6 tips for success as a packaging development engineer

By J.P. Zurek in Packaging Education and Training on April 06, 2017

Now more than ever, packaging engineers are playing critical roles throughout the supply chain. As the industry continues to evolve, it is less of an added-value and more of an expectation for packaging development engineers to hold integrated positions with their counterparts to proactively create solutions to challenges.

It’s not always an easy task to do.

Well-versed from working in the trenches myself, let me share my six tips for success for packaging development engineers in today’s evolving industry.

 

1. The way to inform design and engineering has improved, but creates new challenges for traditional science-based packaging engineers.

The industry is finally coming to grips that the “focus group” approach of the past provided marginal value, and often times inaccurate information (consumer perception of their own behavior is not always a true reflection of that behavior). The days of two-way mirror observations moderated with an agenda is instead being replaced by ethnographic and usability research that provides more relevant feedback within the real-to-life context of how packaging will be used.

The outcomes of this evolving approach create new obstacles for packaging engineers. They will be challenged to translate fresh insights relevant to brand owners into structural packaging concepts that deliver new usage occasions, unparalleled customer lifestyle flexibility and sustainability requirements. So, if an organization has a team to research and interpret market data, integration of this team with the design, engineering function and development process will be imperative.

In some cases, leaner organizations are asking packaging engineers to stretch their capabilities outside of the standard science-based skillsets into research interpretation, critical thinking to analyze and synthesize information, and creative translation of this information through to a functional and cost-effective package. Packaging engineers with post-graduate training in marketing or design are now even better positioned to develop consumer empathetic, brand relevant and informed packaging designs.

 

2. Innovation is key—an inquisitive and critical mind will move the needle.

Pursuing the “what if” and “why not” obscurities through an educated lens on market trends and technologies will be key to success as a packaging development engineer. Even with the industry’s progression towards more sustainable materials, coatings, processing innovations and eye-catching aesthetic designs, the general packaging landscape is still ripe with opportunity to find existing or new unmet needs to develop new innovative concepts and solutions.

The pace of change continues to accelerate; and as a result, completely new categories of need continue to emerge. That said, there are countless opportunities within materials, design and processing to carve out new packaging-specific innovations to build brand equity. By asking the “what if’s” and “why not’s,” packaging engineers will be able to uncover these new forms of material, process and design.

While advances in technology and trends like IoT (Internet of Things) are introducing increased complexity, they are also creating new and increased opportunity for packaging design and engineering. For example, smart and on-demand packaging that is customizable at the point of sale changes many traditional dynamics that packaging engineers consider. These emerging areas are loaded with new technologies that can be brand “enablers”—with the right creative application through design and engineering.

Finally, as important as it is to stretch the funnel of ideas early in the process, rapidly narrowing a focus as you progress through the development process is just as critical. Stage gates are one effective process method to help control scope creep, make decisions to progress or kill ideas, and to make sure you progress the most valuable “what if” ideas to market efficiently.

 

3. Build robust feedback loops and multiple stages of iteration into the development process. Regardless of how thorough or advanced your research and insights capabilities might be, interpretation of data will always be an inexact science involving some assumption. The same will apply to the functional or engineered aspects of a package. The unknowns only multiply depending on how aggressively you may be pursuing integration of new material or processing technologies, or completely new use conditions. There is no coursework or textbook to prepare you for every possible scenario, so you must be prepared to change direction many times, fail often, iterate quickly and re-test. 

“Negative know-how,” what doesn’t work, can be as valuable of an intellectual property as your final successful design or utility—and it may apply to future development programs as well. At HAVI, we use many different methods for dynamic feedback at different stages of development, including co-creation sessions, usability testing, internal user-testing (cost effective) and crowd-sourced technology solutions.

 

 

4. Partnerships across the supply chain are imperative to both reactive and proactive problem-solving and identifying opportunities to generate solutions.

At any given point in the supply chain, customers are looking for varied forms of value: a product or service that makes their lives easier, better, more fun, more productive, more intelligent or more informed.

