By all indicators, manufacturing in the U.S. has been on the upswing and is expected to keep building momentum into the next year. For chemical manufacturers, employment is rising after years of decline, capital spending is up, and overall, U.S. chemical output is expected to rise another 3.7 percent in 2015.
In the world of food packaging manufacturing, how do you make sure you’re not just riding that wave of growth but also capitalizing on emerging trends?
As the North American group marketing director for Dow, Nestor De Mattos has an inside look at the big issues food packaging manufacturers are facing and how they’re problem-solving their way through today’s market. Here, he takes stock of what changes are on the horizon and how manufacturers can try new trends on for size.
What are the critical issues facing plastics manufacturers?
There are three areas where manufacturers are always looking for help. One is food safety extending shelf life.
Another is sustainability: About one-third of all food produced does not get consumed and with 200,000 new mouths to feed every day, we must reduce food waste. Dow is developing resin technology to allow for better use of post-industrial barrier films to reduce waste at the packaging manufacturer and help them reach their sustainability goals.
And there’s a constant concern about the cost of packages.
Can you talk about the unique elements of packaging that extends shelf life?
One of the reasons companies want materials that extend shelf life is that people are really focusing on convenience. Using a barrier material or another material that extends shelf life is important.
Another area of focus is providing stronger packaging. For example, there may be holes in the package that are going to allow contaminates into the package, or sometimes there are frays in the materials that you can see through—so we have been working on materials to help make those packages stronger. We have also worked on sealant materials so that they are stronger than before.
What are some of the factors, such as cost, that manufacturers need to look at when considering these changes?
When it comes more convenience-driven packages, such as grab-and-go, these packages tend to require a type of structure that is much more complex than the standard ones. In order to achieve the required performance converters need to deliver packages with several layers that may carry different materials, which can add a lot of complexity to the whole manufacturing process. While managing all of these variables can create challenges, packaging converters have the technical expertise to be successful as these trends drive changes in package design.
Packaging manufacturers often want to make changes more rapidly than in the past to keep their products looking fresh. What type of conflict does it present when you’re looking at a more complicated process to make those materials?
There’s a very conservative approach in changing because companies do not want to jeopardize the brand, so they take a promotional approach—they often test market the product to see if consumers will buy it. Every change you promote in a package could affect the sales output. So they focus on a couple of changes to see if they’ll get some traction.
But there can be dramatic changes. Baby food, for example, was in glass jars and then slowly the market started changing. Right now it’s almost impossible to find baby food in jars because one company went to pouches because it’s much more convenient—and then everybody followed.
One of the things that Dow is really good at driving is this whole idea of collaboration to innovation, which is why we started what we call Pack Studios. We bring together suppliers, converters and brand owners to solve some of the industry’s issues in packaging and bring about innovations. We have a facility with commercial scale equipment that can replicate a converters manufacturing facility so they can develop and test new solutions without stopping production.
What trends are you seeing on the manufacturing market as a whole?
Most companies are trying to do more with less. Manufacturers want packaging to deliver the required performance with fewer resources, less material and less energy. They’re trying to lower their cost while reducing their environmental footprint.
Many are also trying to differentiate themselves to deliver packages that have a different shape for their product so that it will sell more. For instance, some want to use more aesthetically pleasing packaging with a more natural look instead of that glossy look, so that you feel like the product you’re buying is more natural.
There’s a very public sentiment that consumption is slowly returning to pre-crisis levels, consumers are feeling better about the economy, and they have some extra money in their pocket so they can spend more. So manufacturers are investing in new machinery to produce more. Right now we are experiencing momentum that we expect to carry over into 2015.