Unboxing Next Generation Packaging Technologies
manufacturingtechnologyinsights

Unboxing Next Generation Packaging Technologies

By Gary Sieber, Director of Sales, Welch Packaging

These days, it seems, everything comes in a corrugated “brown box.” From the mom-and-pop hardware store on the corner to the labyrinthian distribution centers of Amazon.com, boxes are everywhere you look. And they’re so simple. How hard can it be to make a box? Who would think that technology and innovation play a key role in creating and improving them?

Well, let’s start with a little history. When it was invented, the corrugated board wasn’t even used for packaging, nor did it have two smooth sides. Single-faced material(with smooth paper on one side and ridges on the other) was originally used to stiffen stovepipe hats so they would stand upright and not become well pancake hats. Corrugators, the machines used to create a two-sided board with squiggles (“medium”) in between, were first patented in 1874.

Far from the hand-cranked gizmos of the past, today’s corrugators, using electricity, steam, and state-of-the-art computer systems, are capable of producing more board, more quickly. Some corrugators still in use today can produce up to 800 feet per minute, but the new generation of these massive machines can produce more than 1,500 feet of board per minute. In addition, the machines that convert board into boxes are now creating 26,000 containers or more per hour; and today’s computer programs can design complex boxes in mere minutes.

“The corrugated industry has long been driven by technology and innovation”

These innovations and technological advancements have understandably had a huge impact on productivity and labor costs. They have also allowed the possibility of using “new recipes” of liner boards and mediums to create proprietary board grades, separate from the industry standards of stacking or burst strength, to serve the unique needs of specific customers. These special grades all meet or exceed conventional testing standards while using 100% recycled paper.

Perhaps nowhere has the impact of technology been more heavily felt than in packaging design and engineering. In the late 1800s, paper bags were used as prototype samples of folding box designs. With computers today, we can take a physical product from our customer (or create a 3D model of it), import it into our design software, and start designing packaging in minutes. Welch Packaging currently employs more than 25 designers utilizing this software to create innovative packaging designs that can reduce material, improve box styles and performance, and thus reduce costs for our customers.

Finally, retail packaging is currently undergoing a major shift due to technology. Increasing demand for speed to market, combined with the desire for low volume, niche-product containers have brought about new digital graphic printing processes. Not too long ago, Welch Packaging focused on litho-laminating (replacing the top Kraft liner with a lithographically printed sheet), as well as spot labeling (gluing a printed sheet to an existing outside liner of corrugated material). Digital printing has revolutionized the industry by letting manufacturers print high-resolution, “photographic” content directly to the surface of corrugated liners. When combined with the use of a CAD table for scoring and cutting, this means that each box can be produced completely different from the last.

The corrugated industry has long been driven by technology and innovation. We are a far cry from hand-powered contraptions that made sheets primarily for padding in wooden crates. As technology has created today’s e-markets for products delivered directly to customers’ homes, it has also created a vast need for mass-produced, lightweight, cost-effective packaging. Corrugated containers fill that need – and continue to get better every day. Not only has technology moved us from the stovepipe hat to the Amazon box, but it has also helped the environment while allowing businesses to deliver products efficiently. Who says a box is simple?

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