- March 01, 2003, Teresa Koltzenburg, Senior Editor
With tight margins, a parade of manufacturing factors, and constant concern about product contamination, one wonders why converters "do" flex-pack. But the flex-pack professionals say the reward is in the process.
It's a tough business. That's what Israel-based converter CLP Industries' Dr. Rani Stern told PFFC about being a flex-pack converter during a recent phone conversation. “You have to be good to survive,” states Stern. “On the one hand, you have to increase investment in research and development to [develop] new things, to be innovative, open the door to new customers. On the other, you're under a lot of pressure for [price reduction. Plus,] you have to replace and upgrade your machinery, your systems for hygiene, equipment for the environment, etc., constantly. It costs a lot of money…to comply with all the regulations.”
So why do it? Answers Stern: “There is profit, of course. But still, there's very, very tough competition.”
Adding to the governmental-compliance and production issues, capital expenses, and new-product-innovation-for-gaining-greater-market-share strategies that flexible packaging converters face daily, there are the materials. Of course, there's also the printing…and a package's seal integrity, its shelf life; and consumer-convenience or die-cut features. The list goes on and on.
So many variables with which to contend could be seen, by some, as headaches in the making. But survival-oriented converters see them as opportunity.
“A lot of times our customers will bring a package to us and say: ‘Here's a package we have now,” explains Melanie Miller, VP of investor relations and assistant treasurer at converting giant Bemis Co. “‘We want it to do this: We want it to be a stand-up pouch. We want it to have a reclosable zipper. But there are some issues — it can't have exposure to oxygen.’ Things like that,” adds Miller.
One of the largest flexible package converters in the world today, Bemis obviously is survival-oriented; Miller says the company was founded in 1858 by Jedson Bemis and always has been in the flexible packaging business. “[He] produced the first machine-sewn cotton bags — flexible packages — in the United States for flour, seed, and grain. They would be used to ship up and down the Mississippi River.”
An interesting tidbit Miller told PFFC about the company's history: Years ago, many of machine-sewn cotton bags were sold to farmers, whose wives, in turn, turned them into clothes for the family. In response to this, Bemis began to manufacture bags printed with washable ink (that would disappear after washing). The company went further and started providing “packaging” in different patterns, so users could sew the cotton into “fashionable” clothing articles.
Today, the company makes flexible packages for “the largest food and consumer products companies in the world,” reports Miller.
Consumer Basics 101
Successful flex-pack converters, whether founded in 1858 or 1998, know the name of the survival game is to serve your customers, usually the brand owners. This, in turn, serves their customers — the everyday consumer using case-ready meat, buying tuna and pet food in retort pouches, and investing in that reclosable zipper-packaged cheese for longer product life.
Consumer convenience is considered to be a major driver in flexible packaging development, says Jeff Wooster, value chain manager at Dow Chemical Co. “The switch to fresh-cut salads, for example, is an example of consumer convenience, but it's also a food-safety issue,” which, according to Wooster, is another major driver in the flexible packaging market.
“Some of the [variables] important for maintaining food quality and safety include things like a package's seal integrity…and its barrier properties.”
An individual package's material composition is among the most significant factors in flex-pack today. “The ability to combine multiple materials into a single film can give you a performance range that just wasn't possible before,” says Wooster. “It used to be…three-layer films were pretty standard. And then five-layer films became standard. Now, a lot of manufacturers are making seven-layer films, with some even [adding] more layers than that.”
Material suppliers like Dow and Kraton Polymers are under the gun to develop resins and films that deliver not only in terms of quality, but products that also are cost-effective, furnish convenience, and ensure food and consumer safety.
Kraton's Ted Faleski, director of development, packaging, says health concerns that involve materials, such as PVC leaching (see February 2003's Material Science column, “Concern over ‘Phthalates’ in Food Packaging,” p22, or at pffc-online.com), are among the myriad variables material manufacturers — and material users — have to contemplate. “With tough packaging design and performance requirements, increased sector competition, and growing health and environmental concerns, manufacturers are looking at developing [products] to meet all these demands,” sums up Faleski.
Frequently these days, packaging meets “these demands” not only through its composition, but also through design. Within the flex-pack market, there seems to be the never-ending quest for the “ultimate” package structure.
