Bubble Wrap’s New Design Is Unpoppable, And It’s All Our Fault

Bubble Wrap’s New Design Is Unpoppable, And It’s All Our Fault

Our ruthless new era of super-efficient global shipping has made it irrelevant. The new product is called — hold your boos until the end, please — iBubble Wrap. It’s a version of an unpoppable wrap that’s been around for a few years, but as an interesting story by the Wall Street Journal’s Loretta Chao explains today, now it’s being introduced by Sealed Air Corp: The original makers of bubble wrap.

The new wrap doesn’t pop thanks to its redesigned shape, which orients the bubbles along a chain rather than staggering them in individual pouches. Oh, and the new stuff doesn’t arrive pre-inflated. Whoever buys a roll will receive it as a flat piece of plastic, which they then must inflate using a pump, which costs as much as $US5500. Here’s the WSJ’s look at the new stuff:

Obviously, people are pissed about losing the precious, if fleeting, catharsis that comes along with unwrapping a package. But beyond that, why would Sealed Air introduce a new product that requires an expensive new tool to even use effectively? There’s a very good reason. Sealed Air’s profits and market share have been falling steadily for years. And, if it wants to reinvent itself, it needs to redesign a key element of its flagship product, as Chao explains:

Sealed Air also has been unable to take advantage of the rise in e-commerce in far-flung markets, losing business to local imitators. The company rarely sends Bubble Wrap to customers more than 150 miles from its factories because its bulky size makes it prohibitively expensive to ship long distances.

I mean, just look at the size of these rolls at Sealed Air’s headquarters in New Jersey:

Bubble Wrap’s New Design Is Unpoppable, And It’s All Our Fault

AP Photo/Christopher Barth.

If bubble wrap is so inefficient, how did it get so popular? And when? In truth, it took a long time for its inventors figure out how it wanted to use it, though the stuff was invented in the late 1950s as a wallpaper. But it was the birth of the computer age that made bubble wrap popular. As Forbes explained in a profile in 2006, IBM needed a packaging product that could protect its computers in the 1960s:

Company legend holds that a few years after Sealed Air was founded in 1960, an innovative marketer named Frederick W. Bowers finally found the true value in the cellular bubbles. IBM had just launched the 1401, one of the world’s first mass-produced business computers. Bowers showed IBM how Bubble Wrap could protect the 1401′s fragile innards in transit. “Serendipitously, Bubble Wrap and vacuum tubes met,” says Hickey.

Bubble wrap boomed alongside personal electronics — it was one of the only viable ways to ship fragile electronics. But its size has always been a problem. The huge, rolled wraps of plastic take up massive amounts of precious storage space in warehouses and trucks. And as the super-efficient global shipping economy has evolved over the past two decades, it became a liability.

Bubble Wrap’s New Design Is Unpoppable, And It’s All Our Fault

AP Photo/Christopher Barth.

You’ve probably heard of just-in-time manufacturing, an idea that Toyota pioneered in the 1970s but which has migrated across the globe and leaked into other aspects of the economy, like shipping, since then. The basic concept goes that a company can cut back on storage by closely monitoring and analysing demand for its products across a network. It’s becoming easier for companies like Amazon to plan their warehouse and distribution spaces down to the inch, which is important as demand for space is soaring. The size of bubble wrap just doesn’t fit with today’s smarter, more efficient supply chains. And iBubble? Well, it fixes that problem by showing up at warehouses in paper-thin sheet.

So bubble wrap is a big, plastic dinosaur. It’s a remnant of a different era — when computers were giant, warehouse space wasn’t as expensive, and profit margins weren’t as dependent on shipping. Really, we only have ourselves to blame: Our insatiable demand for next-day shipping and instant-everything have built a booming business whose foundation is dependent on sliver-thin supply chain efficiencies.

Either way, when you unwrap the memory card or whatever you ordered yesterday, take a moment to really savour the popping.

OK. You can boo now.

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