The challenges of developing new packaging solutions
Finding the perfect packaging solution isn’t always easy. We spoke with Thomas Regenhardt, Head of Packaging at HelloFresh, about challenges in the development process and upcoming projects:
The challenges in packaging are complex and multi-layered. Which packaging solutions are you making good progress on?
Thomas: The first thing that comes to mind is the continued development of our ice configurator, which calculates the required quantity of ice packs per order. In the future, this AI-based software will be able to do even more precise calculations for deliveries in all of our markets. Currently the required quantity of ice packs is determined based on the average weather forecast across the country and the longest possible delivery route. In future, the ice configurator will include the exact length of the route as well as the corresponding localized weather conditions to its calculation. Depending on the delivery location, a meal kit box can be exposed to a wide range of different temperatures. The amount of ice packs required will therefore vary. The combination of different routes, box configurations and insulation systems is inherently very complex. We’re currently programming the ice configurator to weigh all these factors up against each other. The configurator will then take this data and integrate it into the existing production planning systems.
These boxes might go on very different journeys. Our ice configurator helps to fill them with exactly the right amount of ice packs.
Development processes can take a long time until they’re completed. What are the challenges you are currently working on?
Thomas: Speaking of our ice configurator. Right now the material of our water-based ice packs is the biggest challenge for us. While we are trying to reduce as much packaging material as possible, we need to make sure that it is thick and strong enough to prevent it from being damaged during transport. Our environmentally friendly water-based ice packs are more likely to leak when they thaw, unlike conventional gel-filled ice packs. During the summer it’s easier to test the ice packs for material flaws. In the winter, given that the ice packs often remain frozen throughout the transport simulation, it’s harder to identify issues. That's why we’re currently developing tests that can simulate transportation in the summer, even during the colder seasons.
Can you tell us about projects where you haven’t yet achieved the hoped for results despite intense research?
Thomas: Yes! There is a certain ingredient that’s particularly tricky to transport. The egg has an unusual shape and it’s fragile, which makes finding a perfect packaging solution quite difficult. On the one hand, the egg’s packaging solution needs to be exceptionally resistant compared to other ingredients. On the other hand the packaging solution needs to be suitable for small quantities, for example for just two eggs. We’re conducting ongoing research together with manufacturers and universities to tackle this challenge. We’re definitely not giving up.
Two prototypes for egg packaging that we tested in our packaging labs but that did not make it into one of our boxes.
Speaking of “giving up" – are there any projects that you had to de-prioritise (for the time being)?
Thomas: The most common example is probably when we realize mid-development process that a material doesn't meet our requirements. Sometimes the implementation of a packaging solution might also fail because we can't find suitable partners. Let me give you an example. At first glance, the idea of a reusable box seems pretty straight forward: ingredients are delivered in a reusable box, the empty boxes are collected again the following week and used again for the next week. While this seems simple for the customers, the backend is super complex. The collected boxes need to be cleaned, quality-checked, stored and prepared for the next delivery. In the end, reusable boxes involve significantly higher costs and a higher energy input than disposable packaging. That being said, we are still trying to find a solution for this. For now, we’re testing reusable boxes in the Netherlands and Australia.
Is there something that would help you overcome some of the challenges in packaging?
Thomas: A first important step is definitely the general development towards sustainability – not only in e-commerce, but in the entire food industry, including the large discounters. It would definitely help us if the use of recycled materials is incentivised, because that would make it much easier to introduce sustainable packaging solutions.