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DS Smith imagines programmable and self-healing cardboard as a possible packaging evolution

Flattened carboard boxes are stacked in large piles
Based on trends driven by creative technology, the DS Smith says they can imagine organic, programmable fibres with the ability to self-heal – like our skin – when damaged.

In the 150th year of the cardboard box, DS Smith has outlined a blueprint for how the box might evolve over the next half century. 

Based on trends driven by creative technology, DS Smith says they can imagine organic, programmable fibres with the ability to self-heal – like our skin – when damaged.

Possible characteristics of the self-healing box

  • A webbed nerve system that borrows from the composition of leaves: Sensors are printed onto the "skin" of the box and connect all fibres in the packaging so that it can ascertain damage and communicate externally.
  • Regenerative "scar tissue:" Healing itself just like the human body, the surface stretches and thickens to cover the injury. It then transmits data to the delivery company and the recipient to tell them it is pausing to heal itself en route.
  • Reuse capability: After it has been opened, the packaging heals the pack's opening so it can be continually reused, extending its life. 

"We've seen all around us technologies making life easier and more efficient," says Melanie Galloway, vice president of sales, marketing, and innovation at DS Smith. "Packaging that heals itself so it can be perpetually reused is, of course, a futuristic concept, but it's rooted in our efforts to design out waste and support the reuse of materials. So, a broader circular economy in which materials stay in use for much longer, may be closer than we think." 

A brief history of the cardboard box

Looking into its storied past as well as into its evolutionary future to mark the 150th year of the cardboard box, DS Smith has created a retrospective of corrugated cardboard, charting how it has woven its way through society. 

The new digital archive celebrates past and present achievements in the race for innovative ideas, such as plastic replacement designs like Eco Carrier and parcels that can withstand cold and wet conditions, such as Greencoat. The historical highlights include:

  • 1600: The idea of the cardboard box is created. Taking its roots in 16th-century fashion, the construction of ruffled lace collars is to inspire the corrugating of paper for cardboard centuries later. 
  • 1871: American Robert H. Thompson patents machinery to produce corrugated board in 1882 to wrap glass bottles and becomes the grandfather of the modern corrugated industry. Ultimately, he begins the cardboard revolution that will lead to the birth of the box.
  • 1886: The jeweller Tiffany introduces its eponymous ring setting and creates the original patented blue ring box. The box is synonymous with the brand. Admirers visit the store in New York requesting to buy the boxes. They are refused unless they buy a ring to go with it.
  • 1939: World War II begins, and gas masks are issued across Britain in cardboard boxes. It is a legal requirement to always carry them. The boxes foster rivalry among school children, and kids make their own modifications to personalize their gas mask boxes.
  • 2020: The U.K. is the first country to begin a vaccine rollout and the project is the largest national immunization program in history. The DS Smith team helps transport the first vaccines in the UK and then worldwide to hospitals and clinics in cardboard boxes.

In addition to the self-healing box blueprint, DS Smith expects to see developments in the fields of self-adjusting parcels and spray-on packaging.  

"I think we could eventually see intelligent packaging that actually self-adjusts its size to fit its contents, making the absolute most of materials and space," says Galloway. "The reality is that innovation has made it possible to make boxes water and humidity-resistant, protected against harmful bacteria, and trackable throughout their journey with printable nanotechnology. While self-healing boxes are not here yet, we are looking into the future for the next set of innovations that will help us use materials as sustainably as possible. We will only achieve this with fresh thinking and creative ideas. We're already looking at partnerships to accelerate the journey to a circular economy and would love to hear from experts who can come with us." 

Company info

720 Laurel St.,
Reading, PA
US, 19602


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