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If we had binoculars that could see into the future of packaging, what would it look like in ten years?

Based on what we know, it’s actually not that difficult to imagine.

By analyzing emerging technology, global packaging trends, and market projections, we can get a pretty good glimpse into how packaging will potentially look like by 2028 and beyond.

In this article, we’ll go over everything from design (smart packaging) to manufacturing (machine automation) to operations (AI and blockchain technology).

So, grab your favorite beverage and let’s take a stroll through the future of packaging.

What’s in-store for Design? 

In the next 10 years, service providers — and not product sellers — will reign.

Resultantly, consumers of the future will enjoy comprehensive experiences.

Instead of, for example, a few branded hair & beauty items, it will be customary to offer full-spectrum personal care experiences that go beyond the brand and engaging consumers mentally, emotionally, and sensorially.

With new technological advances, there will be a shift away from mass production and more towards innovative and specialized brand packaging.

1. AUGMENTED REALITY

With the advent of augmented reality (AR), we’ve started to see what role interactive tech will play in the future of packaging design.

Over the course of the next decade, consumers will be able to virtually test drive products, peruse packaging options and interact with game elements, as companies build brand recognition and provide new forms of entertainment.

One company that is starting to make its mark in this technological frenzy is Zappar.

AR will not only enhance the engagement of your product but will provide tons of consumer data that can help deliver more measurable results and benefits to customers. 

This will help provide a more personalized experience for each consumer and make future product launches and marketing efforts more relevant and targetted.

Essentially, AR will provide a better understanding of what your customers want!

2. SMART PACKAGING

Also known as intelligent and active packaging, smart packaging is seeing enormous growth.

According to Grand View Research, smart packaging revenues came in at $10.8 billion in 2015 and are expected to reach $26.7 billion by 2024.

From a consumer perspective, smart packaging offers many value-added benefits, including enhanced unboxing experience, eye-catching visuals, product preservation and protection, authentication, security, and connectivity.

For brands and companies, a new world of communication is opening up.

In the future, we will see the implementation of two primary technologies: printed electronics and nanotechnology.

Printed Electronics

Printed electronics is seen in the form of near-field communication (NFC); radio-frequency identification (RFID); ambient intelligence; smart LEDs/OLEDs; and compact power sources, screens, sensors, and data storage offering consumers a level of interaction never seen before.

Coca Cola label with printed OLEDs
Coca-Cola label with printed OLEDs

Advanced materials and printed electronics with smart LEDs/OLEDs will bring a new level of product interaction, infotainment, digital sales aids, and online connection.

Recently, Karl Knauer and INURU GmbH partnered to create an illuminated Coca-Cola label using printed OLEDs, receiving the German Design Award for their innovative work.

As we get closer to 2028, augmented reality technology will find its way on the box, offering a compliment of visual, tactile, and auditory elements to vastly enhance the quality of prototyping and production for producers and experience for customers.

Nanotechnology

The nanocoating market is seeing the most substantial growth at nearly 25% CAGR, with anti-fingerprint nanocoating at the top of the list for several industries including packaging.

Nanotechnology will also be used in the reduction of packaging waste, with bio-nanocomposites having the potential to replace non-biodegradable, petroleum-based plastic.

Kalevala Gin uses an NFC-enabled tag
Kalevala Gin uses an NFC-enabled tag

With the swipe of a card or scan of a smart device, for example, packaging will provide advanced tracking, theft protection, additional information, dynamic visuals, online connection, integrated product interaction, active monitoring, and a host of other innovative features.

Over the next few years, nanomaterials with protective properties will be utilized in hygienic and antibacterial packaging, particularly for medical, pharmaceutical and food products.

Along with innovations such as the use of discarded packaging chips in the production of lithium-ion batteries, we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg with nanotechnology.

3. SUSTAINABILITY

In the next 10 years, eco-friendly packaging initiatives will be stronger than ever.

With more and more companies taking up the mantle of environment protection, coupled with savvy consumers who now expect a higher level of eco-responsibility, sustainability has already become a strong focus in the packaging industry.

Current practices include waste reduction, efficient use of box space, lower carbon footprint, and upcycling.

So, what does the future hold? One area that will see a boost is compostable packaging.

TIPA Compostable Plastic Packaging
TIPA Compostable Plastic Packaging

Specifically, compostable plastic packaging is seeing a huge demand.

Comprised of materials such as PBAT, PBS, PLA, and PHA, this packaging material provides a highly biodegradable option while offering superior protection for food, beverage, and pharmaceutical products.

The compostable plastic packaging market is projected to see a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.4% by 2028.

