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What lies behind a painted smile?

There are more than 40,000 different products on sale in an average supermarket, of which an estimated 75 per cent of those that end up in our shopping trolleys are impulse decisions made within ten seconds per item. In such a tight time-frame and when faced by a shelf stocked with broadly similar brands, outward style can play a more significant part than inner substance in product selection.

Concentrates, dishwasher tablets, teabags, microwavable rice in a pouch and coffee pods are just a few everyday examples of packaging solutions that are integral to content consumption. They’re the tangible result of technologies that have been developed with the staying power to sustain the product’s viability within the home.

Whether it’s been designed to look the part or deliver the goods, packaging leads the charge in creating differentiation that gives competitive edge to the brand and added value to the consumer. And we’re getting a lot more for our money than we might have supposed.

The process of developing packaging solutions that represent more than their face value starts on the factory floor. Automation has increased speed and efficiency as well as raising levels of accuracy close to 100 per cent for the wide range of checking and weighing systems, dosage measurement, and inspection equipment in common usage

Inefficiency is a waste of money in manufacturing terms, says British Automation & Robot Association chairman Mike Wilson. “Forward-thinking companies that introduce automation benefit from increased competitiveness, leading to business growth, greater profits and more jobs. There is significant potential in the UK and the growth in packaging applications is encouraging, not least in robotics,” he says.

With packer-fillers accounting for less than 5 per cent of all UK installations this year, compared with the 1,340 that went to the automotive sector, there’s some way to go. Results, however, are immediate as followed the introduction of four robots programmed for the picking and stacking of pancakes to each of two lines at the Dunstable site of Honeytop Speciality Foods, Europe’s leading volume manufacturer of speciality flatbreads. Handling productivity has been boosted to 110 packs per minute with accelerated turnaround time between jobs.

We’re getting a lot more for our money than we might have supposed

As raw material account for anywhere between one and two-thirds of the overall cost of a finished pack, there is a continuous drive towards lightweighting existing applications, without compromising quality and performance. While this works to the benefit of the entire supply chain – optimised use of resources, reduced cost, lower CO² emissions incurred in transit – improvements are not always discernible by the consumer.

Leading glass manufacturer Ardagh Group now produces a 155g standard 330ml beer bottle half the weight of an equivalent container 15 years ago. A shorter neck and a more ergonomically friendly shape enabled Nestlé to trim the weight of its popular half-litre size Buxton natural mineral water last year by 25 per cent. At 10.7g, that may soon appear obese compared to the 7.95g RightWeight bottle currently being trialled by French PET [polyethylene terephthalate] blow-moulding specialist Sidel.

Material developed to reduce food waste is another less obvious and arguably indirect cost efficiency often undetected beneath the consumer radar. Viridiflex, a modified atmosphere flexible film recently developed by Grimsby-based Ultimate Packaging for Asda’s own-label Cornish Crystal Potatoes, was three times more expensive than its conventional counterpart. However, shelf life was extended by five extra days and the retailer reported a 92 per cent year-on-year reduction in complaints in the first five weeks of the in-store selling period. The higher cost was not passed on to the consumer.

Colour consistency on-pack is essential to brand integrity. In replicating it across different substrates, namely film to cartonboard, via different printing presses, barely perceptible variations may occur that can raise doubts about the product’s authenticity. What we buy in Brighton has to be as reassuringly recognisable in Brisbane. “A lack of colour consistency across a range of products may cause the consumer to question the quality of the contents,” says Elmwood (Brand Design) creative services director Mark O’Donnell. “Getting this wrong is like misspelling your own name.”

For a brand portrayed across a broad spectrum of packaging formats produced by an extensive network of print processes worldwide, ensuring that its image is reproduced accurately rather than as a close approximation is an expensive, but necessary, challenge. Indeed an entire industry sub-set has evolved on the back of meeting it.

Pressure on cost, however, can be alleviated by addressing the retail brand sector’s preference for spot colours, claims UK-based packaging pre-press specialist Reproflex3 joint managing director Andy Hewitson. “It’s now possible for spot colours to be produced from process rather than special inks, in effect enabling the printer to create a space of up to seven colours as standard on the press into which all the Pantone range are then converted. It’s a fantastic cost-saving tool,” he says.

Next-generation affordable colour management in development by Reproflex3 is the insertion of an interactive trigger within the half-tone screening that can be read by a suitably app-enabled smartphone and which could make on-pack barcodes redundant.

Public awareness to digital print is now far greater in the wake of the “Share a Coke” campaign, which had consumers transfixed in the soft drinks aisle this summer hoping to find their name on the distinctive red label.

While it’s a marketing stunt that other brands will surely emulate, the technology’s core competence in producing low-volume runs cost-effectively impacts positively upon warehousing, stock control, waste reduction and goods transit. It also enables brands and retailers to update on-pack messaging quickly and inexpensively.

Hitherto, digital print has been most in evidence on self-adhesive labels – 90 per cent of all global output valued at £3.7 billion – but next-generation nanography, or digital inkjet, coming on stream with running speeds of 13,000 full-colour impressions per hour – so comparable to a conventional process – will also be targeting cartons and flexible film applications.

Chocolates: because the lady loves Milk Tray – or because the box has her name on it.