Bubble Wrap popping might be one of life’s most universal pleasures. There is something just so good about it—the sound, the feel, the stress-relieving satisfaction of it.
For the past 45 years, Bubble Wrap has been providing that simple pleasure—while also protecting packages and deliveries, of course—to countless men, women, and children across the U.S. and Western Europe. It has become such a staple that the experience has even gone digital with virtual Bubble Wrap popping websites and apps that are just as addictive as the real thing.
In that light, the public outcry that erupted when the original Bubble Wrap inventor, Sealed Air, announced that it was revamping its design into an inflatable, unpoppable product, is quite understandable. I felt it myself, and so did the makers of the stuff.
“I was the coolest dad in the whole neighborhood when my daughter got to go see Bubble Wrap being made for Science Day,” recalls John Wolf, vice president of General Packaging at Sealed Air. “I was the least cool guy when the article [about the new Bubble Wrap] came out and people were afraid it was going away.”
“We all love the pop,” adds Kim Gillis, global director for the division responsible for the new wrap. “Even the guys internally, they kidded me that I was going to cause stress across the world.”
While we can all certainly relate to this reaction, the truth behind the Bubble Wrap redesign is far less crushing than headlines make it seem. In fact, the product may be just the thing a new generation of manufacturers and retailers all over the world have been waiting for.
Bubble Wrap IB
The new design will be launching under then name Bubble Wrap IB later this year.
The wrap, which will be delivered in massive rolls of flat plastic, is crisscrossed with tiny channels and empty pockets in every sheet. Users simply connect the roll to an onsite inflation system that can fill however much protection is needed at a rate of about 55 feet per minute.
In the new design, because all of the bubbles are connected through the inflation channels, any impact that would pop normal Bubble Wrap actually increases the pressure (and protection) in the surrounding bubbles. This, while taking the fun away maybe, also makes the product more effective than its predecessor.
“If you lose the pop, that means that you’re not opening your product to being damaged,” Gillis says. “We love it as a recreational thing, but we all want to make sure that our product arrives safely.”
The technology behind this isn’t new for the company. According to Gillis, IB is a combination of Bubble Wrap’s long legacy in the wrap and pack market with Sealed Air’s inflatable New Air IB product line that has already been on the market for about a decade.
“What we’re doing here is merging the two,” she explains. “This is really giving us a way to go after the wrap and pack market with an on-demand platform that can help us serve underserved markets.”
With the apparent ubiquity of Bubble Wrap and its knock offs in our lives already, the notion of an "underserved market" might sound a little odd. But outside a narrow radius from Bubble Wrap factories, the air cushions can be rather hard to come by.
“Once you get past 150 to 200 miles from a [traditional Bubble Wrap] production facility, the cost to serve just from shipping bulky materials can be prohibitive,” Gillis explains.
That means much of the world—even much of the U.S.—is still out of reach for cost-effective bulk Bubble Wrap delivery.
“Today, our share is 17% of the world supply of bubble material,” Gillis says. “Once you get outside of Western Europe and North America, our share is only about 5%, because we don’t have the manufacturing facilities to cover all of those regions.”
Bubble Wrap IB, however, changes that dynamic.
A single roll of 40-in. wide IB equals about three rolls of the traditional bubble and consumes just under 1/50 the space. That means, the equivalent of 47 truckloads worth of the old, poppable Bubble Wrap can be loaded onto a single truck of IB. This means the cost restrictions outside that 200 mile radius no longer apply.
This, of course, means very big things for Sealed Air’s market share.
“Bubble Wrap IB gives us an opportunity to really grow outside of Western markets where we don’t have as much of a network of manufacturing facilities,” Gillis explains. “Now, with just a few locations globally, we can actually serve the world.”
Beyond that, though, the supply chain ramifications of this innovation are enormous. It means more deliveries and fewer trucks; it means more shipping capabilities using less floor space; it means the most advanced on-demand packaging solutions will be available to the most remote, out of reach places.
It also signals a big shift in the delivery market.
| "We're not messing with Bubble Wrap... We're actually leveraging Bubble Wrap for all it can be."
-John Wolf, Sealed Air
A New Bubble for a New Market
A recent report by the Freedonia group estimates that the protective packaging demand in the U.S. alone is expected to increase 4.5% by 2018. The report cites a number of reasons for this growth, including the steadily recovering and reshoring of U.S. manufacturing market and, notably, the explosion of e-commerce and retail deliveries.
To Wolf at Sealed Air, however, all of that is part of a changing manufacturing environment.
"Manufacturing is being decentralized," he explains. "People are talking about micro-manufacturing. Whether it's 3D printing or all of these e-commerce businesses, it's disaggregating the manufacturing center. So all of our investments are basically meant to bring that same loving assurance you've had with Bubble Wrap for 50 years to, say, Tulsa, Oklahoma."
Sealed Air, he says, is watching this trend play out very carefully and is investing strongly in new products and new solutions like Bubble Wrap IB that are custom designed to take on the new challenges it presents.
"The way that you receive goods today is so different than it was just four years ago," he says. "We have to stay in the front end of the industry as it is transforming."
These transformations, however, are still in early stages. As recent as last year, he notes, e-commerce only accounted for about 15% of the total deliveries. That means there is still an enormous amount of retail going on that has yet to discover what is needed for a successful delivery service.
"We feel like our strategies are aiming the organization to be able to move quickly and provide those companies solutions," he says. "If we were simply about providing people bubble material, we'd be left in the dust. It's so much more than that."
It's also, he notes, much more than just Tulsa. The easy shipping capabilities of IB suddenly open the door for a whole new world of opportunities.
Sealed Air Takes the World
According to Wolf, the company is moving aggressively into international space, trying to bolster that 5% market share they are currently holding. Creating a highly portable, efficiently shippable product like Bubble Wrap IB might be the ticket both for the Sealed Air and the companies abroad trying to get packages safely delivered here.
"Imagine trying to get Bubble Wrap from Singapore to China," he says. "It's just not going to happen. But I can ship uninflated materials all over the world very efficiently. It can start to make more global locations feel local from a producer standpoint."
Specifically, Gillis adds, the company is looking for growth in Asia and Latin America in general.
"Some of the places that we're really starting talking to, like Brazil, we've heard that there are limited bubble suppliers and they can travel for days to get to them, so you can just imagine the freight," she says. "This is an opportunity to really bring advantages to our customers that they hadn't had before."
The Pop is Here to Stay
All of this change and bubble disruption might mean great things to decentralized manufacturers and companies on the move, but for those of you who still rely on the tried and true Bubble Wrap, have no fear.
"Bubble Wrap is not going anywhere," Wolf says. "We love our Bubble Wrap."
That's right, Bubble Wrap IB is a new product in the Sealed Air line up, but it's not replacing the poppable design we all love.
To Wolf, Bubble Wrap is a core product, one that is central both his business and to the protective packaging market as a whole.
"Every story I can tell you about the new innovative model, there's a business starting up right now that for the first time is calling somebody and buying their first roll of Bubble Wrap. Right now, I promise you," he says. "For every exciting jet.com you hear about or even Amazon, one of those types of businesses is starting up where someone went and bought a roll of good, tried and true Bubble Wrap because they trust it and they know it works."
"We're not messing with Bubble Wrap," he adds. "No, We're actually leveraging Bubble Wrap for all it can be."