Pack to the future

Design Week asked the three teams in the1995 DBA Product Challenge to explain their visions of packaging – and shopping – in the year 2005

Never have opportunities been so great for 3D designers to ply their art in packaging. Prompted by security, hygiene and user-friendly concerns, structural packaging is on the increase. And changes in the trademarks legislation, making it possible to register the shape of a pack as well as a graphic identity, can only help – we hope.

But what will packaging be like in the year 2005, when, as we are led to believe by retail pundits, the shopping experience will be different? Life will be one long round of home-shopping, smart cards and electronic controls over the purchase and distribution of the goods we buy, we’re told. But what of the packaging?

With these questions in mind, the Design Business Association decided on structural packaging ten years hence as the topic for its 1995 Product Challenge. Designers were invited to submit ideas for any type of pack, overruling current technical constraints and focusing on “emerging human needs”. Entrants were asked to consider how existing or future materials and processes might be used to meet new challenges at any point along the supply chain.

Initially, they were asked to submit brief written proposals for a project they’d like to develop. From these the panel of assessors picked three ideas – from product design groups IDEO and BIB and packaging specialist Jones Knowles Ritchie – for further exploration.

The development of that thinking is what you see here – projects in mid-stream, but not yet ready for a final presentation.

That event takes place next Wednesday afternoon (15 November) at the Creative Packaging Show, to be held at London’s Olympia. All three teams will take the audience through their ideas in a discussion session chaired by Design Week editor Lynda Relph-Knight.

Jones Knowles Ritchie

Reusability is the main thrust of Jones Knowles Ritchie’s packaging concept for 2005. But the scheme is set in the context of a completely new way of supermarket shopping for everyday items, focusing on products such as liquids and granular goods, for example rice and coffee.

Instead of having branded packs delivered from factory to supermarket, products arrive in bulk tankers and are pumped into giant silos set in the supermarket roof. The customer accesses the product in-store via an automatic dispensing machine, having bought a container to fill with the selected amount of the chosen brand.

JKR structural packaging head Paul Stebbens explains that the dispensing terminals are touch-screen operated, with a screen that gives choices of brand of, say, coffee or tea, and the quantity required. The screens can also feature product promotions or recipe ideas, and there might be an audio facility to allow the terminal to talk to you. The dispensers are computer-controlled, making it easy for the retailer to transfer from one product type to another by switching silo links.

The dispensers, double-sided to speed up the flow of customers, take a credit card, so you don’t need to queue separately at a checkout.

The reusable containers, bought separately, are cleaned with a personal autoclave steam cleaner before being refilled. Every home will have an autoclave by then, Stebbens predicts, which can double up as a cappuccino machine.

The London packaging group has opted for rip-stop kite material as the main material for the collapsible containers, reinforced with some form of polymer. Each container will have a rigid moulded lid and base, and by twisting it you can fold it flat. Once you get the container home you’ll fit it into a holder – perhaps a jug for milk, a hanging dispenser for shampoo or washing-up liquid – or any attractive object that suits your home environment.

The all-important branding was still being debated by Stebbens and his team when we met, but he explained there was ample scope for branding at the point of purchase on the touch- screen. It could also be incorporated electronically into the container via a chip alongside product data and recipe ideas.

IDEO

“As soon as we started brain-storming, we realised we couldn’t pick out the packaging and look at it in isolation,” say IDEO’s John Stoddard and Nick Dorman. They have taken on the whole retail process of the future rather than just concentrating on the packaging.

They foresee a situation where packs take a variety of forms and are handled by robotic or human hands. “At present, packs are handled by all sorts of people at different times (in the retail cycle),” says Dorman.

Hence the IDEO team floats the notion of goods arriving in bulk at the fictitious Techburys supermarket and being packed to volume requirements on-site. You then automate the routine part of the process, allowing Yvonne Norman, the creative director/mother who features in IDEO’s storyboard, to place an order, perhaps from home by computer, for her regular requisites. This is filled by Techburys’ robots, while she and her children enjoy the “experience” side of shopping.

