Today’s world is driven by logistics and two-day package deliveries. The COVID-19 pandemic has made e-commerce more important than ever as people get life’s essentials delivered to their doorstep.
However, despite massive increases in both usage and demand, the logistics field hasn’t adapted to the times. Carriers are struggling to keep up and the environment pays the price as millions of tons of single-use shipping materials end up in the landfill.
One startup, LivingPackets, wants to upend the logistics industry for the better. It is developing a smart box that’s packed with sensors and tech that can be reused hundreds of times. Better yet, it is made with eco-friendly materials.
So, what exactly goes into a smart box? If you ask LivingPackets, the answer is a lot of tech.
The startup’s primary product is called The Box. Despite its vanilla name, it is anything but a typical shipping box. An early prototype was shown off at CES earlier this year to garner interest in the product.
Since then, LivingPackets has produced V2 of The Box. Not only has it been improved in many ways, it is also ready to be deployed at a scale of hundreds of thousands.
Believe it or not, The Box is made from 98 percent air and two percent recycled materials. In more technical terms, it’s expanded polypropylene. It is more durable and rigid than a cardboard box, which makes it perfect for reusability. When one Box is at the end of its lifespan, its components can be harvested and recycled to make a new one.
One of its more interesting features is an E-ink display. This allows The Box to repeatedly change its shipping label on demand. For instance, if a customer wants to return their product, the label can be updated at the push of a button. It’s far less hassle than printing off a new shipping label.
Another interesting feature is The Box’s automatic holding system. LivingPackets claims that its modular design allows The Box to handle 80 percent of e-commerce orders. On the inside, a unique assembly holds its contents securely in place so they don’t get tossed around during shipping. The feature keeps items safe while also eliminating the need for Earth-killing materials like bubble wrap and packing peanuts.
One of the key features that LivingPackets touts with The Box is its security features. More and more often, consumers are ordering expensive items online. When that happens, there is no guarantee a package will arrive in one piece—if it arrives at all.
LivingPackets co-founder Sebastian Rumberg says “you’re in full control of everything involved” when using The Box. He adds, “You know where the parcel is, what’s happening to it. You can look inside. You can say, I’m not at the location for delivery right now, I’m at my office, and just update the address.”
Rumberg finishes, “You don’t need filling material, you don’t need a paper label. You can tell when the seal is broken, when the item is removed.”
That sort of transparency is great for a logistics industry that clearly needs some change. Once it is filled with an order, The Box is securely locked. Only the intended recipient will be able to open it with a code once it reaches their home. Any other attempts to open The Box are detected and recorded.
For consumers, these security features grant peace of mind. People are more likely to order expensive items online if they know they will arrive safely. For companies, the added security is even more valuable. It allows them to track and mitigate losses early on by answering questions like where a package was stolen from, who’s responsible, and where it ended up.
As for the security of The Box’s contents, there are plenty of sensors to handle the job. It senses humidity, shock, and temperature changes to ensure items are ideally stored while they are in transit.
Creating a Circular Logistics Economy
Many wonder how it’s possible to convince companies to switch from extremely cheap cardboard boxes to something as techy—and expensive—as The Box. The answer, like many things in today’s world, is a service model.
LivingPackets doesn’t actually sell The Box. Instead, it charges customers per use via a “packaging as a service” model. This helps make it easier for companies to adopt the smart boxes without massive upfront costs.
Seeing as there are a lot of advantages to using The Box, it might just catch on—especially if LivingPackets can get the price to a point that’s comparable to using cardboard.
It also has a clever plan to ensure The Box stays in circulation and gets reused. The startup will operate partnerships that allow consumers to use The Box they receive as a pre-paid container for certain purposes. For instance, they can load it up with old electronics they want to donate. Then, LivingPackets changes the shipping label and sends it to the correct destination.
Of course, consumers also have the option of shipping The Box themselves. If they sell something on eBay or Etsy, they can purchase a shipping label online, update The Box’s display, and send the package on its way.
To help alleviate health concerns related to reusing boxes over and over, LivingPackets is adding antibiotic coatings to The Box. It is also working on protections to avoid spreading COVID-19.
Overall, the idea of creating a circular logistics economy is a good one. It would help reduce the amount of shipping waste and provides a handy service to customers. The key will be getting it to catch on at a meaningful scale.
What Comes Next?
LivingPackets, despite its novel strategy, is facing an uphill battle. The startup is attempting to disrupt a market that has been more or less operating the same way for a century.
Currently, it relies on crowdfunding and employees taking less-than-competitive wages to get its idea off the ground.
Co-founder Alexander Cotte explains, “Obviously all the people working for us believe deeply in what we’re doing. They’re willing to take a step back now to create value together and not just take value out of an existing system.”
Despite the challenges, LivingPackets could make an impact with The Box. If it is able to secure a few partnerships with key distribution channels, the idea could catch on quickly. If not, the idea of smart boxes might fizzle out before it gets started.