Disruptive technologies impact on packaging

Thursday, 04 February, 2010

Capable of eventually displacing an existing technology and transforming the industrial landscape, disruptive technologies are now revolutionising the consumer packaging industry.

Generally seen in low- or high-end niche markets, a disruptive technology is essentially a new, emerging technology that upends an existing technology and eventually replaces it, or at least is accepted as its equivalent. This occurs even though the new technology originally appears to be inferior or too expensive. These technologies tend to cultivate slowly at first, then grow at an exponential pace. Once established and available at a reasonable benefit-cost ratio, the technology may act like a virus wiping out more conventional technologies and eventually taking over the mainstream.

Pira International’s study, 'Forecasts of Disruptive Technologies in Consumer Packaging to 2019', covers consumer packaging, which encompasses all types and forms of packaging for consumer markets (food, beverages, pharmaceuticals, personal care, etc). It includes all materials (plastic, paper, metal, glass, etc) and processes, along with flexible and rigid packaging.

It seeks to identify and assess the various, exciting disruptive technologies that are being commercialised in the consumer packaging sector. Classifying technologies on the basis of components (eg, RFID labels, bioplastics) and end-use packaging products (eg, beverage containers, blister packs), the study examines the possible integration of these innovative technologies into corporate business strategies and plans. Significantly, it also seeks to provide roadmaps for each sector through patent and text analysis, explaining where they stand in 2009, and also forecasting short- and long-term scenarios in each case. In addition, the study discusses the new trends that are influencing the consumer packaging sector.

Recent trends impacting consumer packaging technology include material and energy cost fluctuations due to volatile oil prices, growth of sustainable packaging and new innovations in materials and packaging formats (eg, increased penetration of flexible packaging and rigid plastic in food packaging).

The technologies analysed in the report have been grouped into categories which include: active packaging, intelligent packaging, new materials and other technologies which include coatings/surfaces, food processing, design and manufacturing.

Looking at intelligent packaging technologies, time-temperature indicators (TTIs) are now being widely used in diverse commercial applications. Biosensors are tipped to be a promising area for future development. Pira predicts that over time, the integration of indicators and data carriers will be an important step towards harnessing the full potential of these technologies.

In the active packaging technology arena, chemical absorbers and emitters are being currently used in niche applications to preserve shelf life and the quality of foods and beverages. The development of absorbers or emitters that can be suitably integrated into the packaging material is expected to be a major opportunity for packagers worldwide.

RFID technology usage has increased significantly in recent times, especially in the form of silicon chip devices with small batteries. However, the future of RFID will require chipless devices (ie, printed electronics) without batteries. Barriers still remain for RFID, particularly the multiplicity of available formats and the problems with UHF interference.

The study goes on to add that low-permeability (barrier) materials are now being developed and commercialised, with new polymers also having been developed mainly for their barrier properties or heat resistance. Additives to plastic packaging have also been introduced to prevent UV attacks, provide antistatic properties, improve biodegradability, and increase electrical or thermal conductivity. Pira predicts that engineered polymers (blends, additives, laminates, etc) stand a good chance of being commercialised in future.

Several new polymers based on renewable (non-petrochemical) feedstock have also been recently developed. These may stabilise the price of packaging, given that they are unaffected by oil price movements. The most commercially successful polymer which is both biodegradable and based on renewable feedstock is polylactic acid (PLA). Pira points out that packaging materials produced from blends containing starch or cellulose materials are now being produced commercially.

In the field of nanomaterials, clay-based nanocomposites are highlighted as those with the greatest and shortest-term commercial potential. These provide very high strength and excellent barrier properties at moderately low filler loadings. Moulded pulp and fibre are also becoming commercialised on account of their eco-friendly features, low weight and lower cost compared to polymeric materials. Products are now available incorporating a moulded pulp body with a polymeric barrier film or coating, which is generally biodegradable. Pira expects products capable of three-dimensional moulding into complex shapes to show commercial promise, especially for food trays and protective packaging for non-food products.

Other disruptive technologies discussed in the study include conductive coatings and 'effect' coatings used to enhance the aesthetic appeal of consumer packaging. In food processing technology, there have been notable advances in aseptic and retort packaging, self-cooling technology, non-destructive quality control mechanisms for monitoring contamination and bond strength of seals, etc; and adhesives based on PLA polymers and nano-starch.

Several potentially disruptive technologies connected to manufacturing have been observed in end products. These consist mainly of adhesives (easy-opening sealants, steam- and microwave-resistant products, etc) and non-destructive testing systems (featuring contaminant detection, burst strength, etc). Commercial software allowing rapid design and simulated testing of packaging products has also become available, with current commercial design primarily focused on easy-opening devices (spouts and lids, peelable films, zip closures, etc).

Looking ahead, Pira predicts that the food, beverage and pharmaceutical sectors have the greatest potential for adoption of disruptive technologies, primarily due to their high technical requirements and product volumes. Innovation in the personal care sector has been brought about through the usage of eco-friendly, new materials and intelligent packaging. Sensors and data carriers in the personal care sector are now increasingly conforming to new directives involving use-by-date labelling.

Pira International

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