Packaging is essential for any type of industry since one of its main functions is to protect the product from potential hazards that can occur during storage or the distribution cycle and that could affect the products. Therefore, it is indispensable to have a good packaging system, starting with material itself.

There is a very wide range of available packaging materials. Most of them are largely known; wood, cardboard, plastics, metal. In some school technology classes, exercises to design a packaging with domestic materials are proposed and the materials used, with more or less success, depend on the imagination of the inspired students who offer solutions with pillows, straws or bird feathers, for instance.

Before talking about the different types of packaging materials, it is convenient to remember the main functions of packaging: containing, preserving, informing, identifying and manipulating. There are many other functions but these ones sum up most of them.

Besides, it must be noted that the functions packaging must fulfill are as important as the properties of the packed product and the distribution cycle to which the packaging product system must be subjected to.

The main functions of packaging are containing, preserving, informing, identifying and manipulating

Types of packaging materials

The types of packaging materials used in the industry are extremely wide and they range from light and economical materials such as plastic films or cardboard boxes to complex reusable structures of different packaging materials, such as those used by the aeronautical industry to move parts of the aircraft before its assembly.

A classification criterion for the types of packaging is the amount of materials they are formed of:

  • Monomaterial: Those made of a single packaging material.
  • Multimaterial: Those formed by two or more materials.

The importance of this classification usually lies in monomaterials normally simplifying the process of packaging and recycling.

Conventional materials, like the previously mentioned, are commonly used for structural purposes mainly, while more complex materials are used for special applications such as with inert gases to prevent deterioration by oxidation.

Continue reading: What shipping test standards are there, and what are they used for?

How to define the packaging solution

Another typical property for the selection must be added to the functional criteria of the packaging; the cost of the materials and the packaging process which tend to be decisive in their choice. For example:

  • According to the costs, in industries such as the bottled water industry it is common that the bulk of the cost of each unit is logistics and packaging more than the product itself.
  • In technological industries, such as telephony or jewelry, it is an almost anecdotal cost.

In order to define the materials used in a particular packaging, it is necessary to take into account the needs of the product itself, for instance, containers or bottles are required for gaseous or liquid products.

Packaging solutions must be designed taking into account:

  • Product dimensions.
  • Transport dimensions and fragility.
  • The risks that the product-packaging system will suffer during the distribution cycle: vibrations, falls, shocks, storage time, climatic conditions…

On the other hand, the properties of packaging materials may be subjected to requirements that are not strictly of the distribution cycle like the facing needs that are imposed by marketing criteria, local laws requirements, labelling or other conditions imposed on the selection of materials used for packaging because of environmental reasons.

The selection of packaging solutions will be determined by the product dimensions, its transport and fragility, the risks during the distribution cycle and other facing needs.

What types of packaging materials do exist

The classification of the different types of packaging materials can be made from several perspectives.

From a functionality point of view

  • Containment materials (bottles, carafes, drums…)
  • Materials that provide stiffness (corners, corner pieces, etc.)
  • Grouping materials (grouping boxes, shrink films, among others)
  • Cushioning materials (airbags, EPS blocks…)
  • Points of sale (SRP, exhibitors)
  • Materials with light protection (lampshade materials, etc.)
  • Product life cycle extension materials (barrier materials, active packaging…)

For example, tertiary packaging is usually the one material solutions are applied to for shipping. It is typically both wooden and plastic paletts, with carton handles, plastic appliques, ropes or other resources.

In tertiary packaging it is common to use slings or straps to group, made of plastic or metal, as well as cases for protection against inclement weather, dust, sun or even pests.

Related reading: Packaging research: discover the new trends, materials and methods

From the material perspective

If we attend to the classification of packaging in terms of the materials used, there is a great variety. The most common materials are:

  • Plastic used in baling films, blisters, containers or bottles.
  • Carboard and paper, their main task being boxes, labels, separators and elements that help increase stifness.
  • As a combination of the previously mentioned materials, there is multilayer packaging, which normally has barrier properties.
  • Wood, used in grouping pallets, in structural elements or, sometimes, as a differentiating element in quality products.

New technologies for packaging solutions

Packaging main features have been already discussed above and some of the properties new technologies are providing have been named.

Future is already here and it has come to stay. Modern packaging, among many other things, provides what is called active packaging.

  • They are able to provide security to trading by reducing incidents of theft.
  • They can also provide information. For example, some active packaging can change their color when the product is at the right temperature to be consumed.
  • Others extend the information about the content or redirect the user to websites where they can check the information about the product.

All these new technologies mean that when it comes to talking about packaging materials, new terms must be added such as: active packaging materials, RFID packaging and materials like antennas, chips, printed circuits or luminescent materials.

One of the properties of current active packaging is to reduce the appearance of bacteria in products that require hygiene.

It can also extend the product life cycle by being subjected to modified atmospheres or by using substances that trap those elements that can deteriorate products.

With this aim in mind, materials are used for very advanced packaging like nanomaterials, such as silver.

With the lowering of 3D printing technology, tailor-made solutions are starting to be created for reduced circulation products, mainly cushioning materials, product supports or even some packaging.

How to improve your packaging solutions

Packaging improvement has to be made through packaging engineering and it shouldn’t be reduced just to the packaging part. Packaging improvement is to be considered even from the point of view of the product. For example, one of the most widespread elements, thanks to its logistic practicality, is the use of pallets. The 1200×800 europallet is the most used one in Europe. If the product is designed with measures of 800×610 of support surface on the pallet, only one unit can be transported. When designing the product itself, this surface must be reduced, if possible, leaving the appropriate margins for packaging and optimizing the loading space. Just like dimensions, the product fragility or resonance frequencies should be considered in the design process.

Applied solutions can be improved by applying packaging engineering. The optimal way to improve packaging solutions is to characterize the distribution cycle and the regulations to be fulfilled, such as the transport safety ones.

Besides, the product properties, dimensions, fragility, etc must be perfectly known. Whenever it is possible, phenomena occurring during the distribution cycle, such as falls, shocks, vibrations, etc should be measured. The packaging required properties should also be defined, like resistance, dimensions, labelling, environmental impact and any other factor. Starting with the packaging materials technical sheets, several alternatives will be designed and the design meeting the requirements will also be checked.

In conclusion, it can be said that the most important factor when choosing the most suitable packaging material is a good knowledge of our product as well as the distribution cycle and the storage to which the product will be subjected to.

If you would like to know more about the best way to optimize your packaging, please contact us and our team of experts will help you find the best solution.