swerdlow suggests it may be just five to ten years before items begin being individually tagged to such a sophisticated degree. But what does this mean for packaging design?

Packaging’s role will widen. From simply protecting and identifying a product, it will move on to be more than the silent salesman, indeed a very verbal one. Consumers will be able to interrogate the brand directly, says Swerdlow. And the can of beans will be able to answer back.

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