“Where has the year gone?”

You’re probably fed up hearing those words already, just as you will be of listening to Mariah Carey on repeat, Christmas advertisements that aren’t as great as they used to be, the same old films being played on a loop, and the endless pile of chocolate that builds up.

Like that dreaded phrase, they all crop up at the same time each year without fail.

The end of 2021 is upon us, though. In business terms, there’s no better time to reflect on the challenges that have been overcome and the success that has been achieved. It’s also the prime opportunity to begin thinking about what’s next.

So, yes, while we are saying “where has the year gone,” we’re also asking ourselves ‘‘what does 2022 have in store?”

As a brief overview, the difficulty with 2022 is that we’re still in uncharted waters. 

There’s no seasonality like there used to be. The industry cannot forecast as it used to, either. The trends and historical data about when peaks in sales will happen is off. When you couple that with the ever-changing demand, you’re left scratching your head as to what, actually, is next. 

I’m going to give it a damn good go, though. These are my five predictions for what is next for the packaging industry.

1) There will still be caution in investment

People, from a societal point of view, are still unsure of what’s in store for them, certainly for the foreseeable. This, mainly, is because we still have the emergency COVID-19 legislation in place until the end of March 2022. 

We’re still operating under a Sword of Damocles where the knife could drop at any point while we’re at the dinner party. At any point, the government can turn around and say “we’re shut,” should the issue with the COVID-19 virus get out of hand. 

Personally, I believe it’s a very slim chance that will happen. However, there will be certain businesses — those that were badly burned by the initial impact of the pandemic — that will be continuing to look over their shoulder during the interim.

That’s bound to change the way business owners think and act. I expect those in that boat will be less proactive about their future plans and will be far more cautious, particularly when it comes to investing money. 

2) The big players in the UK will back more control

We have been through this before, albeit under different circumstances with the dairy industry in the 1990s. 

I remember when the dairy industry had moved to the plastic bottle with the three-panel label as a standard. Production volumes reached such heights that it was realized that in the empty bottle supply chain they were shipping empty bottles or thin air around the UK. Dairy farmers worked with bottle blowing companies to install bottle blowing plants within their own bottling lines. This move minimized costs, cut down lead times and ultimately meant those businesses held far more control in their own hands.

That trend is firing up again. Many of the conversations we’re having with our customers are around how they take more control of their end-to-end production.

Even if they’re not looking at that, they’re trying to identify how they can source their supplies from the UK, rather than from overseas, to try and reduce the lead times and astronomical shipping costs that have been endured by multiple industries, not just ours, over the last 12 months.

Sticking specifically with shipping, it is starting to make more sense to look at UK suppliers. Freight costs now outweigh the initial cost-benefit. As a result, businesses are investing their money in acquiring more sites and space. Businesses are keen to look closer to home in order to reduce their costs and take back more control. 

3) Tech developments and the revolution of the customer and engineer experience

I had a conversation with a customer recently, and one topic that came up was 3D printing.

That’s very creative and innovative. Realistically, though, that’s not going to happen — purely because of how slow the process is at this point in time. 

However, what it does show is that businesses in our industry are starting to think outside the box with how to tackle internal modern-day problems.

One of the biggest challenges we face, as an agent, is how we offer customer support beyond the sale of a machine, mainly because that has been a very physical experience and beyond the implementation of a machine, our engineers are only involved again if they’re called out for a maintenance issue.

However, products like SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition), which sounds more like something out of a Terminator movie, are going to give businesses of all shapes and sizes the capabilities to garner more information and deliver remote assistance like never before.

I’m not saying this is brand-spanking new to the sector. However, it has now started to filter down the chain from the big players to the point that all manufacturing companies will be able to get their hands on it.

SCADA will mean things can happen far quicker than they have before. It will allow us to deal with up to 60% of the issues that are raised with us almost instantly through live, real-time information. If a customer has a problem with a machine, we can access information about their machine and diagnose it without being reliant on what they’re telling us. 

It’ll take our business, within the next five years, from one that has engineers arriving on a customer’s site a day after a call to fix a problem with tools, to having three engineers being able to fix and diagnose problems remotely. It will open it up so much. It sounds normal, given the way we all generally work since the pandemic, but for our industry, this is significant. 

4) Apprenticeship importance will grow as we push to address the industry talent shortages

Bear with me for a moment. 

My dad left school with no qualifications but is a fantastic engineer. He can strip an engine down and put it back together in 30 minutes flat. His mathematical skills are fantastic and after turning to engineering, he’s made an excellent career for himself. 

This isn’t an old topic of debate but its importance only continues to heighten within our industry, because there is a shortage of quality engineers.

For years, attending college has been the route of choice. There are a lot of different degrees — some useful, some not (that’s a topic for another day) — but we are starting to see more get done within education to highlight career opportunities and possibilities in the trade, construction and manufacturing industries. 

Thanks to education bodies, like STEM, there’s a lot more education in schools about getting more hands-on with engineering and with tools and drills — something that had been neglected for a long time to the point that most people coming through education leave without knowing how to use power tools and do basic DIY. 

It’s a necessary extension to the core part of education, like math and English and science. STEM is teaching students life skills as well as preparing them early on for potential careers in a trade environment. 

Given the issues that have been faced during 2021, I suspect that schemes and initiatives like this will only grow in importance during 2022.

5) We will need to get to grips with the UKCA Marking

This is an issue that is not well publicized but is one that will need to be addressed over the course of the next 12 months.

For context, we’re moving from the CE Marking, which is a European legislation that we were part of until, you guessed it, Brexit happened.

What that means is that UKCA, which for clarity is almost identical to the CE Marking but for a few minor differences that don’t really matter to the majority of components and machinery, will become law in this country in January 2023. 

All machines in this country will need to show that UK Marking and be compliant with it. However, businesses in this country have been able to show that since January 2021. 

Alongside Germany, the UK’s history is one of leadership in the area of safety and security with machinery. We have a real opportunity to own and fly the flag for this, become the conversation leaders in best practices when it comes to safety.

It’s an exciting proposition but there is a lot to be ironed out during 2022. Watch this space.