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ith pressure to reduce materials in packaging across the board, rigid plastic containers have a lot to lose in consumers’ minds. The recent lightweighting of retail water bottles illustrates the double-edged sword of balancing efficient production and shipping vs. consumer acceptance and perceptions of quality. There may be a fine line when it comes to the many expectations consumers harbor about their experiences with primary packaging, and what they consider “cheap.” As you progress forward with your structural development through brand management efforts—continue to balance the intertwined factors of your targeted: brand,  functional performance, manufacturability, design intent, and consumer usage.  

1. List all the factors and goals.

In the early design phases, and through the use of a package design brief, identify critical design elements, brand intent needs and functional requirements for your assembled package. In general, it’s good practice to call out “hard” and “soft” program requirements for your assembled package in the brief.  Typical details included in the brief are as follows:  projected launch volume requirements, package performance requirements, product fill capacities, manufacturing scale and capability needs, targeted cost of goods, projected retail cost target, labeling requirements, sustainability performance requirements, government compliance, pallet efficiency, total supply chain characteristics, retail shelf requirements, targeted on-self date, early-on identified risks, technology needs, etc. Consider investing in a proprietary structure, because structure is one of the main equities a brand can have and own through intellectual property(IP), and it’s one of the primary ways to differentiate on shelf— even small design elements differentiate.

2. Understand competing goals and possible compromises.

The benefit of having a design brief document with “hard” and “soft” requirements spelled out—will allow the cross functional team to have good healthy collaborative discussions through the process.   With many factors competing for primacy, balanced compromises are made between form, function, strength, and protection. Try to look at restrictions as challenging opportunities for innovation instead of insurmountable obstacles. Determine minimal wall thickness first at the most critical area of the package, then use design and tools like virtual modeling and FEA simulation to help direct and stiffen structures where material reduction makes it challenging to have the same load weight requirements. Collaboration amongst the cross functional group is critical in this design and development phase.

3. Providing primary structural design scope options open early on.  

With many primary structural solutions available and in your tool-box, consider keeping your chosen structural option open as you could end up getting a better total packaging solution when weighing the elements like the brand, design intent, and costing solution. As examples, a long list of primary structural solutions could be one of the following:  stand-up pouch, glass bottle, child resistant closure, plastic PET bottle, thermoformed tubs, sachets, skin packs, tin can, ampoule, aerosol can, roll-on pilfer proof closure, dissolvable pods, beverage can, spouted pouch, stick packs, paperboard canisters, tetra pack, blister packs, and pillow pouch.

4. Research consumer attitudes and expectations.

It’s  important to consider cost as well as consumer perception of packaging material use, which could “at times” appear to cheapen the product’s appeal if not balanced properly. Consumers’ desire for convenience has become more about versatility in a multitude of use environments. Think about how to make the user more functional with the package and how product delivery can be designed within a broader system—whilst minimizing packaging material use for an optimal sustainability reduction view. Remember, consumers expect more and more to be able to see the product and see its features—even interact with it—at retail.

5. Appreciate differences in molding, forming, and manufacturing techniques.

Consider consulting with your suppliers and third party manufacturing experts in the early design and development phase to gain any critical insights that would be “good” or “bad” early on in the development phase. Aside from cost and quality,  also consider manufacturability of the structure, filling, assembly of the structure, consumer perception during use, and disposal.

Early Virtual Design Simulation and FEA stress testing of packages under extreme conditions will likely provide the key information you need when determining what optimal primary and secondary structural materials are best for the entire package solution. This is a great opportunity to further build your learning and help develop your skills by leveraging the knowledge of your existing suppliers. Conversely, this is also a great time to, leverage a new vendor or 3rd party expert to learn more about other primary and secondary structures that you may not have a strong depth of knowledge on. Continual learning is a critical element in building your packaging knowledge and skill.

6. Get a handle on it...or not.

Incorporating a handle into a rigid container is typically considered a more complex engineering process. It’s important to note here that your decision to place a handle into your primary structure may play a role in which specific molding process is used and/or helping to define the polymer material type. No doubt, technologies have advanced for handle molding solutions to the extent that you are now seeing extrusion PET bottles blown with through handles and  even two stage PET bottles with molded-in deep grip  handle solutions. As a designer, it will be critical to pay careful attention to molded handle weak points, flashing, sharp edges, pinch points, ergonomics, and other human factors. While weighing design options that would include a molding-in handle into the primary structural package, also evaluate the cost of a secondary component handle that attaches to the outside of the package. Naturally, keep in mind how that handle might affect the recyclability of the total package as a system.