Another innovation that is projected to see even more significant growth is packaging for water-soluble pods, offering both eco-friendliness and convenience (think cosmetics and detergent packs).

water-soluble-pods-packaging-marketAccording to Future Market Insights, the global water-soluble pods packaging market is likely to see a CAGR of 16.4% over the next decade.

Coupled with current initiatives, including the evolution of modularity and creative reuse, sustainability efforts in the packaging industry will continue to see a stellar rise.

4. PROTECTIVE PACKAGING

According to Future Market Insights, the protective packaging market will almost double by 2026.

Protective packaging is essential to the safe and efficient delivery of products.

This is achieved by using materials that aid in blocking, bracing, wrapping, insulation, cushioning, and void fill.

With the sizable increase in demand, we will see innovation in greener protective packaging that utilizes eco-friendly materials and encourages recycling while reducing the amount, volume, and weight of protective packaging.

As we approach the future, inflatable packaging, paper-based materials, and reduction in packaging waste will see a significant boost.

5. BIOMIMICRY

Nature is our greatest teacher, especially when it comes to design. With biomimicry — or the emulation and incorporation of nature in design — we find inspiration from organic shapes, structures, and sustainable materials.

Why try to reinvent the wheel when mother nature already has the answer, right?

Backbone Branding Design - SIS
Backbone Branding Design – SIS
bio-mimic
Backbone Branding Design – SIS – 2

In the future, current packaging materials will be replaced with ones that offer superior strength, protection, customization, and sustainability.

An excellent example of this is graphene, which offers a highly lightweight, sturdy, and conductive alternative, which is ideal for upcoming smart packaging elements.

Nanotechnology will also provide “live packaging” options based on the most efficient elements found in nature.

This will help to ensure that products such as fruit and other perishables are adequately monitored and protected.

Recipients will be delighted by striking and intricate designs echoing the beauty and complexity of animals, plants, trees, and a variety of organic forms.

6. CORRUGATED PACKAGING

The future for all things corrugated is looking bright.

Valued at $155 billion in 2017, the global market is expected to double by 2025, expanding at a CAGR of 4.6% from 2017 to 2025.

This massive growth will most likely be attributed to an increase in disposable income and savvy consumers who will expect a certain level of quality from box packaging.

future-corrugatedCoupled with the demand for sustainable efforts, increased applications for corrugated materials, and lowered prices, it will add up to a big win for corrugated box packaging.

Corrugated material is strong, cost-effective and recyclable, but it’s not perfect.

At the moment, we are seeing the use of Reusable Plastic Containers (RPCs) for the transport of perishable goods.

Looking to capitalize on this opportunity, companies like Aeroclay, Biome3D and UFP Technologies are developing innovative and biodegradable materials to replace corrugated.

What About Manufacturing & Operations?

1. 3D PRINTING

Additive manufacturing technology has captured our imaginations over the last few years with its ability to create complex shapes and designs on demand which would otherwise be unattainable or wildly resource-intensive through traditional manufacturing practices.

In the future, 3D printing promises to raise the bar via print-to-order manufacturing.

For packaging prototypes, 3D printing will provide a vastly superior option over current methods, offering flexibility, efficiency, and cost reduction that will meld design and manufacturing.

As printing quality, speed, and material choices increase over the next ten years, we will see an integration of manufacturing and warehouse facilities.

3D printer creating a box
3D printer creating a box

This will most likely lead to smaller and smarter spaces that utilize large-scale printing for products and packaging, coupled with smart warehouse elements such as:

  • robotic process automation (RPA)
  • cognitive computing (artificial intelligence and machine learning)
  • internet of things (IoT) connectivity.

Right now, 3D printing is in its infancy. Soon, we will see a shift from limited specialized production to scalable printing for all sorts of industries.

In 2028 and beyond, additive manufacturing processes will offer personalized on-demand package solutions limited only by the imagination.

2. AI & MACHINE AUTOMATION

Smart Warehousing

Future consumers will expect made-to-order products shipped quickly.

As previously mentioned, cognitive computing, robotics, IoT connectivity, and other innovative technologies will come together to form comprehensive fulfilment solutions to meet this demand via smart warehousing.

smart-warehouseThe shift from today’s sluggish processes to tomorrow’s faster, smarter practices will hinge on several innovations.

These innovations include the introduction of:

  • predictive maintenance (instead of waiting for something to break, systems will anticipate and address accordingly)
  • cobots (robots that will work in conjunction with humans),
  • IoT standardization (allowing for effective network connection)
  • integration of print-to-order manufacturing.

As robots begin to take on more tasks, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will become more prominent in the world of machine automation.

