Are We Losing Technical Expertise?

I’ve always said we packaging engineers were the ultimate plate spinners.

By Heidi Graham

With accountability from early concept creation all the way through commercial production, packaging engineers keep so many critical aspects in motion it can make process mapping consultants dizzy (yes, I’ve witnessed it personally). The packaging team at a CPG company must balance concrete technical requirements against the more amorphous consumer experience aspects of design. It takes a dynamic set of skills. And yes, it’s an ever-shifting balancing act.

But there is a shift that worries me a bit.

I keep hearing that some organizations have restructured the talent on their packaging teams to be far more design-oriented. If you know me, you’re saying, “But Heidi you love design! You’ve always said we needed more design focus, not less.” You’re right, of course. I think design has generally been a weak point on packaging teams. But what’s happening isn’t the complement of design talent on technical engineering teams, it’s the complete restructuring of the team to focus solely on design. They’re abandoning essential technical skills.

I don’t know how widespread this is. Perhaps you’ll comment on this article and offer some insight into what you’re seeing in your organization.

As these companies shift their packaging skills toward design, they rely heavily on the expertise of their suppliers and independent consultants. While not a bad strategy, it does limit a company’s ability to troubleshoot, to implement more efficient solutions across their production lines, to react quickly to regulatory changes, etc. I imagine they’re making this shift because innovation is so valued, which is fantastic. After all, I can’t think of a better way to deliver consumer innovation than through thoughtfully designed packaging, but it could (in a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot kind of way) make innovation slower.

I’m sure there are still many organizations with packaging teams that are traditionally technical. These teams are embedded in engineering, in production operations, or in R&D labs. Their focus is on technical performance and the daily aspects of regulatory and quality compliance. They ensure the robustness of the packaging for shelf life and shipping integrity. When problems come up in development or production (as they often do) these teams dive in, identify the challenge, and solve the issue. But these teams tend to be distanced from strategic decision-making. Even if they’re in R&D on the front end of product development, it’s common for traditional packaging teams to lose influence on the direction of the product design. These team members may struggle to enroll marketing in their ideas for package design improvement. When they do have a voice on product innovation strategy, satisfaction (and product success!) goes through the roof. Developing skills around how to create enrollment behind their ideas is a competency worth investing in. It also builds a design mindset, which as you’ve sorted out, I am a huge proponent of.

The challenge of balancing technical and innovative talent is real. Some people are naturally inclined one way or the other. It’s a rare bird that can successfully navigate both. But we really can and should have both! The answer is diversity, as always. Packaging leadership can address technical requirements and support innovative concept development by mixing the talent on their team. Strong packaging leaders are very good at translating technical information outside the packaging team, giving voice to the “less exciting” technical aspects that are the backbone of any strong product launch. Making sure there is visibility across the organization to both the execution (technical) and the creative (innovative) talent on their team ensures the dynamic balance works for everyone.

So yes, by all means, focus on design. We need more designer-mindset on our packaging teams. However, we can’t lose the essential expertise that makes our packaging teams such incredible forces of execution. Technical packaging experts are a company’s superpower for ensuring the profitable success of their product lines.

Heidi Graham is a product design consultant and packaging engineer who specializes in creating obsessable user experiences for brands that understand the power of packaging. As founder of Shine Advisor, she brings over 20 years of expertise in packaging engineering and product development to the consumer products industry. Her work has been recognized for pioneering open innovation and consumer-centric design, including the development of breakthrough continuous spray sunscreen that helped transform the sun care category. Learn more about Shine Advisor. Find Heidi on LinkedIn and on the Shine Advisor blog.

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