The dynamics of technology adoption

CHICAGO , May 31, 2013 () – At the recent National Restaurant Association exhibition at Chicago’s McCormick Place, I had the opportunity to cruise the aisles looking for trends and unique products and packages. I came away with several impressions under the broad theme of technology introduction/adoption.

The first relates to changes in offerings of non-traditional carryout and dine-in disposable containers. While current use continues to be high for historically dominant expanded polystyrene, solid polymer, aluminum and bleached virgin paperboard containers, alternatives continue to be tested and sold to restaurants and food-service operators.

Each exhibition seems to bring an increased range of offerings, including incorporation of biopolymers, higher recycled content in both plastic and paperboard containers, unbleached paperboard, and containers made from alternative fibers, particularly bamboo. The latter is an interesting case study, as bamboo-based containers have inherent water and grease resistance when pulp molded, yet pass compostability tests. Claimed to be the fastest growing woody plant in the world, bamboo also boasts a high tensile strength. Both unbleached and bleached versions of packages are available. At this point, China and Southeast Asia represent the principal sources for both the fiber and the containers.

A number of distributors and sellers of these packages have come and gone since bamboo packages began to be seen at packaging and end user trade shows, but offerings continue to expand. The supply chain is a bit long compared to containers made in North America, but if volumes build we could potentially see meaningful amounts of the fiber imported for local container fabrication.

It will be fascinating tracking bamboo fiber and its use in food service containers. At the moment it is a specialty, low volume option looking for adoption by larger users to drive it past the tipping point of demand and consumer expectation. All the challenges of scale up and developing a reasonable cost supply chain lie ahead.

Nosing around late in the afternoon, I found a small specialty food company, Villa de Patos, offering sweet sap from the maguey plant of the agave family. Harvested organically in Mexico it is concentrated by vacuum evaporation at room temperature and (here’s where the surprise came) then high pressure pasteurized in the PET bottle in which it is sold. This allows the product to be sold as a raw sweetener and preserves nutrient content. So here is a relatively small operation that has adopted a sophisticated technology to create a packaging, processing and delivery system for their unique product.

The lesson from tracking a material usage trend and digging a level deeper? Technology adoption can take many routes, and leaders can and will be found in seemingly unlikely places. Are there lots of dead ends and false leads? Sure, just as there is no guarantee that all technologies will be successful. BUT, dig away and you’ll find out a lot more than you might expect.

Timothy Bohrer is the owner of Pac Advantage Consulting:

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