“Squidgy” packs might, for example, be better for the robotic side of the supermarket, visible through a glass divider across the supermarket. By contrast, at the delicatessen counter, hand-selected items are packed automatically into cardboard cartons with a personalised label. “There’s no reason why a hand-selected item shouldn’t be beautifully packed at a cost-effective price,” says Stoddard.

There is also a special takeaway pack to carry out the goods. This “carrier bag” might be double-walled to protect fragile goods and have thermal properties to keep things hot or cold as required. The top of the carrier closes to allow a robot to carry it out to your car.

IDEO has considered various options to tell customers about the products they’ve bought. Packs can carry electronic chips, for example, that give product information and instructions for use. This can be plugged into your home computer for further multimedia presentations about the goods or recipe cards. Your swipe card, by which you pay for your shopping, might also tell you of new lines or special offers in orange juice and so on, if the computer has you down as a regular consumer of a particular product type.

The consultancy hasn’t yet ventured into types of packaging materials, but according to Stoddard, they will be more varied. He maintains that materials will probably be intelligent by 2005 – “floppy one minute, rigid the next”. And because the containers are likely to be refillable, his team will be looking for materials that “look great after time”. “There’s no reason why plastics shouldn’t be as nice as terracotta – or collapsible,” says Dorman.

“We’re in the area of giving materials developers and packaging designers a brief of what we would want,” says Stoddard. “We’d want to be very imaginative about materials. The materials may be around earlier than 2005, but we’d be looking at applications for then. We hope our ideas aren’t purely blue skies stuff.”

BIB

Oxfordshire product group BIB is concerned too in rationalising the supply chain, taking out the drudgery of shopping for basic commodities. The idea here is to provide a flexible system that allows you to buy as much or little as you want of a product and to make transport for supplier and customer easy. There is no checkout. Instead, you place your orders at a corner shop and they are delivered to you within the hour.

And the packaging? “It’s almost an incidental,” says BIB head of design Andy Pidgeon. Containers are fairly standard across product types – from, say, lumpy fluids such as oxtail soup, through to powders. They are made in a range of controlled dimensions and of controlled materials, and are reusable rather than recyclable. The team is still exploring materials, but “something between glass and plastics” is being mooted; “something that doesn’t look a mess quickly,” says Pidgeon.

According to Pidgeon, the process starts with a fleet of bulk containers that take unpackaged goods to distribution points throughout the country. These distribution points will be as common as supermarkets are now, he predicts, but they don’t have to be in the town centre, as the customer doesn’t have to go there to buy goods. Instead, goods are ordered through a series of different methods.

Orders can be placed remotely from home via a TV or computer; customers will also have a hand-held ordering device that can be used to place an order for as much or as little as they want, wherever they are; or they can carry a device with them around a “supermarket” – surrounded by product promotions but not the products themselves – to clock up their purchases. And if you’re not into technology by 2005, you can still point out what you want or order it by catalogue.

The computer operating the system will know from previous experience your preferences and regular orders. It can therefore target advertising at you and can operate in real-time, informing you of special offers or new lines as you walk down the aisles.

Orders can also be placed at the local corner shop, where you can also pick up emergency supplies or impulse buys. The order is delivered within the hour by electric-powered vehicles similar to milk floats. “It’s like Unigate gone mad,” says Pidgeon.

Your purchases arrive in containers placed in a carrying device. You slot them into special dispensers in the kitchen and reload the carrier with the empties. Each container will have a cap featuring branding and product information. “It’s like a can of Coke,” says Pidgeon. The shape’s the same as other drinks products; the differentiation is in the printing.

Pidgeon stresses that though you can buy very small amounts under this system – even a couple of teaspoons of something for a cake recipe – the secret lies in getting the bulk up. And if you want that special thing – say, a piece of steak or fish that you’ve chosen yourself – then you still go to a butcher or fishmonger.m

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