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Reality Shows

By AICC Staff

May 20, 2020

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are having an impact across a wide range of products and services, from creating unique gaming environments dependent on specialty hardware to enhancing customers’ shopping experiences with nothing more than a smartphone. As these technologies grow, they provide an expanding range of opportunities for boxmakers—applications with the potential to enhance the customer relationship, create efficiencies within the package and display design process, and even streamline overall plant workflow.

Delivering the Wow

At Bay Cities Packaging & Design, on-package AR is embraced as yet another way for their clients to connect with their customers interactively, to add a wow factor to select displays, and for brands to establish a connection with their customers at each point of contact.

QR codes—those small boxed graphics that look like an unfinished black-and-white puzzle—have been the standard AR entry point for years, offering consumers a quick way to acquire additional product information or coupons by scanning the QR graphics with their smartphones or tablets. While Bay Cities still sees interest in generic QR codes, many of their clients now have dedicated apps that, when pointed at on-package markers, bring AR experiences to life.

“There are a lot of things you can do with an AR experience,” says Nanneke Dinklo, senior director of marketing and branding for Bay Cities. “You can provide additional information, show more product features, offer coupons. Sometimes it’s just about the wow factor, giving people something they can post about on social media, something our client can put on their company website.

“We do this ourselves,” she continues. “As a company we send out Christmas gifts to our customers, and we’ve used AR on the packaging. Our goal was to entertain them and give them a Christmas feel—with animated snowflakes and Christmas music—but also show them what you can do with this technology. They loved it.”

Whenever possible, Bay Cities works not only to develop the packaging or displays bearing the AR markers but also to create the complete AR experience, believing that each element is critical to their clients’ success.

“The most important thing is to make sure it works,” Dinklo says, “that the on-package markers will actually open up the experience. So we need to define the markers on the display or the packaging and then print that for the AR team so they can test it. If somebody wants to use their own agency to design the AR experience, then they still would need us to create the packaging or display to make sure the markers are working.”

Despite the proven appeal for clients and their customers, AR remains underutilized, Dinklo notes. “We still have to educate customers about it,” she says. “We do offer it as an option when someone comes in knowing they would like to add some interactivity but not necessarily knowing what that might be. We work with them to understand what their pain points are, what they are trying to accomplish, and look at all the ways to help them reach and connect with their customer, including AR. But there’s still education to be done.

“This is still evolving technology. It’s not mainstream yet. I would say that the majority of customers don’t use it. But when we do use it, it’s typically on bigger programs.”

Even so, Dinklo believes that AR eventually will become mainstream. “Over time, I think it will become something that more customers will start adding.”

Streamlining Design

“People know these technologies are out there, but they don’t really understand them,” says Chuck Delaney, managing director of GROW Retail Technologies. “They don’t automatically understand how they can help their business. So it’s up to us to tap into what they’re looking for and then guide them to the best solution.”

Delaney is particularly excited about the potential for AR to help streamline internal packaging and display design. At GROW, his team uses the AR-development app Augment. That app, in concert with a software package and workflow developed in-house by Jason Hayes, dubbed Dynamic Design, makes it possible to quickly create 3D renderings that then can be viewed in real-world settings using tablets and smartphones. “There are a lot of building blocks involved in getting this up and running,” Delaney acknowledges. “But once you have the foundation, the results are really pretty cool.”

How cool? In one meeting, Delaney recalls being able to create a 3D image of a proposed new display for a client. “Within less than 90 minutes, we were able to show him a display on screen that, based on his feedback, had adapted to his suggestions for additional product, more height, and greater impact. We could show him the measurements, explain the internal structure, and explore a variety of different graphics. With the help of AR you can eliminate a lot of the early questions.

“I know some people still see AR as a niche technology, with limited use. In fact, I’d guess that less than 5% of boxmakers currently use it,” Delaney continues, noting that it tends to get used mostly for gamification on client packaging. “But I do believe it will go mainstream as the design side becomes simpler and as design studios and universities produce graduates knowledgeable about it.”

Still, he notes that it does require an investment in resources, training, and possibly even additional staff. (According to Dinklo, Bay Cities takes an ad hoc approach to AR development, forming and disbanding teams of various sizes, as required, on a project-by-project basis.) The question is: Do the benefits of building that foundation outweigh the costs?

