Packaging for the post-Amazon world: Case Study Part II – PatternFox ProblemKit…continued

In this Part II of our case study, we continue to pursue the answer to the question,

What can nature teach us about designing transport packaging for a decentralized delivery system?

Part I of our case study focused on understanding the current system in which the problem exists and why the problem is a problem.  In case you missed it, you can read it here, but here are the highlights:

  • In 2017, 7% of consumer goods are delivered directly to our front door and this percentage is expected to grow
  • Returns for damaged packaging in e-commerce are on the order of 10,000 times higher than in the retail distribution chain
  • E-commerce boxes have, on average, 4 times the transfer points as boxes destined for retail stores
  • E-commerce boxes endure additional and stronger forces than boxes destined for retail stores

To finalize our PatternFox ProblemKit in this Part II, we abstract the problem in order to find biological function matches and we create a 4-box diagram to define an ideal solution.

PatternFox ProblemKit Step 3: What is the function, really? 

Now that we understand more about the issues with e-commerce packaging, we need to represent the problem in a way that allows us to access useful biological solutions. We do this by abstracting the problem into universal common functions that are found in nature and human technology.  For example, while nature doesn’t put stuff into boxes and ship them across the country on a truck, nature does know quite a bit about protective layering, resisting impact, and stabilizing shape.

How do we know what are the “right” functions that will get us the best results?  We build a Functional Decomposition, like the one shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Functional decomposition, e-commerce packaging

While messy at first glance, this tool has been used with great success on a number of biologically-inspired design projects by mapping the relationships between why we want a certain function and how we achieve that function.  Starting with the top and working our way down the diagram, we are asking ourselves (and our clients) how is this function accomplished?  If our main objective is to “Meet customer requirements,” how do we do it?  We do it by “preventing product loss”, “minimizing cost”, and helping them “represent their brand”.  Then each of those functions is decomposed into their own set of sub-functions explaining how they are accomplished.  We also can start from the bottom and move up the diagram, asking ourselves whyWhy do we want to “dampen vibrations?”  So that we can “cushion the product from impact.”

The “how”/”why” decomposition is represented by the solids lines in Figure 1.  Because these often involve many functions, we use the different colored lines to show different functional trees.  The red dotted lines symbolize known trade-offs in the current system which can involve function in either the same or different trees.  For example, “minimize materials usage” is usually at odds with “increasing component weight.”  These key contradictions give us clues about potential opportunities where biological solutions can break the traditional trade-offs in the current paradigm.

Note the process of decomposing the functions in this way is not meant to be MECE (mutually exclusive, completely exhaustive), nor is it meant to result in a perfect, canonical, functional representation of the problem.  There can be many functional decompositions for the same problem, none of which need to be “right”, but some of which are more useful than others.  The goal of the functional decomposition tool is to gain consensus on key issues and to provide a roadmap for systematically searching the realm of biology.

This tool is also useful in coordinating and managing resources, providing clients with a roadmap for directing additional search as we expand. We have worked with clients who were very interested in pursuing some functions, while they are able to rule out others. For example, clients may not want to investigate functions that other projects are actively researching or may determine other functions are outside the mandate of the current project scope.

Now that the problem has been functionally abstracted, we select the functions we will use to focus our search for biological solutions.  Functions which are involved in key trade-offs and are represented well in biology will often yield the best results.  In our case, functions such as resisting deformation and diffusing forces often compete with aspirations to keep the packaging weight low.  In addition, these are functions which we see often in biology.  Figure 2 highlights the functions we will use as starting points to guide our search for biological solutions.   We will incrementally, expand out from this core set of functions as needed.


Figure 2.  Selected functions for e-commerce BID

PatternFox ProblemKit Step 4: What’s does the ideal solution look like? 

Now that we know the problem better and have some ideas about the functions relating to nature, we’re ready to start searching, right?  Well, not quite!  How do we know if a biological solution is a good potential candidate or a bad one? We need a set of objective criteria against which to measure potential solutions. As part of our PatternFox ProblemKit, we define what the ideal solution looks like in terms of function and performance, as well as in terms of environmental, material, manufacturing, and structural constraints, using a 4-box diagram. Without knowing performance criteria and constraints, we would have no way of knowing whether a biological solution is applicable to our problem in terms of function, scale, material requirements, operating environment, etc.

The 4 boxes we use are Operational Environment, Functions, Specifications/Materials, and Performance Criteria.   As we embark on the search for “biological analogies” (biological systems or entities that perform the functions we want in the product) we use the 4-box as a reference to ensure that we are looking for biological models that:

  • Can perform the functions in the same environment and under the same conditions,
  • Are performing the “right” high-level functions,
  • Perform the function at a similar scale to an applicable degree,
  • Can be manufactured within the relevant material or cost limitations.

The 4-box is also an important reference in deciding those lines of biological research that are worth pursing (more about that in Part III).

What happens next?

With our PatternFox ProblemKit complete, our functional decomposition and 4-box in hand, we are (finally!) ready to search for biological analogies.  We will search broadly for animals we know can take a beating, squeezing or spearing – woodpecker, toucan, beetle.  We’ll search for biological systems that use mechanisms for making itself stiff, strong, or puncture resistant.  We’ll build a long-list of potential matches and evaluate them against the ProblemKit.  Then, we’ll spell out the entire process in our next blog, Case Study Part III – PatternFox MatchKit.

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