Pill popping – design for the healthcare industry

Packaging Professional magazine
15 Jan 2010
Low volume packaging design, hand packed with individual components. An external band and ribbon holds the pack together and adds security

Duncan Robinson, Founder of Pillbox Design, Sileby, UK, describes issues surrounding packaging design for the healthcare industry.

From a design perspective, the healthcare market is distinctive and sits between pharmaceutical and retail. Many packaging manufacturing principles are, however, shared, such as pharmaceutical procedures and quality management, along with speed to market and branding borrowed from retail.

Healthcare packaging design encompasses almost all packaging types and values. These include bottles, caps, labels, cartons, leaflets, shelf-ready cartons and cases, injection mouldings, vacuum formings, plastic films, corrugates, bows, ribbons, magnets and braille.

It is far more diverse than that of pharmaceuticals because of the types of product involved, so a good understanding of the background is essential to designing the right pack. Knowledge of the value and quantity of goods being sold is key, as this determines how the product needs to be manufactured and packed.

Size matters

Large volume and, possibly, low value products will be machine packed and the packaging manufactured in bulk at the highest speed possible. Many packs follow a standard formula that fits this process.

The skill of the designer is to push the boundaries of the machinery further to enable a new look pack to be manufactured. This can involve adapting the machinery or known technology to add different features. Efficient use of materials and knowledge of machine packaging performance is essential for good design.

Medium volume products can accommodate more complex designs, whether hand packed or a combination of machine loading and hand finishing. The pack manufacturing process can also be slower and multifaceted. A good designer has to work with the factory to ensure the job can run through the machines efficiently, often requiring nerve and negotiating skills.

Lower volume, high value packs, such as for seasonal gifts will be hand packed and, potentially, hand finished with features such as speciality closures. The aesthetics and functionality are the key ingredients for good design, and often these packs incorporate different materials and textures to enhance the value and improve shelf stand-out. This presents challenges in sourcing the right materials and for the factory if converting new materials.

Adaptable concepts

Healthcare products are regularly changed to meet the demands of retailers who may have specific campaigns or offers that need advertising. For example, backing up advertising, such as buy one get one free or 50% extra offers, requires different packs to capture shoppers’ interest. This is often achieved in subtle ways so as not to interfere with the efficacy and core value of the product as well as the brand image. Different finishes and print techniques are constantly being developed to improve the look of packs. Running alongside this development process is the requirement for more sustainable and recyclable materials, and the desire for lower costs to improve margins in the supply chain. Designers have to be aware of these issues and factor them into the decision making process. Almost all packs are restricted to a maximum price point, so although the design may be appealing, there is a need for compromises.

Often successful products have their packaging re-engineered to minimise the cost, therefore optimising profit. This involves reducing material usage, speeding up the production process and reducing waste. Coupled with this, there will be improvements in the handling and efficiency of the packing process. For example, changing the pack size slightly to increase the number on a printed sheet or pallet layout, or altering closure tolerances to increase packing speed on line. Some products use these principles as a starting point for design so there are many restrictions in place. New or better solutions are often discovered during the design process, and these have to be discussed with the client.

Be prepared

Planning a product launch is a complex process so several different designs may be required. Contingency plans including alternative designs may be needed if the preferred choice is new and complex.

New machinery sometimes has to be built to pack the product and changes to it may occur during trials to overcome problems. The closer the designer is to the development process, the easier it is to help provide solutions.

Further information: Pillbox Design