A panel of experts weighed in on the future of production operations and distribution at the Intralox NEXT Conveyance Convention in New Orleans. 

NEW ORLEANS — Leaders in several industries came together to discuss the future of production operations and distribution in a changing world of food retail. The central question of the discussion was how the growth of e-commerce will affect food producers and how they can prepare for the future.

The panel discussion was held at the Intralox NEXT Conveyance Innovation Summit in New Orleans on April 12. The speakers included: Matt Fourney, vice-president of R.&D. and application engineering, Intralox; Daniel Abramowicz, Ph.D., executive vice-president technology and regulatory affairs, Crown Holdings, Inc.; Bela Jacobson, director of operations – Packaging Center of Excellence, The Haskell Co.; Mark Anderson, president and chief executive officer, ProMach Inc.; Joel Stenson, vice-president of corporate engineering, UPS; and Danny parsons, product manager FMCG Segments, FlexLink.

The group, moderated by Jeroen Neuhof, general manager Europe/Global Business Unit manager, Tire, Container Packaging teams, Intralox, said that while there are many threats to current methods of food production and packaging, there are also many opportunities. And the panel agreed, posing several questions that need to be answered by the industry.

“The packaging is the product,” Dr. Abramowicz said. “So what is e-commerce going to do to brands and package design?”

Mr. Anderson predicted that a lot of change is coming and is already happening in some cases as consumers continue to look for smaller packages. Volume levels at production facilities are going to increase, and lines are going to have to be able to adapt.

“Flexibility is key because this is going to keep evolving,” he said.

Ms. Jacobsen said equipment already exists to handle many of the challenges presented by the changing market, but companies are hesitant to make changes on lines because of cost and backlogs.

“Getting the right teams, the right OEMs to put those lines together efficiently, I think that will get a lot of these companies to come out and start to try something new,” Ms. Jacobsen said.

The panel also discussed the growing concern about sustainable packaging, specifically plastics. As people look to protect the environment and limit the use of plastics, companies are trying to adjust their packaging strategies. This may mean a move to more carton packaging, which is a much more recyclable material.

“E-commerce is driving a lot more carton, a lot more boxes,” Dr. Abramowicz said. “Carton is a very recyclable material, but when you increase that pace, even if you’re recycling 80% of that material, as that grows exponentially, so is the waste growing.”

Another challenge is consumer acceptance of new forms of sustainable packaging. Will consumers buy bread if it comes in a box rather than a plastic wrap? That has yet to be seen.

“It only really matters if people buy it,” Mr. Anderson said.

Dr. Abramowicz argued that the future of production in packaging will be smart packaging. Because the Internet of Things is affecting every aspect of life, being able to let packaging communicate with other parts of production and distribution will benefit overall efficiency. He also said 3-D printing will change the industry as the need for on-demand packaging increases. Picture a company that’s able to build a custom shipping package based on every single unique online order.

“Costs are already coming down on this as the technology evolves,” he said. “It will have an impact in our lifetimes.”

Mr. Anderson said digital printing is and will continue to change the market. Companies are now able to print visuals right on a product instead of on a separate label.

“With this technology you could literally print every label differently,” he said.

Ms. Jacobsen predicted that finding a workforce for the industry will continue to present a challenge as technology evolves. To cope, she said companies must start to find different ways to train employees. One of those ways could be virtual reality, allowing entire workforces to be trained without even stepping foot onto a production floor. Mr. Stenson said augmented reality will also find new applications in distribution and training.