That said, what if your packaging creates value in some areas, but leaves new challenges in its wake? Have you thought about the end-to-end implications? While the packaging you developed may be efficient on a filling line or have highly impactful shelf appeal, how well did you understand all of the other touch points your customer will think about before making a purchase decision? 

Mutually beneficial external partnerships can help inform you on much of what you don’t know and can highlight new areas starving for innovation. These relationships can open your eyes to customer anxieties and new challenges that packaging may have even created.

For example, HAVI partnered with Manitowoc Foodservice (now Welbilt) in 2014 to bridge the gap between the future of foodservice ovens and disposable fiber packaging. In this instance, innovation and market penetration of rapid cook, conveyor and combination ovens was outpacing the rate at which packaging was evolving for use in these extreme conditions. HAVI and Welbilt entered into a highly collaborative developmental relationship with the objective to create a new packaging innovation capable of being used safely in these oven platforms.

Welbilt realized that, while their customers praised the performance of their ovens, they lacked functional and safe packaging to be used in them. Working with HAVI’s extensive understanding of packaging materials, structures and coating technologies that could be applied (or developed) to create a new innovation, the resulting SIX500 packaging products were formed (see photo above).

 

5. Carve out time to think—alone and with others.

This is not news: We’re all trying to get more done in less time, with fewer resources. And because of the nature of the evolving and more integrated industry trends, most new projects come with a learning curve. Manufacturability, filling, capping, sealing, gluing, transit testing, optimized case packs, shrink ratios, pallet patterns, container optimization, shelf presence, shelf life, end-of life. The list goes on.

A pitfall for packaging engineers that creates real risk for brands is when engineers are overloaded or work too independently on projects. They can become task oriented, too executional—and so inundated with emails, meetings and project work—that they’re unable to approach every new project with the same consideration, attention to detail, rigor and holistic thinking mentioned in some of the above points.

Packaging engineers must carve out time to talk about projects and challenges with others—whether it be with peers or a manager—to make sure no stone is left unturned. Even the best engineers I’ve worked with benefit from active engagement and collaboration with others on their projects, and many times an outsider not immersed in the minutia can see risks and opportunities previously not seen by the lead.

I’ve also found that building mechanisms or processes for internal and external collaboration (for example, co-creation sessions with consumers or end-users) as a required practice within a team of engineers can make a big difference. Make it an expectation and not an option.

 

6. Know your audience to bring your ideas to life.

Although in different context, the ability to sell has become as important of a skill for engineers as it is for formal sales teams in the field.

As part of the expanded role of packaging development engineers across the supply chain, it is critical now that engineers are able to communicate challenges, limitations and benefits of their designs to internal customers in a way that they understand and be a partner to. Awareness of words, acronyms and other technical terms are oftentimes lost on audiences from other functions and, as a result, key messaging can often times be overlooked or misunderstood.

For this reason, it’s important to spend time getting to know your audience in advance, analyze what is most important to them and adjust your communication approach. Mock-ups or high-end prototypes are often the bare minimum needed to be effective in presenting ideas or features to internal marketing teams or external customers.

And while there are some software solutions that can help develop materials and digital renders to convey your message, there is no better method than truly understanding stakeholders and customer needs and engaging in meaningful discussion of ideas and solutions without the crutch of jargon or acronyms.

 

J.P. Zurek, senior director of development at HAVI, began his career nearly 15 years ago in core packaging engineering and design for a leading personal care product manufacturer. Then, after starting in a similar role at HAVI in 2006, J.P. went on to lead the development of a user-centered, mid-term strategic research and design capability, as well as the integration of stage gate processes within HAVI’s key customers to jointly progress innovations through to commercialization. In his current role with HAVI, Zurek leads technical business development of new product solutions, account management and strategic sales of both rigid and flexible packaging solutions to commercial food processors, foodservice brands and broad-line distributors. He holds a B.S. in Packaging Engineering from Michigan State University.

 

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