Retailers' shift toward incorporating of more innovative "smart" technologies figures to be a hot trend in the food market in 2015.
According to Food Production Daily's Jenni Spinner, the race is on for retailers to realize more efficiencies and better returns on investment by employing active and intelligent packaging features, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) sensors, nanotech, 3-D printed packaging, organic packaging, printed electronics and even bioelectronics.
An "Internet of Things" Is On The Near Horizon
There is already a heavy push to interconnect household appliances and goods in such a way that real-time product usage is traceable and thus, for manufacturers and retailers, more predictable. Some hope that this so-called "Internet of Things" will lead to a more efficient distribution of resources and, ultimately, prove a money saver.
Some experts foresee the US demand for active packaging to increase an average of eight percent annually, with projected sales in the sector to top $3.5 billion as early as 2017 and outpace growth in the total demand for packaging, Spinner reported. Globally, Xerox expects active packaging to become a $45 billion business by next year.
Printed electronics alone— already a $17 billion portion of the active packaging sector— are predicted to become a $50 billion industry over the next five years, according to a market forecast by Smithers Pira.
Marrying Form and Function In Food Packaging Design
One way that food producers and manufacturers are employing smarter packaging design is by considering ways in which functional design changes can lend themselves to a product's aesthetic presence on the grocer's shelf and vice versa.
Breakfast cereal, staple grain and pet food producers, for example, have been moving away from the bag-in-box design that has been a hallmark of the packaged dry goods sector for decades. New pouch formats hold the same volume, but require less packaging material overall— an aspect that ecology-focused millennial consumers value— and are often made to be re-sealable, increasing their perceived convenience factor.
Pouches are also visually disruptive; in a long shelf full of matte-finish, standard box designs, a shiny, differently-shaped pouch will often catch the consumer's eye more effectively.
Is The Drive For Smarter Packaging A Boon or A Boondoggle?
Industry insiders think it will be a boon, especially for retailers and manufacturers seeking to reduce food waste. With printed electronics and RFID, retailers should be able to keep closer tabs on their inventory— and not just from an anti-theft standpoint.
If inventory is tracked and mapped to a centralized store database, concise reports could be generated that would show grocery managers, for example, which units were nearing their expiration or best-by dates, thus enabling a timely mark-down. Products that are almost sold out could be automatically reordered in the proper quantities, based on sales trends and historical data, without managers spending hours pulling inventory reports, filling out order slips and calling distributors.
Additionally, innovations like modified-atmosphere packaging, vacuum-packed sous vide pre-preparations, light-reactive packaging and 3-D printed packaging could extend shelf lives for some products and result in less ordering overall.
"Many companies need to join up the dots and see how one active technology might combine with an intelligent solution, as well as have the opportunity to push the envelope and see where some half-formed ideas go," the Active and Intelligent Packaging Industry Association's communications director, Andrew Manly, told Food Production Daily. "We are at a stage where many active and intelligent packaging exponents can deliver strong cases for how these technologies are already working and delivering results."
As with any new technology, of course, smart packaging formats will initially prove cost-prohibitive for some manufacturers. Unit costs— particularly for packages that incorporate printed electronics— can be high. And some consumers balk at the prospect of their product usage being tracked via technologies like RFID, so there are demand barriers to overcome as well.
Still, innovative food packaging formats hold immense potential to disrupt the American retailsphere and help producers to improve their bottom lines. Time will tell just how far the envelope can be pushed.