Here’s a sneak preview of some of the exciting ideas coming up in packaging design. Rod Addy reports

There’s a revolution happening in new product development. But the innovators are not so much thinking outside the box as about the box. Packaging has suddenly become big news. And if you think Hotcan’s self-heating cans, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes resealable, pointed internal bags and Heinz’s heat-resistant Soup Cups are whizzy, take a look at some of the ideas coming up.

At the end of the month, a whole host of revolutionary packaging concepts will be presented at Total Processing and Packaging 2004 in Birmingham as part of the 2020 Vision Design Challenge.

Some are based on existing technology, some on technology yet to be developed. Some are functional, others largely aesthetic. But all demonstrate that packaging is no longer just an added extra, but a vital part of new product development.

So why the sudden explosion of interest?

One driver is manufacturers looking for a point of difference. In an era when own label brands are sometimes outperforming their leading brand rivals, a snazzier-looking pack is no longer enough.

You need that snazzier-looking pack but one that is offering the consumer something extra - be it additional functionality or entertainment value.

Adam Fennelow, membership manager at Design Business Association, says: “Lines are blurring between product design and packaging design and a lot of innovations are being driven by packaging designers at the moment.”

Another driver is convenience. Consumers want smaller, easier-to-use packaging - so that when they’re grabbing a hot snack at a petrol station, they don’t have to queue up for the microwave.

Dominic England, senior consultant at Dragon Brands Consulting, says: “The trend towards convenience will increase because it is such a strong need state for consumers.

“People spend a lot of time travelling and want such things as smaller packs for portability or packs which can be opened with one hand while they are driving.”

He cites the example of Cadbury Trebor Bassett’s 24/7 confectionery dispensers, which were launched at the beginning of last year: “Gums and mints were normally available in foil or paper-wrapped tubes.

“The dispensers ensured mints were dispensed one at a time so consumers only needed to use one hand.”

Now Korean manufacturer KBP is talking about extending another recent innovation - mint strip dispensers - to caffeine or vitamin-based products.

Nick Dormon, MD at design consultancy Blue Marlin, says: “You want to make sure that a product is packaged in the right format for every single usage occasion.”

Yet despite all such ideas, England says: “There are a lot of other unfulfilled needs out there.”

Life could be made easier for blind or partially sighted people if packaging could talk. And with the increased demand for clearer labelling, imagine how much more manufacturers could fit on their packs if visuals could shift and change when you touched them.

Judging by the response to the 2020 Vision Design Challenge, there are plenty of designers out there bursting with ideas to meet those needs.

Entertaining fare
>>chips to keep children happy

A lot of people are working on adding microchips to food packaging - to fulfil a range of functions from providing entertainment to information. Fitch: London has come up with Cuizoom, aimed at parents with kids. The tray format is innovative in itself - food would come in pouches and there would be a separate compartments for water and utensils.

The really clever bit is the embedded chip allowing mum or dad to stop off for petrol, feed the kids, and then plug the chip into the in-car entertainment system to keep them occupied for the rest of the journey. Lindi Reynold, client director and head of packaging, says: “We wondered whether we could use time spent in traffic as a positive eating experience.”

Chips could even teach kids responsible waste disposal, Reynold says: “Consumers would pay a deposit for the containers and a built-in chip would only allow them to get their money back if they dropped them in special bins.” If the packs are discarded randomly, consumers could be fined.

All about Me
>>made-to-order packs

Bristol-based Kinneir Dufort has tried to address the demand for impulse purchases while minimising waste by suggesting made-to-order packs created at point of purchase. Director Sean Devane says: “3D Computer Aided Design software would create the appropriate pack shape, then fill and seal a pack before the eyes of the consumer using 3D printers.”

The design, ForMe, would be built up in layers from biodegradable corn starch or resin, but could still be microwaveable. Or it could be insulated to contain hot or cold food.

Drink’s new cool
>>a container that chills beer

For customers thirsting for ready-to-drink products to complement their food-to-go purchases, Factory Design, based in central London, has thought up Interstellar. This is probably one of the closest ideas to fruition.

Adam White, creative partner at FD, says the self-chilling beer cans, bottles and glasses would allow retailers to free up valuable instore chiller space as well as appeal to impulse shoppers.

White explains: “The containers would use zeolite, a chemical already available to cool beer kegs.”

The chamber in the bottom of the containers would be a raised base incorporated into the main moulding. “There would be a thin aluminium plate sealing the compartment,” continues White. “When the base is depressed, a liquid would be released into the zeolite chamber, creating a chemical reaction which would then cool the drink.”

White believes PET could be used for the main packaging, despite the fact that it is not currently capable of adequately preserving the shelf life of gassy products.

More upmarket drinks, such as champagne, could be housed in more stylish containers, for which consumers might be prepared to pay a premium.

Purifier on the go
>>water from any source

London-based The Brewery has proposed Osmopac, a flexible film that purifies water passing into it, creating ready-to-use drinks by mixing with gel or liquid concentrates inside.

Mark Shickle, managing partner at The Brewery, says the design would be based on technology which US PET giant Eastman Chemical argues would be available in 10-15 years.

The Brewery suggests the packaging could incorporate self-heating or self-cooling technology. Because of the water purification feature, consumers could fill the product with water from any source.

The lightweight packs would be easier for shoppers to carry home than bottles, cans or cartons. They would also take up less space in vehicles and on shelf.

Fresh viewpoint
>>appearance indicates freshness

Picca is the brand name for brightly coloured, durable vending packs, inspired by the shape of fruits and developed by Fitch:London. Intended to amuse children and encourage them to eat more healthily, they are designed so children can peel the packaging like fruit to reveal the healthy contents which would not need utensils.

The eco-friendly material would be made from biodegradable resources such as starch or corn and would change colour, again like fruit, to indicate freshness.

Mike Banister, technical manager, says: “Freshness indicators would change the appearance of the pack over time.”

He also proposes that smart chips could be incorporated to allow food to be bought via mobile phone: “Credits on the phone could be charged up by parents so the child would only be able to buy certain things.”