Packaging technology

What is packaging technology? - Definition, trends & career opportunities

| Author / Editor: Sebastian Hofmann / Theresa Knell

Packaging technology is a key pillar of logistics. It ensures safe transport and is an important aspect in the marketing of products.
Packaging technology is a key pillar of logistics. It ensures safe transport and is an important aspect in the marketing of products. (Source: ©Africa Studio - stock.adobe.com)

Packaging technology is the link between intralogistics and external logistics. Read this article to learn more about the design of packaging and its functions!

A brief definition of the term: Through single or multiple layers of packaging material, packaging technology makes products transportable. It is individually tailored to individual goods and modes of transport. Packaging technology always works according to the principle “as much packaging as necessary and as little as possible”.

A detailed definition of packaging technology is provided by the website study engineering: “Packaging must not only protect the product inside and make them fit for transport, but must also fulfill additional functions: They must be intelligently constructed, functionally designed and adequately printed. In addition, it should contain information about the product, make products sortable and be environmentally friendly.”

Packaging technology is omnipresent. It is used for the protection, portioning, storage, transport and marketing of goods. Packaging technology is especially important for logistics in that it represents the final step in intralogistics and is at the threshold of extra logistics.

Have you ever thought about that?

Packaging technology is constantly present in our everyday lives. From potato chips to furniture to toothpaste, almost all the goods we can buy are packaged. Manufacturers do not simply use it to transport their goods. Packaging can also involve a marketing aspect that should not be underestimated. In its study „Packaging matters“, the American packaging manufacturer Westrock has also discovered that packaging plays an increasingly important role in our purchasing decisions.

What is packaging made of?

At the beginning of the packaging process, the packaging technician is faced with the question “Which packaging material is best suited for my products?” The term packaging material refers to the raw material or material the corresponding packaging consists of.

Example: The packaging engineer chooses paper because it is light and stable. Eventually, he has a few cardboard boxes made.

Basically, one can choose from many different materials. Here are the most important ones:

  • Plastic is probably the most frequently used packaging material in the world. In the form of foils, crates, bottles and other containers, it is used to transport and market goods. Since conventional polyethylene-based plastics are very harmful to the environment, bioplastics are increasingly being used.

    In order to produce bioplastics, renewable raw materials are broken down into individual molecules, which are then lined up again in a new sequence. The result is a substance that has almost the same properties as plastics based on crude oil.
  • Paper or cardboard is also one of the most frequently used packaging materials. It is used to transport small and medium-sized goods in the form of cartons and boxes. Specially processed corrugated board is particularly stable and can also be used to stabilize other packaging materials.
  • Packaging engineers often use metal in the form of cans and aluminum foil. Metal is comparatively robust and can be recycled and reused after being used and cleaned.
  • Wood serves as a raw material for transport boxes and cartons. High-priced spirits and wines are examples for applications where wood is used specifically to emphasize the value of the goods.

We encounter a huge variety of packaging shapes and colors throughout our everyday lives. Packaging engineers also attach great importance to selecting the right material.
We encounter a huge variety of packaging shapes and colors throughout our everyday lives. Packaging engineers also attach great importance to selecting the right material. (Source: ©Rido - Fotolia.com)

  • Glass has been used in packaging technology for centuries. Bottles, jam jars or medicine bottles - it is hard to imagine everyday life without glasses.

    Did you know?

    The glass color of a bottle can be used to determine the shelf life of the liquids it contains. A test conducted by the German WDR science show Quarks & Co. revealed that beer in a clear glass bottle gets bad much faster than in a green or brown bottle. The reason for this: Colored glass prevents UV rays from penetrating the liquid.
  • Composite materials are often used for the production of multifunctional packaging. Juice cartons, for instance, consist of a combination of paper and plastic. The paper reduces production costs while the plastic ensures that the packaging remains leak-proof.

Packaging ancillaries supplement packaging aids and increase the transportability and stability of packaging. Frequently used packaging ancillaries are adhesive tapes, strapping tapes, pallets, stretch film, cords, labels, wires, belts, seals, sealing clips and dispensers. The transition from packaging materials to load securing materials is often fluent. No clear delimitation is possible in these cases.

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What functions must packaging fulfil?

