Mars, Unilever tap new CPG packaging prototyping methods

The CPG giants are using computer simulations and 3D printing to save time, $$, and materials.
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· 4 min read

The process of tearing through a snack wrapper or cracking open a plastic bottle takes, well, seconds to do, but the process of making that CPG packaging isn’t so quick.

Depending on the types of packaging, there’s lot of steps to create mock-ups or different molds to produce the packaging in, and rounds of testing to determine if it meets all of a company’s specifications and ensure it holds up through shipment to store, merchandising, and eventually, of course, consumer use. And if it doesn’t, it’s back to the drawing board.

Therefore, CPG giants Mars and Unilever are seeking new methods for package prototyping to speed things up, while also saving $$ and materials along the way, through new partnerships they announced earlier this month.

Reach for the Mars: Mars’s new partnership with software giant Ansys uses simulation tech within its Snacking unit, which houses brands like M&Ms, Snickers, and Skittles, to do virtual testing and prototyping for packaging innovation.

Darren Logan, VP of research at Mars’s Advanced Research Institute and Global Food Safety Center, told Retail Brew that typically to test out new product packaging, the company would have to purchase large amounts of plastic or whatever material it planned to use, then create a mock-up of the packaging, and put it through several tests, like a drop test (you can probably guess what that is). Testing one iteration can take several weeks, so multiply that by the many iterations needed to find the packaging that’s just right, and the process can be long, Logan said.

Through its Ansys partnership, the Mars team can input information about the characteristics of the materials it’s used (snack packaging contains barrier and laminate layers, so different materials can go into each of them) into the simulation. It’ll then calculate how those materials will behave when formed into shapes and structures with different amounts of pressure on them, like being transported to the grocery store, stacked on a shelf, or held by human hands.

“What’s really novel here in this particular part of our partnership, is how broad it is, how widely we’re putting this into process, rather than if you’re playing in the margins, as we’ve learned how this technology works,” he said.

Mars Ansys computer packaging simulation


Computer modeling has cut its product development time by 40% and saved 246 tons of plastic, which in turn saves Mars $$, allowing it to invest in the higher cost of sustainable materials without passing on that price to consumers, Logan said.

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“We can do a lot of hard work in the digital world and get solutions virtually before we then have to go and actually make anything physically,” he said.

Mars aims to use this tech to redesign 12,000 packaging types as part of its goal to make all packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025—a target that’s directly tied to its top 300 executives’ pay, Logan included. “It’s in our collective interest as a business to ensure that we hit those targets,” he said.

New dimension: Unilever is using a different approach for package prototyping for plastic bottles: 3D printing, through a partnership with 3D printing company Formlabs and its plastic packaging producer Serioplast.

The process is an alternative to the time-intensive blow-molding process, Luca Colmi, sales application engineer at Formlabs, told Retail Brew. A mold for plastic bottle packaging is usually made with stainless steel or another similar material, which is pricey, so companies will first create a pilot mold with cheaper, softer materials. This mold can cost up to $10,000 and have a lead time of up to 12 weeks for just one design, and if the packaging produced with that mold doesn’t pass the testing phase, the process has to start all over again.

Using Formlabs’s 3D printing machines, mold can be made using a material called Rigid 10K Resin, cutting down the lead time by up to 70%, the company said. This system also allows companies to test multiple molds at once: Unilever and Serioplast have tested 15 models of bottles since working with Formlabs, the company said. Unilever used this technology to produce a bottle design for its Sunlight kitchen soap brand sold in markets like India and Southeast Asia.

Stefano Cademartiri, CAD and prototyping owner of Unilever, said in a white paper published by Formlabs that this allows the company to “identify immediately if you are on the right path in your development,” to avoid costly mistakes and help bring products to market more quickly.

“A consumer goods company like Unilever must be on the market as soon as possible or before your competitors,” Cademartiri said. “You need to offer the best product at the best price in the shortest time possible to the consumers. 3D printing helps us speed up this process.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.