Packaging is a cost item for product manufacturers. Obviously, the reason companies pay for putting their products into packages is because of the functions that the packages provide. Most products cannot be effectively manufactured, distributed, and used without the use of packaging at some point in the process. For products such as soft drinks the necessity for packaging is obvious. No one is likely to want his or her beverage delivered directly into cupped hands at the grocery store! The purchaser of a computer wants it to function correctly when it is brought home. Packaging provides the protection necessary to prevent damage. For products such as automobiles, the need for packaging may be less evident. However, the modern process of automobile manufacturing requires that parts from a number of manufacturing facilities be assembled—and to reach the assembly facility in acceptable condition, the parts must be packaged.
While packaging functions can be grouped in various ways, one common grouping is containment, protection, utility, and communication. While grouping the functions in this way makes discussion easier, it should be emphasized that the boundaries between the groups are not always clear-cut, and in many cases a single package feature serves multiple functions.
Containment is the most basic package function. It is not possible to transport a liquid or granular product without containing it in some fashion. For larger products that could conceivably be transported without a container, containment simplifies the task by making it possible to handle a number of products as a unit — the reason most people bring their groceries home in a bag.
Protection of the product by the package takes a number of forms. Containment itself is likely to provide some degree of protection against product contamination or damage due to exposure to environmental influences such as dust and microorganisms. Depending on the product, protection may be needed from gain or loss of water or other volatile substances; from impact, abrasion, or vibration; from corrosion; from exposure to sunlight; from pilfering, and so forth. In some cases, such as child-resistant packaging or packaging for hazardous materials, packages function to protect humans or the environment from exposure to the product.
Utility refers to functionality or convenience provided by the package for one or more entities involved in product manufacture, distribution, or use. For example, cooking sprays in aerosol cans produce a lubricating effect in a frying pan with much less product than would be required without the aerosol. The carton on a tube of toothpaste permits the retailer to stack the tubes on the shelf without them rolling off. The metal edge on the carton of plastic wrap permits the consumer to tear off the desired amount of the product. Stretch wrap and a pallet permit a load of goods to be handled by a forklift and stored in a rack system in a warehouse.
Communication refers to the messages about a product imparted by a package to those who interact with it. These messages range from basic identification of the product and its manufacturer to subtle (or not so subtle) "buy me" messages communicated to potential purchasers. We commonly think of communication as the printed information about the package, but color and shape often also serve important communication functions. Smell and sound are not often used as communicators at present, but that may change in the near future. We already have scratch-and-sniff features, as well as devices for prescription drug containers that when placed in a special device will read the label information to the user. Bar codes are routinely used to transmit price information at the point of sale, as well as for tracking goods during distribution.
While these functions are common to all types of packages, increasingly product manufacturers are turning to plastics packaging to obtain the same or even improved functionality at lower cost than with alternative materials.
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