Department of Mechanical Engineering

Improving packaging machine design and manufacture for a reduced carbon footprint

packaging industry


The packaging industry is a large and significant contributor to the manufacturing sector in the UK. The grocery sector alone represents about 70 per cent of the UK packaging market, with 10 million tonnes of packaging used each year.

Packaging is vital for sales and for product protection for all process industries, with board and film being the most commonly used materials worldwide.

“ We are delighted to have been involved with these projects and the provision of machinery, equipment, manufacturing capabilities and engineering time as part of our industrial contribution has been a very good investment. ”

— Technology Director,

Packaging materials are variable, presenting major challenges to packaging machine design. In addition, environmental legislation over the past decade has introduced standard requirements for thinner, lighter weight materials. It is crucial to meet these challenges as the world market machinery is around €20 billion, of which 2 per cent is associated with the UK.


Our researchers in the Department of Mechanical Engineering's Innovative Design and Manufacturing Research Centre (IdMRC) collaborated extensively with small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), end users and research associations involved with packaging, processing and pharmaceutical equipment. Together, they worked on the modelling and improvement of the interaction between machines and the material and products that are processed.

REF submission

This research was part of our REF 2014 submission for Aeronautical, Mechanical, Chemical and Manufacturing Engineering.

Carton board, one of the most common materials used in packaging, has distinct non-linear material properties and behaviour that may vary significantly with ambient temperature, humidity and moisture content; it is also liable to delaminate when folded. Our researchers recognised that a fundamental understanding of this process and its effects was central to the design and set-up of the manufacturing equipment.

An understanding of the non-linear mechanical properties enabled our researchers to be the first able to undertake realistic simulation of machine operation, including the prediction of failure.

This was a major contribution that enabled operating conditions for existing machines to be established for the avoidance of failure; this in turn informed the development of improved design procedures. The research carried out has overcome major barriers and led to the use of thinner, lightweight packaging materials.


Benefits and outcomes

Our research has found solutions for challenges posed by the packaging industry in several inter-related areas.

  • Improved performance of an existing business

    Our findings have enabled the creation of new tooling, allowing lighter packaging material and reduced customer carbon footprint.
  • Improvement and changes in existing practices

    Guidelines adopted and the provision of training has allowed AstraZeneca to report a 16 per cent improvement in overall equipment effectiveness, with a saving of £1.1 million annually.
  • New business activity

    New test equipment, commercially available since 2008, and associated technical services have provided Smithers Pira and Hanatek with £200,000 of specialised test equipment sales.

Findings from our research has also been used to create a guide to help industrial professionals in the packaging sector to assess and improve their packaging operations.

Research began in 2001 and is still on-going, with findings being embedded within the collaborating companies and by on-going use of the results by research associations.