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Custom Printing: Flexible Packaging Is on the Rise

When I was growing up, peanuts came in a can or a bottle, or sometimes a clear bag. Milk came in a glass bottle and later in a coated paper carton that opened up into a spout. There was no such thing as a bag of apple sauce or a box of apple juice with a little straw you punched through a foil covered hole.

Things have changed. Moreover, the whole arena of packaging has had explosive growth within the larger commercial printing world. In an era when fewer of my custom printing clients are producing long-run textbooks, newspapers, and such, I am particularly encouraged when I hear that packaging has been experiencing a huge growth spurt.

Enter Flexible Packaging

All of this came into focus for me when my fiancee brought home a bag of dried bananas and nuts recently, a brightly colored “pouch” with a zip seal, lots of room for information and branding, and clear foil embellishment on the banana and nut cover art. A functional, attractive container and sales device.

So, being a student of commercial printing and design, and with an interest in those printing venues experiencing growth, I did some research. This is what I found.

Packaging in General

Packaging falls into three categories:

  1. Corrugated board. This is the light, fluted board from which cartons are made. They are strong enough to hold glass bottles, electronic equipment, even print books.
  2. Folding cartons. When you open up a box of toothpaste, the container that goes in the trash is considered a folding carton. It is made of coated paper (but not corrugated paper or chipboard). It is used for lighter-weight products (like a box of wheat crackers). If you take it apart (pull open the flaps that have been glued together), you will find that the carton blank is incredibly intricate, for it must be converted from a flat press sheet into a folded and glued, rectilinear box with a top and bottom flap. If you look at cosmetics boxes of the same basic structure, you will see that folding cartons can be embellished with printing ink, clear foils, and metallics.
  3. Flexible packaging. According to my research, this arena of commercial printing is broader, including “bags, pouches, shrink films, tubes, sleeves, and carded packaging” (Wikipedia). Furthermore, this sector can be broken down into three other categories: skin packaging (for example, a side of salmon on corrugated board wrapped in a plastic skin, with everything pulled tight using a vacuum); blister packaging (a pocket made with rigid, thermoformed plastic, placed over a paper or plastic backing: for example, a package of batteries from Costco); and clamshell packaging (two identical shells facing one another, with no paper or plastic backing sheet). An example would be the plastic fold-over box you get from some restaurants if you have left-over food to take home.

All of these have essentially the same reasons for existing:

  1. To sell the product. This is where the branding distinguishes one package from a competitor’s package.
  2. To provide information on the product (such as the saturated fat and sodium percentages for food, usually on the back of the packaging).
  3. To keep the customer safe and the product safe. This might include the zip seals and reusable spouts that allow you to squeeze out some apple sauce and reseal the flexible packaging without the risk of contamination and subsequent disease.

Features and Benefits

Here are some reasons flexible packaging is such a big deal:

  1. The plastic, layered films from which these pouches have been made have exceptional barrier properties. Therefore, they can protect the perishables inside and ensure a longer shelf life (than, perhaps, a bag of potato chips that you simply roll up when you’re full). For meats, for instance, the barrier properties can reduce smells and keep the juices in the package. They can also keep sunlight and external moisture out, or maintain the proper temperature. For pharmaceuticals (and food), flexible packaging can also make the contents more tamper resistant (and therefore safer for you).
  2. Flexible packaging provides an especially printable surface. You have room to easily print clear, eye-popping graphics, as well as information about the product.
  3. Flexible packaging can be displayed at the point of purchase in many ways, as needed. These pouches can be hung from a hole at the top, laid flat on a shelf, or stood up in a line on the shelf.
  4. Flexible packaging can be formed at the exact size needed. This means less waste. It also means less weight, so shipping costs will benefit. In addition, flexible packaging virtually eliminates the need for labels and caps, extra paper or plastic trays, etc.
  5. Flexible packaging is designed for reuse, with resealable spouts and ziplock closures. For instance, the bag of apple sauce gets thinner as you consume the product and close up the cap (a smaller package means less contamination by the outside air, hence a longer product life).
  6. Flexible packaging has been (and is being) designed to be recyclable. Moreover, since less material is used and therefore less energy is needed to manufacture and ship this packaging, and since problems with incineration have been resolved, using flexible packaging is an Earth-friendly proposition.

What You Can Learn

Here are some thoughts, in terms of staying relevant as a designer in a world where product packaging is a growing venue for your craft. This also pertains to you if you sell printing:

  1. First of all, start studying product packaging. Any time you enter a grocery store or pharmacy, keep your eyes open. Cosmetics counters in department stores are other good places to observe closely. Look at the kinds of visual effects manufacturers can achieve on the packages: foiling, embossing, metallics.
  2. Look for the new kinds of product packaging that weren’t available years or decades ago. These might include shrink sleeves that are fitted over bottles and then tightened up with heat so they snugly fit the contours of the bottles. Notice how such packaging provides even more space for marketing graphics. Also look for examples of clamshell packs and carded packs (like the slab of salmon shrink-wrapped to the cardboard backing). The more distinct kinds of product packaging you can identify, and the more able you are to determine the commercial printing technologies used to decorate them, the better.
  3. Begin to see the marketing design, the packaging design, and the printing technology used as distinct but nevertheless connected points in a trajectory from marketing research to initial concept, to more marketing research, to budgeting, to prototyping (a good place for inkjet printing, since you can economically make only one initial package for the prototype item), and then through the bulk manufacturing stage and packing, shipping, and delivery stage, to the final point of purchase. Understand how all of this works financially, and how simple adjustments in packaging can save both money and the environment.
  4. Study marketing, advertising, human psychology, consumer behavior, and economics. You’ll start to see how all of these relate to one another. You’ll also see just how powerful marketing can be, and if you’re a graphic designer, you’ll even see how a font change or a change in the design of a product logo can have far-reaching effects. (Think of how many people now see the green Starbucks logo and buy the coffee, and how this affects all the customers, intermediate vendors, and even the stockholders).

Everything is connected. At the moment, product packaging is the nexus of growth. The more you know, the more relevant your design, commercial printing, and sales skills will be.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Flexible Packaging Is on the Rise”

  1. Thanks For sharing this Amazing Article. cardboard boxes information is informative thanks again.
    custom printed cardboard boxes

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