Meet the Better Box

Posted: June 3, 2010 by
Ron Romanik

It’s a morning ritual for millions. After pouring their favorite cereal in to a bowl, they crumple up the bag inside the box incompletely, shove the bag down, and fumble with the thin paperboard flap on top that does not engage fully. There is very little about this ritual that imparts in the user confidence that the contents will remain fresh for a future use.

Well, that unsatisfying experience may change for many in the coming years, as a new package design innovation looks to make its way onto supermarket shelves. The concept, called Zipbox™, pairs up the best of both carton and bag features in one package. The carton part is essentially a coated juice or milk carton bottom that is sift-proof and, ostensibly, liquid leakproof.

The top part is essentially a reclosable "press-to-close" food storage bag, with the zipper provided by Zip-Pak. The two components are heat-sealed together to create a hermetic package that requires no inner bag. For production, the innovation requires two machines that are modified versions of common packaging machines. The innovative company T.H.E.M., headquartered in Marlton, NJ, nicknamed this project “BOB”—for Bag-on-Box or Best-of-Both.

The company is currently performing advanced due diligence to make sure the package can perform as promised. After proofing out in production and through distribution channels, the first branded packages may hit the shelves as early as the fourth quarter of this year.

The light bulbs go on
When T.H.E.M. debuted Zipbox last October at Pack Expo Las Vegas, the principals witnessed many “a-ha” moments on the exhibit hall floor. Packaging professionals immediately appreciated the potential of the concept, and there are indications that consumers will also recognize the advantages intuitively.

“It’s not about which is better,” says Neil Kozarsky, president of T.H.E.M. “It’s about taking the best of the box and the best of the pouch.” Kozarsky has led a number of successful technology transfer initiatives over the years, with particular successes in Japanese machinery and material innovators and with the stickpack packaging form.

“Everything on Zipboxes is like a traditional carton, only a little different,” says Stephen Belko, vice president at T.H.E.M., who has his name on a number of patents for companies such as WR Grace, Kraft Foods, General Mills, and Nestlé. “It’s not about the idea,” he explains. “It’s about doing something about an idea.”

This intelligent combination of materials hopes to supersede some of the new categories that flexible pouches are entering into. The consumer advantages include ease-of-use, reclosability, barrier protection, fragile product friendliness, stackability, and overall stability. The brand owner benefits include a U.S.-based supply solution, already understood commercial technologies, high-speed production, tray-pack case pack option, and efficient use of materials.

Two machines, modified
John Caporaso, director of technical services at T.H.E.M., explains how modifications of two common packaging machines made the Zipbox innovation economically viable. Caporaso ran the packaging development group at Campbell Soup Co., which was responsible for the commercialization of new technology. Partners in the Zipbox project include Yeaman, ITW, Zip-Pak, Malnove, Curwood, and Alcan.

The first modified machine would be at the carton manufacturer, where the assembly of the bag to the box would occur. The second modified machine would be at the CPG company, where the package would be filled and sealed. Part of the trick here is that the Zipbox package is filled upside-down, and the final seal is the closing and gluing of the bottom.
Caporaso believes that introducing this concept to CPGs will not be too difficult because CPGs already have a confidence in the demonstrated technologies that Zipbox uses, and the packaging integrity it can achieve. “Our approach is to design a high barrier package with the potential to hold a gas flush,” Caporaso explains.

CPGs will also be interested in the filling line speeds it can achieve, from 80-150 cartons/minute (with a goal of 300/min.), and T.H.E.M. hopes CPGs like the freedom of branding on the Zipbox carton and film. The company foresees most clients covering the bag portion of the Zipbox with a white base coat before adding their brand colors and graphics. And instead of trying to match the colors of the box and bag, there’s a distinct advantage in using two complementary colors to emphasize the benefits of the new packaging form.

Consumer buy-in
“We feel we’re going to offer solutions to consumers’ problems,” Caporaso says. A Harris Interactive poll indicated that 85% to 90% of potential customers understood the benefits of the Zipbox package right away. And 64% of respondents used the term “easy” in describing opening, closing, or using the package. In addition, they found that the package concept tested equally favorably among males and females, both younger and older.

But the perceived value will only hold if the performance backs up the promise. “It really has to work well,” says Kozarsky. Even the secondary research results revealed how consumers would hold the package to a high standard, with a percentage of subjects expressing, in essence: “It’s nice, but it’s got to have a good zipper.”

There are also environmental benefits from production, supply chain, and recycling perspectives. The components ship flat when empty, the product can fill out a pallet cube more fully, more product will ship per truck, and consumers can separate the parts for easy recycling.

The Zipbox format also allows for a great deal of variation in size and shape. The limit of product is about 10 lbs. maximum with the current machine configurations. Of course, what often drives proliferation of innovations such as these is not the production end, but the consumer end. The success of one product can trigger a tidal wave of acceptance. The trick is matching up the right product at the right time with the right package at the right price.