Bubble Wrap, the signature product of the US-based Sealed Air Corporation, is undergoing the biggest change in its 42-year history.
Sealed Air is test-marketing an inflatable version of Bubble Wrap, the product that launched the company in 1960, and hopes to have it commercially available by next year, officials said.
Being able to ship the material in small rolls and have it inflated at customer work sites will save money while opening Bubble Wrap to new customers and new markets, said William Hickey, Sealed Air's president and chief executive.
Hickey declined to put a figure on what the new technology will mean to the company. Bubble Wrap accounts for 10 per cent of Sealed Air's $3 billion (€3.4bn) in sales. About two-thirds of its sales come from food packaging, including its Cryovac-brand products.
Finding a way to ship Bubble Wrap without air has been a challenge since the company's founding, "and we believe we have come up with an answer to a 42-year quest," Hickey said.
When inflated, each roll of Bubble Wrap is 42 inches in diameter, so only 32 rolls - just 3,000 pounds' worth - fit into a tractor-trailer, making the product expensive to ship.
Non-inflated rolls are about a third of the diameter, with each containing nine times the amount of material as found in inflated rolls. The equivalent of a truckload would fill up just two pallets.
While saving Sealed Air shipping costs, the new technology could make Bubble Wrap attractive to potential customers who do not have room to store large rolls, Hickey said.
That could open up new markets, such as a small home-based Internet-based merchant, he said. "I can even see it in a vending machine dispenser in the post office." From a customer's standpoint, the process is simple and automatic once the roll of the uninflated plastic is fed through a slot in the inflation machine, which the company would supply to customers. Air comes from a compressor about half the size of a car battery, running on standard electric current and making no more noise than a small room air conditioner.
The procedure is similar to one used to inflate the company's Fill Air packets on shipping sites, but the process is more complex because the Fill Air cushioning comes with single rows of air pockets, while Bubble Wrap has a beehive-like web of air pockets to cushion merchandise.
The new system is being field tested at 12 sites, and the goal is to "start ramping up" by next year, said Philip Cook, a company spokesman.