What is Packaging?
To accurately understand the field of packaging, we need to recognize that packaging is everywhere. Packaging is apparent throughout our daily life, but we often do not think about it because, most of the time, we are more interested in the product that is inside the package. If we look at grocery stores, for example, every single item that is sold is in some sort of packaging. Some grocery store packages are designed to consolidate products and some are designed to keep them fresh and long lasting. If we look at electronic stores, most products that are sold are not designed to survive the hazards that can occur during transportation. Thus, packaging with protective abilities is essential to make sure that these products do not get damaged on their way to the customer. There is also the entire industrial packaging sector that most consumers do not ever get the chance to see. For example, when Ford builds a new F-150, there are thousands of parts that are needed to build the truck, and these parts need to be transported across the global supply chain. All of these parts are shipped in industrial packaging solutions that can be as simple as a corrugated shipping box or as elaborate as a custom designed metal rack for car windshields.
To further explore why packaging is essential in the marketplace, we can examine different aspects of the packaging design process.
When customers visit a store, they are looking for a product that will satisfy a specific need. However, most of the time, they cannot see, touch, or taste the product that they would like to buy. One of the major functions of a package is to inform the customer about the product. So, for example, in grocery stores, the package must provide information on such factors as ingredients, best before dates, and nutritional information. Because there are many similar products for the customer to choose from, one of the most important functions of any package is to convince the customer to buy that specific product.
If the customer is looking for a product that is more natural, the customer is likely more environmentally conscious. Packaging designers can modify the packaging to use more hyper-recyclable materials, make sure that the fiber for the box is coming from a certified forest, create reusable packages, and even use earth tones of blue and green which are more associated with sustainability to reach out to this type of customer.
If the customer is looking for a high-quality product, then packaging engineers tend to use glass jars or higher-quality, softer, paper packaging because customers associate these types of packaging with higher quality. Packaging engineers also use messages such as “gourmet,” “farm fresh,” and “natural” on these types of packaging. In addition, adding gold stamping, embossing, and other design elements can elevate the feel of the packaging. Packaging professionals have found that customers assign a 30% greater value to the same product if it comes in higher quality packaging.
Students in Virginia Tech’s packaging program learn to use technologies such as eye-tracking to help them understand which elements of the package design customers focus on more. Our program also has a multi-million-dollar computer software program that allows packaging students to realistically visualize every aspect of a packaging design and even place that packaging design into a fully stocked store.
Design for Functionality
One of the major functions of a package is to contain and preserve the product. For food, the goal is to keep the product fresh and safe for customers. Packaging scientists are using novel packaging materials such as high-performance, multi-layered plastics to keep coffee fresh longer in Keurig® cups, or plastic films that filter out gasses in order to allow vegetables to “breathe” while protecting them from the molecules that would make them spoil more rapidly.
When packages need to be child safe, packaging engineers design a closure mechanism to make sure parents can open the package but children cannot. Similarly, when packaging engineers are designing packages for the older generations, or for people with disabilities, the closure systems are designed to make sure that the package stays closed when it is dropped but can be easily opened by the target population who have potentially reduced grip strength.
Desired packaging functionality could be something as simple as resealable packaging for cheese, a juice pouch with a built-in straw, or a snack package that fits into a car cup holder.
Virginia Tech packaging students are using our state-of-the-art chemistry labs to learn how different food products interact with packaging materials and how to effectively manufacture food packages.
Design for Transportation
Modern advances in packaging and transportation allow customers to buy products from all over the world that were previously inaccessible to them. In the past, strawberries that were produced in California could not be sold on the East Coast without flash freezing and advanced packaging. However, nowadays, customers can buy electronics produced in Japan, asparagus grown in Australia, furniture manufactured in Sweden, or cheese from France.
The design of the package majorly affects whether these products will arrive damage free to the final customer. When packages are not well-designed, products can be damaged, logistics costs increase, and people can get hurt.
Industries in the U.S. annually lose $10 billion worth of product during transportation; a portion of these products are damaged because of inadequate packaging designs. Almost every customer has received products that were broken, dented, and scratched, or has bruises, cuts, and brown spots. In a store, we all have the choice to simply pick another product that is not damaged; however, when we order a LED TV through an e-commerce channel and it arrives damaged, the return process could be a hassle.
Packages are often shipped in unit load quantity on a pallet. When these packages become unstable, thousands of pounds of weight can become uncontrollable, and these packages can now potentially hurt people. This type of instability causes tractor trailers to flip over and warehouse workers, occasionally even customers, to get hurt by a collapsing unit load.
Packaging students at Virginia Tech learn to use advanced laboratory testing in our Amazon-certified transportation lab to simulate the hazards that are caused by different transportation modes. This allows them to catch any potential weaknesses in the packages and redesign them before they are shipped out.
Design for End of Life
Once a customer has received the product, the package loses its value to the customer. Due to the amount of packaging materials that are used globally, what happens to the package at the end of its life cycle matters. In the U.S., 34% of the mass in municipal landfills is made up of packaging materials. It is the responsibility of the packaging engineer to reduce this by using less packaging, increasing the amount of renewable packaging materials (paper and wood), and using packaging materials that are curbside recyclable.
Virginia Tech packaging students are learning how to exchange fossil fuel based plastics with bio-plastics derived from plants. They are also learning concepts such as a circular economy, a plastic-free economy, and about the performance of different packaging systems in order to find a way to get the same packaging performance using less materials.
The global packaging materials industry is on track to exceed a $1.3 trillion market share by 2024. Its growth is fueled by the popularity of e-commerce which is on track to double its market share by 2025. The packaging industry is one of the recession-proof industries. The 2020 global, COVID-19 pandemic proved this fact once again. Although many of the industrial sectors needed to stop their operations and furlough their employees due to the COVID-19 restrictions, packaging companies generated record profits and kept hiring more people in 2020.
Major Packaging Companies
Companies in the packaging industry can be divided into two groups: packaging users and packaging manufactures. Almost every company that produces a product needs to use packaging. Companies with large packaging departments include: Coca-Cola, Procter-Gamble, Tesla, BMW, L’Oreal, Amazon, HP, Kraft, John Deere, GE, Dell, among many others. Meanwhile, companies that are in the business of producing packaging materials include: Packaging Corporation of America, International Paper, Klockner Pentaplast, Westrock, Tetra Laval, and Ball Corporation.
The packaging industry has a solid, recession-proof job market. Because it is the third largest industry and because there are only five major packaging programs exist in the U.S., packaging graduates are almost guaranteed a well-paid job. To put this into perspective, if we combine all of the packaging students that are currently enrolled in the major packaging programs, it adds up to about 1,500 students. Meanwhile, at just Virginia Tech, twice as many students study mechanical engineering as the number of packaging students across the entire U.S. Therefore, there is huge competition among companies to hire the best and brightest students graduating from packaging programs. Some Virginia Tech packaging students even get signed job offers nine months before graduating and can make as much as $120,000 as their starting salary. None of our students make less than $60,000 as their starting salary and the majority receive an average starting salary of between $65,000-$80,000.