“I’d ask any plant manager wondering about that to tell me what frustrates them when they start a new display program with an existing or new customer or the extension of a brand,” Delaney says. “Chances are, the frustrating points could be reduced—if not eliminated altogether—by first designing that display in AR and getting your customers’ feedback at that point. You can design without cutting any corrugated or wasting your time going through about five iterations of something in order to get to this. It’s not unusual to go from initial meeting to a quote in 24 to 48 hours. So if you’re getting to the end result faster, it costs less, and it helps you grow your business, why wouldn’t you want to use it?”

For boxmakers interested in adding AR to their client-facing toolkit, Delaney recommends first using it internally before showing it off to customers. “Ensure that it can become a main part of your process internally,” he advises. “And then I’d suggest a pilot program with a couple of accounts you’re friendly with. Work out the bugs on the few. Then go to the next type of pilot, expanding your base. Then launch it completely.”

Throughout the process, be patient. As with any new or unfamiliar technology, not everything will work flawlessly from the start. Not everyone on your team will have the same level of buy-in or comfort when it comes to using it. All of those challenges take time to address. “If you’re being careful and smart,” Delaney says, “the whole process is probably going to take you 2½ to three years. Don’t rush it. It takes time for people to become friendly with it and confident with it.”

Maximizing the Workflow

Delaney’s clients can point an iPad at an in-store location and immediately see how a prototype display would fit the space, down to the shadow it will cast on the floor. Similarly, customers of online retailer Wayfair can select an item of furniture from the Wayfair website and, using just their smartphone or tablet, point their device at a location in their home to see what that furniture would look like in their actual environment. It seems a small step to go from those examples to using AR to visualize equipment on the plant floor—and then using those visualizations to explore the impact of adding or upgrading equipment or reconfiguring machines to improve workflow and overall efficiency. Yet, despite the apparent benefits, this is an AR application no one seems to be exploring.

“As far as I’m aware, I’ve not seen a supplier use AR with a customer to assess plant workflow or evaluate plant changes,” says Michael Harris, president of KPI Incorporated. He has, however, seen suppliers present a digital 2D layout and give clients VR glasses so they can explore it in some detail. But that approach will take you only so far.

“Machines are getting much longer,” Harris says. “It happens when you add more colors, and it happens because they’re getting faster, so they require additional material handling, both on the feed end and on the delivery side of the machine.” Using AR, a boxmaking plant could evaluate whether or not a big piece of new equipment can fit the space and how best to situate it.

“Plant managers could take into consideration things like overhead space and the locations of air ducts, air and water services, conduits, whatever,” Harris says. “Think too about the incredible expense involved in modern printing equipment. It just makes sense to know as much as possible about the equipment you’ll be using before you make a major commitment. 2D is fine for what it is, but if you’re looking at a layout in two dimensions, you run the risk of interferences that people didn’t catch. Having it in three dimensions lets everybody see what the actual reality will be.

“And if you’re building a new factory,” Harris continues, “you could take images of every piece of proposed equipment and lay them out in a variety of ways within the space to see if this machine really should lead to that machine or share space with this one. Maybe there’s a new workflow that would be more efficient than what you’ve been using or what has been typical in plants like yours. You’d have the opportunity to play around with that, test it, and find the potential pain points. Using a 3D layout should be how box plants are laid out in the future.”

Clearly, the technology already exists. Every day, retail customers are using it to figure out whether that coffee table they found online will look best next to their sofa or across the room. So why isn’t this technology being used when million-dollar equipment—not to mention the long-term operational efficiency of a box plant—might be at stake?

Harris believes the responsibility for implementing this kind of plant management-based AR rests with equipment manufacturers. “If you’re going to rely on digital images of equipment—based on complete, 360-degree scans—those images need to be created by and supplied by OEMs to their boxmaking customers,” he says. “Frankly, I think that represents too much of an investment for OEMs to take on right now. But as soon as the first supplier sees value in providing this to their customers, understanding that it makes it easier for boxmakers to do business, you’ll get a lot of [followers].”

“For corrugated, the time is now,” Harris says. “I’d encourage boxmakers to urge their suppliers to continue to innovate and come up with new ways of doing business.” By embracing the benefits of VR and AR themselves, boxmakers can continue to implement new tools for delivering engaging and effective products and services.

PortraitRobert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.