What is packaging for?

Spilt milkSpilt milkPackaging is the science, art, and technology of enclosing or protecting products for distribution, storage, sale, and use.

Packaging layers
The first or ‘primary’ layer is whatever is in contact with the product: for example a bottle for a liquid, a tray for meat or a blister strip for tablets. The secondary layer could be a carton that carries the bottle or blister strip. Tertiary packaging is usually a transit container such as a corrugated box used to collate individual units for transport.  Collation units may be further collated in large containers or on pallets for warehousing and distribution. The different layers of packaging may perform all or some of these functions:

  • Containment or aggregation – Containment or aggregation – Gases, liquids, powders, and granules need containers for holding and transport. Small objects may need to be grouped together.
  • Physical protection – Many products need protecting from mechanical shock, vibration, electrostatic discharge, compression, temperature / climate, etc.
  • Barrier protection – Many products are degraded by oxygen, water vapour, dust, and light etc., Packaging may need to prevent permeation and the extent to which is a critical factor in design. Others may require a barrier to retain the product’s properties such as carbonated drinks. The extent to which a pack can perform this barrier will determine shelf life. 
  • Information – The packaging communicates how to transport, store and use, the product as well as how to dispose of or recycle the pack itself. There may also be legally required information which must be present depending on the product and market.
  • Legal / Regulatory Requirements– There are legal and regulatory requirements for packaging which vary by type of product and country. For example packaging for hazardous chemicals must meet certain standards; other packs have requirements for child resistance, others accessibility and features such as Braille.
  • Marketing – With the majority of products purchased by customers self-selecting and self-serving the packaging serves an important function in attracting, informing and encouraging potential buyers to purchase the product. Further the design of the packaging may be used to facilitate ease of use and therefore form part of the customer’s experience of the product.
  • Convenience and performance – It is easy to recognise that packaging has a great part to play in convenience at the point of use with factors such as easy opening, measured dispensing or ergonomics to facilitate handing or grip. However during packaging packs need to perform well on packaging lines and provide reliable performance at the required levels under the influence of factors such as line speed, automated handling, temperature (hot or cold) or filling.
  • Security – Packaging has long played an important role in reducing and identifying tampering and pilfering. It is also important in helping to identify authentic products from counterfeits. These factors can be very important with high value products or other products such as pharmaceuticals where counterfeit product could kill.
  • Environment / sustainability – There is much focus on the packaging left after the product is used, but packaging also has an important role in reducing product waste. The challenge for designers and specifiers is to minimise the use of materials and energy in packaging and provide for its recovery after use, while maintaining this product preservation benefit.

We must also consider that there are layers of packaging and that these layers perform different functions.

The first layer, the primary packaging is that which is in contact with the product, for example a bottle for a liquid, a tray of solid products such as meat or a blister strip for tablets. TCartonsCartonshe next secondary layer could include a carton which the bottle or blister strip are carried in. The third tertiary packaging layer may be a transit container such as a corrugated box used to collate a number of individual units for transport.  In turn these collation units may be further collated in large containers or on pallets for warehousing and distribution. It is clear that the different layers of packaging may perform all or only some of the functions

To understand how all these factors drive packaging design and specification we need to look at the entire product life cycle, from manufacture and packaging through to the disposal or recovery of the materials after use.