Packaging fulfils various functions. These are the six most important ones:

  • 1. Protection and locking function: Stable and dampening packaging materials protects goods from damage caused by impact, scratching, moisture, dirt and other influences. Heat-insulating materials maintain the edibility of food and locked transport boxes protect against theft.
  • 2. Storage function: Packaging can significantly improve the shelf life of goods. Positive example: A large number of cuboid products can be arranged on a pallet in such a way that there is virtually no free space between them. The packaging can thus increase the degree of surface utilization to almost 100 %.
  • 3. Marketing function: Bright colors, conveniently positioned logos and unusual designs are intended to attract the attention of potential buyers and encourage them to buy a product.
  • 4. Means of identification: Warning symbols mark goods as hazardous, fragile or perishable and inform the deliverer on how to handle the product. Undamaged seals are a sign that the goods have not been opened since shipment and have arrived complete.
  • 5. Manipulation warning: Bags, cartons, transport boxes and pallets group individual goods together and make it easier to handle and deliver the goods.
  • 6. Usability: On the one hand, packaging can be reused if necessary (example: resealable biscuit pack), on the other hand, packaging material can be recycled and reused.

What impact does packaging technology have on the environment?

Few industries pollute the environment as much as the packaging industry. While packaging made of renewable raw materials and metal can either be reused or composted, plastic packaging remains unchanged over long periods of time. 300 million tons of plastic are produced every year. A significant part of it reaches the world oceans. It does not decompose completely, but merely decomposes into ever smaller particles, so-called microplastic. This microplastic is consumed by microorganisms and finally reaches us humans via the food chain.

In recent years, there have been many attempts to solve the plastic problem in the oceans. “Ocean Cleanup” is a project that has attracted a lot of media attention. It was founded in 2013 by the then 19-year-old Boyan Slat and reached a donation sum of $ 2.2 million by 2016.

Here's how it works:

Slat's plan provides for the construction of numerous barriers floating on the surface of the sea. They are positioned at strategically advantageous points and direct the plastic waste to central collection towers with the aid of the ocean current. These towers separate the garbage with conveyor belts and store it in silos. From there it can be collected by ship and finally recycled. According to Slat, a large part of the plastic waste in the oceans could be collected with this technology within 20 years.

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To what extent is packaging technology automated??

In packaging technology, a distinction is made between three levels of automation: Manual, semi-automated and fully automated.

Manual packaging technology application scenario: The picker receives several different customer orders. The picker then goes to the warehouse, selects the appropriate products and returns to the workplace. There he folds a carton, positions the goods inside and tapes everything together - done!

Application scenario of semi-automated packaging technology: The order picker remains at the picking station all the time. A conveyor belt delivers the products directly to the workstation, a so-called erector folds the carton together and a packaging machine glues the cartons and prepares them for shipping. The order picker only has to take the goods from the conveyor belt and position them in a space-saving way inside the carton - done!

Application scenario of fully-automated packaging technology: The entire packaging process is handled by machines. The cycle time of a single product in the packaging line is minimal.

What is picking?

Picking involves the collection and provision of a certain amount of products from the assortment. On the basis of an order, order pickers (or pickers) go through the warehouse and assemble the corresponding products. They proceed in a single step or in several steps. In the case of single-stage picking, each customer order is processed individually; in the case of multi-stage picking, several orders are processed simultaneously using individual picks. So-called wearables, i.e. portable gadgets such as pick-by-voice systems, are increasingly supporting the work of order pickers. In some cases even drones are used.

Application example of Wearables

In August 2017, DHL announced that in the future it would be using Smart Glasses in order picking. This allows their employees to achieve time savings of up to 15 % in the picking process.

What jobs are offered in packaging technology?

If you want to get off to a successful start in packaging technology, you need job training or a degree in packaging technology. Such courses are offered by the Beuth University Berlin, the HTWK Leipzig, the University of Munich, the University of Hanover and the TU Dresden. Those who successfully complete their studies can later work as packaging technologists, mechanical engineers, product managers or in quality management.

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What does a packaging engineer earn?

The salaries in packaging technology can vary greatly depending on the specialist orientation, work experience and size of the company. A mechanical engineer, for example, earns an average of around € 46,000 per year without prior experience. Product managers with several years of experience and possibly even personnel responsibility, on the other hand, can achieve around € 55,000 to 75,000 per year. As an established packaging developer, a salary of € 3,500 to 5,700 per month can be earned.

This article was first published by MM Logistik.

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