Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Designing Packaging

Test your packaging acumen - out of these solid shapes, given a volume of 12 ounces, which would use the least packaging?
Yesterday I gave the class a taste of packaging engineering. It made sense since we just finished a materials science unit with a focus on properties - the kind of stuff that wraps and protects the things we buy and use is vital!

Packaging engineers must be able to successfully integrate industrial or chemical engineering and work with a team of marketers, designers and financial types. Choosing the proper material, labeling it with the right colors, transporting it safely, while protecting the food or consumer goods inside is a complex task.

Take fast-food soda cups for instance. I'm a forgetful type, so when I've got that large drink of lemonade in my cupholder I'll often leave it there for, um, let's say a few days. The same cup that nicely brought lovely cold lemonade to my lips has, after 72 hours or so, begun leaking out of the bottom seam and depositing unlovely sticky lemon syrup in my cupholder. Why didn't the quick serve eatery make a better takeaway cup? Why not plastic instead of waxy paper?

Every paper packaging decision involves a trade-off. Fast-food joints could easily provide solid plastic take-out cups but the cost for plastic instead of waxy paper would be much higher. They could also design the cups with better paper to hold the liquid longer but that would take more money as well. The fact is, engineers and marketing teams have decided that for the given design goals of serving a beverage that (should be) finished and disposed of in a few hours a slightly waxy paper cup is just the right container. In some sense the fast-food cup is "designed to fail" at just the right time to save everyone money and reduce waste.

How about a half-gallon of orange juice? Now there's a product that won't usually be finished in a few hours, barring an attack of thirsty teenage boys. (Once I drank a quart of milk in one sitting but that was kind of gross.) The paper is thicker, more waxy, with a replaceable cap. It won't leak in a few days - but it won't last forever, either. It also has very cleverly designed features and colors to make you enjoy drinking it and think that it's fresh, usually pictures of trees and oranges and straws on the outside. You could have a great sturdy container of OJ but with drawings of candy on the outside and it wouldn't sell because moms would think it was full of sugar, even if it wasn't.

Now, which shape did you guess would use the least packaging? It's the sphere.

Students this last week listened to a lecture on surface area and volume, void space and efficient shapes. Even though the sphere has the best surface area to volume ratio (the least packaging to hold the most volume) we don't see spheres of juice on the shelves! Why? Not an engineering constraint, but a consumer use one - people don't want their soda to roll away! Also, spheres take up more room when stacked in a box than rectangular prisms do.

After the lecture, students worked in teams of about five with pieces of paper to design a paper cup that could hold the most volume of water for about a minute. With only one piece of paper at a time, the surface area was set but the volume could vary - and did! Designs that were rounded in shape seemed to work best, although plain paper without any coating would leak water within a matter of minutes. Still, if someone could engineering a paper cup that could be made by folding only, no glue or cutting needed, while still serving consumer needs, there would be much less waste and tons of money saved on manufacturing.

For more study check out these sites showcasing excellent design in packaging:

The Dieline

I.D. Magazine Annual Design Review

1 comment:

  1. Hi there! I'm glad to stop by your site and know more about packaging engineering jobs. This is a good read. Keep it up! I will be looking forward to visit your page again and for your other posts as well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about packaging engineering jobs.
    Many kinds of films are used for packing different products. Like blister film packaging is used in pharmaceutical, medical as well as for consumer good. It is a very tough packaging that not only protects the product inside but it also displays it clearly for buyer to purchase it. Then there are shrink wrap packaging in which the film holds the product tightly after heat it, anti fog films, anti static films, barrier films and so on. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) films is the chief material used in these film. In addition to this polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyolefin are also used extensively.
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