There can be little doubt in the matter: healthcare packaging is facing challenges as never before. How do you design a package that ensures patient safety, meets regulatory requirements, taps into local market needs and engenders brand loyalty? It’s never been straightforward, but, in recent years, the difficulties have intensified.

With problems such as counterfeiting on the rise, healthcare packaging designers are being forced to up their game. They’re facing increasing pressure to incorporate barcodes, amounting to a track-and-trace system that fosters security throughout the supply chain. At the same time, market demand is changing; there is a greater call for child-resistant and senior-friendly solutions, alongside features that promote compliance and cut waste.

Packaging can no longer be viewed as a peripheral concern. Expected to swell by 6.3% throughout 2013, the global pharmaceutical packaging market will soon be worth $46 billion and it is becoming an increasingly critical point of differentiation between brands.

"It is a much larger part of the puzzle than it was in the past," says Guido Schmitz, head of packaging and technology innovation at Bayer HealthCare’s consumer care division. "More people in the industry are trying to use packaging to differentiate their products. In an organisation such as ours, it plays a pivotal role."

This said, healthcare companies may find themselves with a dilemma on their hands. Should they invest in a newer, smarter package – with all the concomitant advantages – or should they focus their resources on bringing their product to market?

After all, with budgets as tight as ever, pouring funds into packaging may not seem like the obvious choice. Not only will it incur a welter of costs in the form of design, testing and approval, but it may also slow down the developmental pipeline. It may appear simpler to stick with a tried-and-tested approach, using familiar packaging that regulators already recognise.

Underlying this situation is a complex tangle of factors. For one thing, increased quantities of data have slowed down the registration process, causing development costs to soar. For another, while packaging is heavily regulated by authorities, the precise nature of that regulation can vary from market to market. Add in other issues, such as escalating fuel costs, and it is evident that healthcare companies have a challenge on their hands.

Rules of jeopardy

So, what can they do to redress the situation? While they could theoretically respond by hiking up the cost of their product, that is hardly a viable business model. Equally, it’s not possible to cut corners by skimping on safety tests. They have to make sacrifices elsewhere – and for some companies, packaging innovation is one of the first areas to go.

It’s a quandary with which Schmitz is well acquainted. As an expert in granulation, roller compaction, tablet compacting and coating, and packaging, he has been working in packaging technology processes for more than 25 years. Given his background and experience, he’s able to make solid recommendations that often earn support and funding.

"Packaging is integral to the healthcare industry and its importance is becoming steadily more apparent. Neglect your packaging and you neglect a rich seam of potential revenue."

He agrees that a measure of conservatism is sometimes necessary. "Any new innovation creates a challenge in terms of potentially increased costs and less efficiency," he says. "I need a good reason to do something different."

Avoiding innovation, however, is hardly the approach of Bayer HealthCare’s consumer care division. Having trademarked Aspirin at the end of the 19th century, the company has long sought out novel technologies to suit users’ needs as they evolve. It recognises exactly how crucial packaging can be in today’s crowded playing field.

In 2010, for example, the company launched a pioneering packaging system for Bayer Aspirin and Aleve. Boasting a new oval-shaped bottle and user-friendly cap, this was its first cartonless product in the category. By eliminating the carton, the bottle cut waste, thereby heightening sustainability and allowing retailers to save on shelf space. And by modifying the closure mechanism, it improved child-resistance.

Perhaps most notably, the package is tailored towards the needs of an aging population. The cap is coated in a soft-touch thermoplastic elastomer, which makes it simpler to hold and remove. Likewise, the raised logo on the bottle’s sides makes it more comfortable to grip. All this seems particularly apposite when you consider the typical user of Aleve. Likely to be suffering from arthritis or a related condition, it is imperative that they can access their medication with ease.

"In the consumer world, we are seeing trends towards easy-to-use, easy-to-open packaging," says Schmitz. "These trends are not new, they’ve been around forever. But they’re more powerful because the consumer is becoming more interested in innovative and different solutions."

