A company wishing to do innovative research and develop new products must be prepared for a long journey that requires not only a bold approach, but also patience and a willingness to cooperate with many different players – technology providers, clients, consumers – in search of major breakthroughs. According to Markku Leskelä, VP research & development at Metsä Board, this all starts with a simple question: where is the world headed?
“As a company that wishes to grow, we must go where our customers and their customers, the consumers, are going to meet the needs of the future. And furthermore, do it in a way that outsmarts the competition.”
To find answers for what lies ahead for packaging and paperboard development, Leskelä points to megatrends that affect the business environments of Metsä Board’s customers, such as urbanization, e-commerce and sustainability.
Terhi Saari, director of Metsä Board's Äänekoski Technology Centre.
“Packaging continues to be a growth industry, as more and more people move into cities and pursue a modern consumer lifestyle. However, online retail will likely change how brands interact with consumers, as the packages are delivered directly to end users rather than picked up from traditional retail stores,” he explains.
Secondly, maximising material efficiency and minimising waste continue to grow in importance. “It’s critical that we listen to and collaborate closely with our customers as well as technology providers, so that we can discover and evaluate possible directions for sustainable development together, translating them into viable technological innovations,” Leskelä says.
The Äänekoski Technology Centre – Metsä Board’s cutting-edge R&D facility
To test the viability of new technological solutions, Metsä Board has its own, cutting-edge lab facility called the Äänekoski Technology Centre. It holds the company’s research labs and has a staff of researchers and research laboratory technicians, who focus on testing and analysing product safety, as well as different aspects of packaging functionality.
“We are like detectives and problem solvers,” explains Terhi Saari, director of the centre. “Even our customers utilise our research know-how and services to analyse and test products, troubleshoot problems or explore new ideas.”
Beyond lighter packages, Metsä Board’s R&D has recently focused on the converting of packaging materials as well as new barrier solutions for food service boards. The job of the Tech Centre’s staff is to investigate possible solutions, often also cooperating with universities and research organisations.
Material characterisation underway in Metsä Board's cutting edge facility.
“As a researcher, you have to be persistent and investigate several promising ideas at the same time,” Saari explains. Though the R&D journey is seldom a straightforward series of successes, she says that even seemingly negative results are part and parcel of the research path. “Even if a promising new idea proves to be unfeasible in later phases, it still means we’ve gathered valuable knowledge and we can redirect our efforts to another avenue.”
Both Leskelä and Saari say that there are several interesting possibilities on the horizon. “Lightweighting is, of course, an ongoing corporate project for us, and we have several technologies under investigation in that field, but in addition we keep a close eye on other innovative advancements, for instance in bio-based barriers,” Leskelä says. And so, the journey to new frontiers continues.
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