How the Pandemic Changed Packaging Forever What We Can Expect to See More of in the Future
By Fernando Pires and Sam Moses
The coronavirus pandemic resulted in a mad rush for packaging. As people remained at home, there was a boom in demand tied to food and pharmaceuticals in particular, ranging from packaging for frozen vegetables to insulin. Now that restrictions have been easing, it’s clear that new purchasing habits are emerging, including with cosmetics. Companies have been putting pressure on suppliers to get products to market faster, but they are still being cautious with orders, often buying smaller volumes of more diverse products.
All of those trends have created new packaging needs, required new tooling, and accelerated the pace of virtually everything the packaging industry does. Some of the changes are likely here to stay, including the faster flow of information and the increased use of technology and automation. And while global supply chain challenges will hopefully improve in the years ahead, those challenges have resulted in valuable lessons learned that the packaging industry can adopt moving forward.
Faster flow of information and new uses of technology
The trends described above have meant constant changes in schedules – both for packaging companies and their customers – to accommodate a variety of customer demands. Gone are the days where a customer simply emailed an order one or two weeks out. Quick changes are now the norm, and customers are using newer technologies like Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp to communicate.
The information flow is a lot faster but not always more accurate. Many in the packaging industry can relate to receiving frantic communications from customers, who are themselves reacting to “I need this now” demands. This level of volatility is leading packaging companies to change their staffing capacity and scheduling, with increased use of expanded, traditionally off-shift hours to deal with the quick surges of work that come in. While the industry may be able to return to more normal capacity and scheduling in the future, companies now have a game-plan they can turn to when demand ramps up.
In addition, the faster flow of information through newer technology has created advantages that are likely to stick around. Communication tools like Teams or Zoom have made it more efficient for companies to collaborate with their outside attorneys and other support professionals while reducing the need for travel. These tools have also reduced the costs that go into having a field service technician or outside salesperson, as remote meetings can effectively complement one-on-one interactions and site visits.
And, the use of artificial intelligence is becoming instrumental to the growth of demand. The use of this technology is pushing consumer demand in a way that society has never experienced. Amazon, eBay and Shipt are all home delivery platforms that use AI to drive consumer demand for retailers, distributors and manufacturers.
Continued supply chain challenges
The supply chain is not in the best of conditions, to put it mildly. A variety of factors are challenging the shipping carriers to deal with massive disruptions that limit their ability to get products to market.
Packaging companies are having to plan further ahead to create more of a buffer in their schedules. There is a constant demand to be faster and more efficient. And when all else fails, there are additional costs, such as having to pay couriers to drive the product to the customer. There is also a trend toward maintaining higher inventory that will likely persist in the future.
As the supply chain gradually gets back to normal, it is anticipated that the packaging industry will be able to capitalize on the lessons learned from the pandemic, enabling companies to react faster in the event of another major global disruption. A great industry example of how a company was able to utilize the lessons learned from the pandemic is how Marbach America developed new proxies or new flow without jeopardizing quality. The result is both a better process and a blueprint for continued process improvement.
Increased automation and shifts in the packaging workforce
As a result of adaptations and increased efficiency from the pandemic, the size and skill of the packaging industry’s workforce may change in the future. The threat of having to shut down because of an outbreak led many companies to introduce automation into their manufacturing process – or accelerate its use. The skill set of the employees that these companies will be looking for will be higher as a result. As certain lower-skill jobs are automated, companies need employees with additional training to oversee their higher-tech processes.
A simple example is the step in the die-cutting process that requires rubber pieces to be put on a die. In the past year, more plants have started using a machine that can do that by itself. Now the machine’s operators, instead of using their hands to apply the rubber, are at a terminal running the program. This one change allows companies to complete that step twice as fast and with greater accuracy.
Die-cutting innovation had been in the works before the pandemic, but it found its way into plants faster because of COVID-19. There are many other examples in the packaging industry of new or accelerated innovations from the recent past, including in the areas of automation, process improvement, and scheduling. These kinds of creative solutions have better prepared packaging companies for the next challenge and increased their value right now.
About the Authors
Fernando Pires is CEO of Marbach America. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Sam Moses co-leads the manufacturing and distribution industry team at the law firm Parker Poe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.