One company that is currently utilizing smart warehousing is the e-commerce giant Alibaba. Their automated warehouse robot can carry up to 500 kg and coordinate package placements around the warehouse floor.

We are seeing the integration of robotic process automation (RPA) and cognitive computing services starting to revolutionize fulfilment. Imagine what innovation they’ll introduce in the next 10 years!

On-Demand Warehousing

Another innovation that will likely take hold is on-demand warehousing.

One example is Flexe, a company helping e-commerce merchants save on storage costs and provide next-day delivery virtually anywhere in the U.S. by utilizing unused warehouse space.

Just like Airbnb, companies will rent out warehouse space optimized by the latest tech.

This will provide greater efficiency and the ability to expand without having to rely on the old model of acquiring and maintaining massive, inefficient facilities.

Shipping and Logistics Efficiency: Blockchain Technology

Forget the speculative craze of Bitcoin right now. The technology it’s built on — blockchain — is primed to disrupt everything, including the packaging industry.

Logistics costs in the United States come in at $1.5 trillion per year, and while growth continues, two significant issues are plaguing the industry: systematic inefficiency and fraud.

Fortunately, we are witnessing the beginning of massive disruption through blockchain technology.

How will this occur?

By offering a decentralized digital ledger, blockchain will eliminate the need for intermediary shipping fees, paperwork, and other inefficient/vulnerable/wasteful practices.

blockchain-shippingThis will streamline the process while providing a level of tracking, security, transparency, counterfeit protection, and cost-effectiveness we’ve never seen before.

UPS, for instance, has already started to invest in smart logistics via blockchain technology. One startup the package-delivery giant has invested in is ShipChain, which is creating a decentralized transport & logistics platform set to revolutionize the entire shipping process.

The future is coming fast, and those who embrace blockchain now will be part of the logistics revolution.

All parties involved — from shippers and carriers to brokers, vendors, and consumers — will soon witness the rise of this transformative tech.

3. E-COMMERCE

Brick and mortar may still dominate the market, but soon e-commerce will be king.

With nearly 1.5 billion global consumers joining the middle class by 2020, coupled with fast growth and low market share, e-commerce is primed to make a huge impact on the packaging industry by 2028.

Even with giants like Amazon currently commanding the market, e-commerce is still in its beginning stages.

There is great opportunity to get in on the ground floor, especially in the mostly untapped international market.

Those who enter this space and incorporate e-commerce strategies now will enjoy a significant competitive advantage.

4. AUTOMATED HOME DELIVERY

By 2028 and beyond, delivery, as we know it, will change.

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock recently has gotten a glimpse at a future filled with whirling drones and rumbling driverless vehicles.

Through innovative projects like Amazon’s drone initiative and self-driving Ubers, automated home delivery is quickly becoming a reality.

Driveless Trucks
Otto's first commercial shipment by driverless truck
Otto’s first commercial shipment by driverless truck

In 2016, self-driving startup Otto, which was acquired by Uber, successfully travelled 120 miles to deliver 2,000 cases of beer — sans human driver.

This marked the first-ever commercial delivery via self-driving technology and grabbed the attention of companies worldwide with its safety, speed, and efficiency.

According to the World Economic Forum, the use of automated delivery will reduce accidents by as much as 70%, lower fuel consumption by 20%, and save up to 1.2 billion hours of transport time over the course of a decade.

Drone Delivery and Concerns

Leading the helm of last-mile solutions is drone delivery, but the tech isn’t without its issues.

Many are concerned with the complexity of door-to-door fulfilment, especially in crowded urban areas.

Others have speculated about the potential for theft, property damage, invasion of privacy via data collection, safety (think of all those weighty Amazon packages overhead), and the logistics nightmare involved with such vulnerable technology.

Alternative Delivery Options

Some alternatives that are being examined right now include underground transport tubes, autonomous air taxis, crewless cargo ships & river shuttles, and sidewalk delivery robots.

In conjunction, engineers are developing software, sensors, artificial intelligence technology, vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure communication (V2I), and intelligent lockers & boxes to help guide the future of delivery.

Of course, the acceptance of autonomous tech flying overhead and self-driving robots traveling along our waterways and interstates will come down to public opinion.

Some will gleefully embrace it while others will be less enthusiastic. In any event, what seems like science fiction now will soon become an everyday reality.

Thus…

As the world moves towards more advanced and sustainable methods, packaging manufacturers and consumers will benefit from efforts that will revolutionize customer experience, manufacturing & shipping, and environmental protection.

Companies and brands that can anticipate these future trends and incorporate them into their packaging strategies will reap the benefits of being ahead of the curve.

To that end, here’s to an exciting future for packaging!