Despite a history dating back as far as the mid 19th century, the versatility of the humble corrugated cardboard box has kept it a coveted packaging form for modern-day manufacturers, retailers and marketers.
While the properties of strength and durability that made the original packaging form such a revelation still feature strongly, ongoing innovation in materials and machinery has seen the corrugated box evolve to the changing packaging needs of these groups.
The sturdy protection of corrugated boxes has long made it popular for the packaging requirements of a variety of industries, including food and beverages, consumer goods, homewares, and more broadly for transportation in general.
The basic structure that provides this strength remains similar to that of a century ago - sheets of paper forming the outer layers of a sandwich filled with a corrugated medium, called flutes.
In addition to this durability, corrugated boxes are also an inherently lightweight packaging format.
While these attributes have long made it suitable as an outer carton for shipping, Amcor Fibre Packaging Australasia general manager (packaging solutions) Walter Gross says the end uses of the corrugated box are evolving.
“The corrugated box is closer to point of sale and performs multiple functions,” Gross told Packaging.
“Retailers are driving ease and efficiency in shelf replenishment so in addition to transit protection, the box must convert quickly and easily into a shelf ready display unit.”
With large retailers increasingly demanding shelf-ready packaging, the extent to which corrugated cardboard boxes can satisfy this trend is likely to influence its future as a packaging format.
According to Gross, new developments in the corrugated box prove it is capable.
“Features include extra value elements to assist ease of opening and placement on shelf, product identification and access, brand enhancement, and point of sale positioning,” he said.
As major retailers look to offer customers a broader choice of products in each category, along with occasional ad-hoc promotional offerings, they expect shelf-ready packaging to be equally dynamic, and conducive to quick and easy shelf-stacking.
“The trends for smaller quantities on display with wider product range per aisle are driven by consumers buying patterns and by the retailers’ aim for greater shelf utilisation, higher product turnover, and lighter pack size to address occupational health and safety issues associated with lifting,” Gross said.
“For corrugated boxes this has meant smaller internal volume and lighter load weights.
“At an industry level within the fruit and produce segment, a new common footprint and modular stacking features have been developed together with the use of pre printed black coated paper for uniformity of mixed load stacking and consistency of retail display.”
The versatility of the corrugated cardboard box is reflected in its ability to not only address the shelf-ready needs of manufactured products, but also that of primary producers.
“The corrugated carton is also moving into new end-applications such as primary packaging,” Gross said.
“Amcor has invested in litho-laminating technology for manufacturing smaller corrugated flutes, delivering grocery product manufacturers both the high strength of corrugated boxes and the high quality printed graphics for retail display.
“In the fresh produce segment, packaging innovation is taking the corrugated package into value areas such as pre-packs, punnets and into non-traditional areas such as hydro processing.
“Examples include a submersible fibre box used for hydro-cooling beans and asparagus.”
While the corrugated box has improved to address the demands of retailers and manufacturers, customers too are expecting greater things from packaged goods.
“Consumer behaviour is also changing with buyers becoming more discerning about product content and presentation, and becoming more focused on the convenience of pack size, product selection, and ‘ready to go’ servings,” Gross said.
A key aspect of this, says Gross, is the ability of the box to integrate with the primary packaging for effective communication of brand and product information.
Communication of brand also relies heavily on the display of quality printing - an area in which Gross says corrugated boxes have improved significantly.
“Smaller flutes offer particular benefits in superior print capability, and potentially in the packaging strength of retail ready primary packaging where smaller lighter display shippers are used,” he said.
“Product marketers can have the highest quality printed graphics on their corrugated cartons.
“The marketing graphics are printed onto paper using the appropriate high quality printing method of choice, for example, lithographic six colour press.
“The printed paper is then laminated onto single corrugating face base stock for a spectacular packaging finish.
“The vibrancy and colour saturation is outstanding.”
The packaging industry in particular has become increasingly environmentally responsible in recent years, as reflected in the momentum of initiatives such as the National Packaging Covenant.
In turn, the drive to use packaging forms that are environmentally conscious has been intensifying.
“Corrugated boxes are amongst the most environmentally friendly of packaging types,” Gross said.
“The fibre source is renewable and sustainable. Unlike plastic crates, corrugated boxes are not dependent on by-products from the non-renewable petrochemical industry.
“Extensive use of recycled material in corrugated box manufacture offers significant economic and environmental benefits throughout the supply chain.”
While re-usable plastic crates could provide an alternative to corrugated boxes for some end applications, Gross says usage is still in its infancy.
Further in favour of corrugated boxes, according to Gross , is that not only are they cost-effective, but they are becoming increasingly versatile as well.
“From heavy duty whitegoods packaging or bulk produce bins, right down to two litre wine cask boxes with glossy labelling, the range of solutions are infinite and reliable,” he said.
“Adjusting the height or other dimensions, or adjusting designs to suit major supply chain changes such as the introduction of retail shelf ready packaging, can easily be achieved with speed using corrugated boxes.”
While such adaptations have contributed to the longevity of the corrugated cardboard box as a packaging form, Gross says that in the climate of rapidly evolving consumer trends, this innovation will need to continue.
“The major challenge for both suppliers and users of corrugated boxes is to cost efficiently meet the changing needs of the domestic retail, export and consumer marketplace,” he said.
“This requires genuinely integrated solutions for primary and secondary packaging design, improvement of manufacturing systems, and a streamlined supply chain to ensure quality product is delivered on time at a competitive price.”