Paper’s Lasting Place in the Digital Age

1/22/2016

You’ve heard it before: there is no place for paper in the digital age. However, the truth is that paper and paperboard packaging are so versatile that they will continue to help us meet our needs no matter the direction our society is headed. Indeed, new uses for paper are always emerging, some that accommodate or enhance digital technologies, and others that fill new needs entirely. Below are just a few examples of how paper is securing its place in the digital age and beyond.

Paper: Pairs Perfectly with Digital
It is a myth that print and digital are incompatible media. Rather, when harnessed in tandem, they lend to a fuller and more engaging user experience as compared to applications that use just one or the other. Pennsylvania-based folding carton converter Rondo-Pak revealed just how paperboard and digital technologies can enhance each other last year when the firm introduced its first multi-media folding carton. The design features a screen, which can be placed inside or outside the carton, that plays up to 1.5 hours of high-definition video with sound. The possibilities for this type of video-carton are endless: on-pack advertising, additional product information or directions, gamification, multilingual capabilities, and more.

Another great example of the melding of paper and digital was submitted into PPC’s 2015 Carton Competition by converter JohnsByrne Co.  A “press conference in a box,” the carton was sent to the media in order to promote a new Motorola smartphone. The box opens to reveal a miniature conference room with seats, a paperboard spokesperson, and the cellphone itself as the room’s
projector screen. Providing an innovative multi-media experience, the phone delivers the press conference in the form of a pre-loaded video.

It’s not just special promotional kits that utilize mobile technologies to engage audiences; today there are numerous “smart” packaging designs in which technology is integrated into the pack’s board or ink.  For example, in addition to its screen, Rondo-Pak’s multi-media carton also includes a digital watermark embedded into its graphics. Upon scanning it with their smartphones, consumers are directed to digital content. A similar technology known as Augmented Reality allows consumers to train their smart devices on a package, and via a downloadable app, view superimposed computer-generated content such as images of the unboxed product or information about ingredients. In this way, print and digital media go hand-in-hand, each providing a backdrop that enhances the other—and the overall consumer experience.

Paper: Powering the Future
The future of paper is bright—literally—as energy-conducting labels and folding cartons are quickly becoming an everyday reality. This relatively new technology utilizes printed circuitry and electronic pathways to create brilliant on-pack marketing capabilities, as seen, for example, on Anheuser-Busch’s recently released special edition Oculto beer bottle. Fostering an interactive user experience, the bottle’s skull graphics feature LED-illuminated eyes, powered by a printed paper battery, that come alive when consumers grasp the pressure-sensitive label.

Some researchers are thinking bigger when it comes to the potential of paper batteries. Engineer and Binghamton University Professor Seokheun “Sean” Choi even thinks they could help power the developing word. Choi recently invented an “origami style” paper battery that runs on dirty water and costs only five cents to produce. Folding into squares the size of a matchbook, the battery is made from ordinary office paper that is sprayed with nickel and affixed with an inexpensive air sensor. It only requires a single drop of bacteria-containing water to generate energy from the respiration of the microbes. So far, paper batteries are helping to create cheap and effective diagnostic tools for use in disease prevention in developing nations.  However, as paper is relatively inexpensive, easily transportable, and biodegradable, it is easy to imagine this technology developing, bringing affordable power to populations across the globe.

Paper: Blazing New Paths
Taking advantage of paper’s strength and versatility—and consumers’ desire for sustainable products—innovative papermakers and entrepreneurs are discovering many new uses for paper that have little to do with smartphones or other “high-tech” applications. For example, PaperNuts are a sustainable alternative to polystyrene packing peanuts or bubble wrap that are made from recycled paper. Another paper innovation, Fishbone Packaging Co.’s paperboard six-pack can holders are designed to replace plastic rings. Paperboard tubes for lip balms are also becoming an increasingly popular alternative to the traditional plastic tube. 

Yet it’s not only the end-uses for paper that are multiplying and changing; paper itself is evolving, too. Scientists recently developed a method for breaking fiber down to the molecular level—into nanocellulose. Paper made from this new material is thin like tissue, yet durable and hard to rip. It’s water resistant and it doesn’t block light. Thus, it could be used to make products similar to bandages or parchment paper. Additionally, nanocellulose’s gel-like consistency is perfect for 3D printing, and therefore could open a myriad of future applications.

From video-equipped folding cartons, to digital watermarks and augmented reality, to paper batteries, nanocelluose and more, paper is growing with, and enhancing the digital age—a far cry from antiquity, indeed. Paper is here for the long run, and the new technologies and applications described here, we can only assume, are just the tip of the iceberg.

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