Intelligent design

Another trend lies in the direction of ‘smart’ packaging, which can capture data and monitor a patient’s product usage. While developments in this domain have opened up a world of possibilities, it is particularly suited to helping patients take their medication as directed.

The prototypal smart pack would be a ready-to-use dispensing system. It would contain doses for one treatment cycle, neatly partitioned into units, alongside educational information and some form of printed circuitry designed to facilitate compliance. There might be an audio alarm, reminding the patient to take their medication at a predetermined time. Or there might be a sensor that detects a bottle has been opened or even a tablet swallowed. The healthcare provider would subsequently receive that information in the form of an SMS.

"Any new innovation creates a challenge in terms of potentially increased costs and less efficiency. I need a good reason to do something different."

With such technologies likely to become more prevalent, healthcare companies cannot stand to be left behind. Rather than eschewing tomorrow’s trends, their wisest cost-cutting measure may be to re-evaluate their own manufacturing processes.

"You have to examine the electronic communication technologies," says Schmitz. "There are solutions that make our lines flexible, reduce changeover time and enable us to get more efficient output; for example, we are using a new technology in the compression of tablets, which allows us to reduce production time, increase output and decrease noise levels.

"We are also launching new cartoner technology next year, which will allow us to run multiple product queues on the same machine. During my 20 years’ experience in our field, our product supply and our engineering have adapted to optimise packaging processes and improve line efficiency."

Long-term planning

Key to Bayer’s strategy is a reliance on platform development. This allows any new system to be used across multiple solutions, thereby keeping costs to a minimum. The latest Aspirin bottles, for instance, took two years to develop and represented a significant investment for the company. But, rather than being an end in themselves, they have far-ranging implications for the future – the bottles are based on a platform that can be adapted for other Bayer products.

Likewise, Schmitz extols the benefits of taking an integrative approach. Whereas in times gone by, packaging was widely viewed as separate to drug development, these days there is little room to split the two. By addressing the package in tandem with the drug, companies will save costs and make all-round superior decisions about materials and design.

"Packaging has to be involved from the start of the project, rather than waiting until the product is done and trying to find the packaging – this doesn’t work," he says. "I’m a big believer that packaging has a huge influence on the future and we cannot put packaging people in the game when the game is almost over."

"Any product should take advantage of its package space to communicate its brand message, going beyond the merely functional."

Cheap packaging per se should not, he thinks, be the primary concern. He is more interested in expanding his consumer base, ensuring his efforts pay off in the long term.

"Ideally we’d want to achieve both, but how we get both is not easy," he explains. "I get my costs back over volume, not over cheaper materials, so it’s very important to have something special and different."

Especially in the case of over-the-counter packaging, he is profoundly aware of the need to create an emotional affinity with consumers. After all, drugs aren’t just a therapeutic product; they’re also a brand, and brand loyalty can be what makes or breaks a potential customer base. Any product, therefore, should take advantage of its package space to communicate its brand message, going beyond the merely functional to seek out connection points.

"I have to tell a story to the consumer, so we are pushing a holistic approach," says Schmitz. "I cannot see only my structural design, I cannot see only my branding, I cannot see only my product – I have to bring everything together to make a difference to the consumer, if they are to understand what the product stands for and why they should buy this brand over the competition."

Give and take

This task is extensive in scope. For anyone engaged in over-the-counter packaging design, there are inevitable trade-offs to be made: should you prioritise branding, with greater upfront cost, or should you stick with a no-frills approach that may entice fewer consumers? Likewise, should you pump funds into intelligent packaging, or should you pay the price for potentially poor compliance?

There are no straightforward answers, but one thing is clear: packaging is integral to the healthcare industry and its importance is becoming steadily more apparent. Neglect your packaging, and you neglect a rich seam of potential revenue.

From Schmitz’s point of view, packaging is far from being an extraneous concern; there are real financial benefits to be garnered.

"I need to write a business case to justify more interesting packaging that does not translate into significant costs," he says.

We might envisage that this business case will speak for itself.