7. Maximize the potential of thermoforming.

Specific design and molding watch-out areas when developing thermoformed containers include stacking strength, ability to seal tightly, and lid strength. If top load “crush” strength is required in the design brief, then consider the versatility of adding a primary thermoform structure inside a more robust  secondary packaging structure like a carton or corrugated box. Thermoforming enables great design freedom, with some limitations. Whenever possible, take the time to challenge stress test both the empty and filled packaging components for any structure. Thermoform structures may not be right for every situation because of their sharp angles and the added complications of assembly.  Nonetheless, a thermoform structure, is well worth considering from a variety of design and cost perspectives.

8. Maintaining your brand identity as a whole.

With the realization that your total package solution represents your entire brand image—it’s important to keep in mind that the design and development of your unique branded structure shape and branded printed graphics are designed and developed in harmony as one complete system. There is a dialogue that happens between graphics and shape that makes the sum of that dialogue greater than its parts. The package in isolation should tell you what category it’s in, but also have an architecture that is adaptable to new categories. Plan ahead for brand extensions, and decide what structural elements constant and what design elements will be variable. The goal is to try to marry the best brand benefits, ideal consumer ergonomics, best unit cost and the most optimal manufacturing through supply chain efficiencies.

9. Cap it off right.

Though often small in size relative to the bottle, pouch, or tube it seals off too primary structural closures can have the biggest impacts for consumer functionality, ease of use, and comfort. That’s because the closure is often the primary point of interaction the consumer has with the product and package. It’s a common mistake to think of a closure separately from the container, or downplay its importance. (For more, see “Closure best practices keep possibilities open” in this Playbook.)

10. Growing pouch trends and supply chain watch-outs.  

Flexible film primary structures like the industry growing use of stand-up pouches or spouted pouches typically need more attention in the area of supply chain handling and delivery than one  would estimate. These flexible film structural solutions typically deliver: enhanced consumer convenience, cost of goods favorable economies and a unique branding solution. The watch-outs for these structures typically come down to requiring: barrier performance requirements, optimal filling & sealing, and safe handling performance through the supply chain to the consumer.  That said, it makes a great deal of sense to engage your supplier or a third party lab for support and guidance in working through:  trials, testing, setting performance requirements, and standards with goals of delivering this product through the supply chain and safely to your consumer.

11. Test, test, and then test some more.

Build in development time, testing time, and redevelopment time. Anticipate what can go wrong by using tools such as DFMEA (Design Failure Mode and Effects Analysis) or with utilization of a risk assessment and mitigation program. Realize that there may be some trade-offs in the performance of recycled-content plastic containers. Know the shortcomings and flexibility in procurement before committing to a long campaign. If budget allows and/or as your risk mitigation planning dictates, explore multiple material or structural options from various vendors to maximize your success rate. Building off this risk mitigation approach, remain strong in your project launch planning to ensure you work through risks with strong mitigations collaboratively and communications to the team and stakeholders.  

12. Manage the process stem to stern.

Having a project manager lead your new product launch from concept through to commercialization is ideal.  It’s critical to communicate all risks and mitigation plans to the project team and stakeholders. Engineers should know the minimal needs of the product’s performance, and design should enhance the promise of the brand. Learn the languages of your collaborators. If you’re in production, learn about aesthetics and engineering. If you’re an engineer, learn about production limits and aesthetics. And if you’re a designer, learn more about engineering and production expectations and requirements. As you are working through your risk and mitigation planning, be prepared to discuss and make suggestions from early in the commercialization process through launch as to what is possible—and what is not, and why.

11. Don’t be afraid of loftier goals.

Recyclability and reduction in materials often get the most attention in working toward a more sustainable future. But package design can change consumer behavior in more pervasive ways. Does your package allow for complete dispensing of the product? Can the package be reused, refilled, or used for another purpose? Remember anything is possible, so use all your resources to flesh out new ideas.

12. The new product launch.

A successful product launch will require: (1) a collaborative cross functional team filled with participants from marketing, sales, creative, operations, engineering, scientists, quality, and planning, (2) robust planning, (3) solid risk and mitigation planning effort, (4) along with a healthy collaboration and strong communication amongst the entire cross functional team and stakeholders from concept development through product launch.

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