Simulation Technology Helps Product Packaging Become More Sustainable

20th June 2013 by Royston Jones

Just the words “packaged goods” generate troublesome images for many who are concerned about the environment. The concept of “packaging” suggests plastics and foams, metal and cardboard, which may be significant contributors to a community’s solid-waste burden. Today’s manufacturers, however, cannot afford to waste a penny, a gram or a micron on non-essential material in the packaging and shipment of their products. They are as concerned from an economic standpoint with reducing unneeded material as are environmentalists from an ecological point of view.

That is one reason major manufacturers of packaged goods are adopting the same type of technology used by the auto industry and aircraft manufacturers to reduce the amount of material used in their product packaging without sacrificing performance and durability. Increasingly, manufacturers are turning to computer-aided engineering (CAE) techniques to simulate and optimize the shape, size, weight and performance of the items we pull from supermarket shelves every day.

For some time, these companies have used virtual simulations “forensically” to determine why a certain package failed to stand up to the rigors of shipping or why a pour spout did not demonstrate the endurance that product designers had anticipated. Now, however, these companies are using simulation in the earliest stage of design, relying on the computer simulation to recommend how the packaging should be designed in the first place.


Simulation of packaged goods during shipping


With this type of automatic light-weighting through simulation, manufacturers can find new, often unexpected ways to trim materials from their packages without any reduction in the packaging’s strength or endurance. The result can be a product that costs less, ships more securely and impacts the environment less severely.

Virtual simulation in package design considers not only which material—and how much—should be used for the most attractive and economical packaging but also how the package will stand up to the loads to which it is exposed when stacked and transported.  The combination of lower weight and fewer damaged goods can translate to less pollution from transport vehicles and less damaged, discarded product and packaging in the environment.

Advanced CAE software, like Altair’s HyperWorks suite of computer tools, creates virtual models and results that match physical tests of the same product. That means designers can consider a wide range of package configurations on the screen, decide which meets their objectives best and only then create a physical prototype to test, saving considerable costs on the prototyping process.

In 2006, G. Gilbert Cloyd, the chief information officer of Procter & Gamble, predicted in IndustryWeek that eventually “as much as 90% of P&G’s R&D will be done in a virtual world, with the remainder being physical validation of results and options.” He went on to note that computer models allow P&G to be more creative and design better products.

Another big consumer products group, Unilever, also uses virtual simulation for product design, obtaining a clear design direction and the opportunity to experiment with many more designs than would be practical with physical prototypes. For example, with the assistance of Altair ProductDesign, Unilever used OptiStruct, the HyperWorks optimization tool, to increase the ability of a plastic bottle to withstand pressure applied at the top while also reducing the bottle’s mass. The simulation optimized parameters for thicknesses and the bottle shape and recommended a design that ultimately demonstrated 20 percent more load capacity with a 5 percent reduction in plastic used. Multiply that saving by the millions of plastic bottles a manufacturer like Unilever would produce every year, and the cost and environmental benefits become obvious.

Similarly, Unilever developed a new deodorant package employing advanced simulation and optimization technology during the concept phase. The technology allowed detailed predictions of interactions among parts in a mechanism assembly and used a virtual model as a testing ground for various designs.


Optimization of a Unilever deodorant cap


Specifically, Altair ProductDesign and Unilever designers applied OptiStruct’s topology optimization, providing a given design space and the objectives (such as minimizing mass while maintaining stiffness requirements) and letting the software generate a number of shapes and structures that met those goals. Unilever subsequently worked with Altair ProductDesign to create an automated process that enables analysis by non-specialist users.

Computer simulations often facilitate cost-effective investigation of new, sustainable materials and structures, making products not only lighter but also more easily recyclable. In fact, virtual technology targets waste reduction and the carbon footprint of packaged goods in a comprehensive manner through:


  • Automatic lightweighting carried out by virtual optimization
  • Reduction of packaging damage (and thereby waste) during transit
  • Exploring alternative packaging materials that may be more environmentally friendly and, when optimized through simulation, just as capable as conventional materials
  • Quickly assessing and understanding more concept designs
  • Highly visual and interactive computer tools that are accessible to a wide audience, thereby potentially propagating greener packaging design
  • Improved product quality with lower risk of market failure, bolstering responsible product design because of the greater confidence virtual simulation provides for its success
  • Improved product development cost and speed, allowing sustainable products to be introduced to the marketplace faster and ensuring that packaging is designed the right way the first time


Technology and ecology not only can coexist, but they also can become fast friends in helping to shape a more sustainable product marketplace.


Useful links:
Unilever – Optimizing Packaging Designs & Reducing Prototype Costs
Unilever – Customized Solutions to Reduce Packaging Waste
Mabe –  Improved Protection of White Goods through Packaging Optimization