"Most food companies are short-term focused, and interested primarily in technology that can be implemented in the next 12 months," claimed Larry Mucha, former director of Future Technologies at Coca-Cola. "But they should be looking at least five years into the future."
Mucha knows what he's talking about. A few years ago, he was charged with setting up the Future Technologies group within the Coca-Cola Company. The objective of the division was to find cutting edge packaging technologies that would help the corporation keep one step ahead of the competition. This meant identifying and predicting the technologies likely to take off in the next five to ten years.
"Very few people were doing this at the time, so there was nothing to benchmark, as such," he told FoodProductionDaily.com. "So to see what the future environment for packaging might be, we looked at various trends, various data sources, and what forms of packaging might soon be ready for replacement."
This business model, which Mucha calls Technology Harvesting, gave Coca Cola the opportunity to install technology before its rivals, and thus be better prepared to adapt to future trends.
Mucha is a strong advocate of Technology Harvesting. He is currently setting up a consultancy business to help other companies establish the correct systems. The first thing a company should do, says Mucha, is identify the critical areas of business where technology might give them the edge. A brewer, for example, might identify water shortages as a future concern, and then start identifying possible ways of coping with this eventuality.
"This is interesting work as it involves marketing people, analysts, technical specialists - basically everyone is involved," he said. "This is not a scattered approach - you first of all identify the technical gaps you will have to fill in the future. It's a bit like prospecting for gold - you start with a large screen, then slowly get tighter as you look for the nugget you need."
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a good example. Mucha and his team identified the technology as having enormous potential back in 1995, long before retailers such as Wal-Mart even thought of making the concept a mandatory requirement. This meant that Coca cola was ahead of the game, and able to anticipate the changes that this technology would bring to the beverage-packaging sector.
"We undertook our first field test of RFID in 1996, and were then able to form a group to concentrate on this technology," he said. "And we were in contact with a UK university that was working with a small IT company at the time."
The business model of Technology Harvesting has other pay-offs. When companies are looking for that elusive technology that will give them a competitive advantage five years down the line, they inevitably come across technology that can be implemented in the short term. This way, new technology is constantly being adopted, and there is no chance of a company standing still.
"If you are a brewer you will constantly be looking for the next big packaging innovation," said Mucha. "Renewable source packaging for example - in five years, packaging could be made out of starch, as this is renewable and biodegradable."< P>Indeed, Mucha predicts that the renewable packaging sector is likely to continue to grow. He believes that many food packaging sectors that currently do not embrace renewable materials will be doing so within a decade.
"There is no doubt that people are more environmentally conscious," he said. "The green dot system in Germany for example - that will become a bigger marketing tool in the future."
As a result, food packaging companies are becoming greener. "I think most companies want to be good global citizens, and those that aren't will get a bad press. Packaging has to reflect the aspirations of the consumer, and with growing consensus over green issues, this is becoming easier to achieve. Consumers are now more educated about what they are buying, and they can see if the packaging for a product is necessary."
Indeed, Mucha predicts that packaging itself is set to become a much more important marketing tool in the future. It will be the means by which manufacturers differentiate their products in what is an increasingly homogenised environment.
"Brands need to find a way to make the consumer pay extra for their product, rather than buying a supermarket own-label product. This is where cutting edge packaging technology can give you the advantage - by packaging your product in a container that keeps food fresher, is resealable and is easier to open and close, you can justify charging a higher price and avoid your product becoming a commodity item."