Pouches, from the stand-up type to bags outfitted with reclosable zippers to the FPA-award-winning new “stick pack” structure (designed by Curwood, a subs. of Bemis; see p46 and picture above), are — as a flexographic press manufacturer marketing rep put it at a recent open house PFFC attended — “hot, hot, hot.”
Israeli converter CLP industries is well aware of the “hot” opportunities for the pouch, especially the retort pouch (see p54 for more about CLP's array of flex-pack production on Kibbutz Negba).
“Retortable flexible pouches offer unprecedented opportunities for food processors,” states a recent release from CLP and retort chamber company Stock America. “Innovations such as stand-up gussets, laser scoring, reclosable zippers, and even see-through windows [add] to the shelf appeal and consumer-friendliness of the packages,” reports the article, which covers the companies' joint presentation on retort pouches at Pack Expo last November.
“Carefully engineered gussets have paved the way for a generation of stand-up retort pouches,” noted Stern at the presentation. “Among the greatest challenges for gusset seals — in fact for any seals on retortable pouches — is the tremendous pressure exerted by expanding gases inside the pouch during the cooking process. Packages entering the retort chamber must be able to withstand temperatures as high as 121 deg C (250 deg F) and pressure of 1.5 kg/cm (21.3 psi) for periods that can exceed an hour.”'
Although, according to Stern, laminates have been available for many years to endure these conditions, flex-pack industry R&D has yielded new adhesives and inks that “dramatically expand marketers' options.”
Information Age Aptitude
Printing and graphics open up yet another realm when it comes to flex-pack — an area too big to be covered within the space of this article. For information about flex-pack printing, contact Flexographic Technical Assn. (FTA), Gravure Assn. of America (GAA), and the International Prepress Assn (IPA). Or visit pffc-online.com, which features a vast amount of past and present content — technical information in the Material Science column and in technical reports; converter testimonials via case histories; and trend information in Product Focus — on flex-pack printing.
Information is power, and via the Internet, it's easy to arm yourselves with the power to compete in today's tough flexible packaging biz. On the Web, there's a burgeoning amount of data available about the flex-pack industry. A Google search-engine query of the term “flexible packaging” yields a plethora of resources: trend pieces, converter's and manufacturer's Web sites (with product information), trade journal articles, and more.
Other sources of flex-pack information include research groups such as AWA Alexander Watson Assoc. and The Freedonia Group; trade associations like Flexible Packaging Assn., the PLACE (polymers, laminations, adhesives, coatings, and extrusions) div. of TAPPI, AIMCAL (Assn. for Industrial Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators), and even peripheral flex-pack industry groups, such as the International Fresh-Cut Produce Assn.
With all this at your fingertips, and of course, the exciting technology and development that goes into flexible packaging — which purports and delivers on the goal of making life easier and better — I suspect many flex-pack converters may answer this article's title question with, “Why do anything else?”
CLP Packaging Solutions (US-based sub. of CLP Industries), Fairfield, NJ; 877/888-1888; clp.co.il
Bemis Co. Inc., Minneapolis, MN; 612/376-3000; bemis.com
The Dow Chemical Co., Midland, MI; 800/441-4369; dow.com
Kraton Polymers US LLC, Houston, TX; 800/4-KRATON; kraton.com
Stock America Inc., Grafton, WI; 262/375-4100; stockamerica.com
Flexographic Technical Assn., Ronkonkoma, NY; 631/737-6020; flexography.org
Gravure Assn. of America, Rochester, NY; 716/436-2150; gaa.org
International Prepress Assn. (IPA), Edina, MN; 952/896-1908; ipa.org
AWA Alexander Watson Assoc., Amsterdam, The Netherlands; +31 20 676 2069; awa-bv.com
The Freedonia Group, Cleveland, OH; 440/684-9600; freedoniagroup.com
Flexible Packaging Assn., Linthicum, MD; 410/694-0800; flexpack.org
TAPPI, Atlanta, GA; 770/446-1400; tappi.org
AIMCAL, Fort Mill, SC; 803/802-7820; aimcal.org
International Fresh-Cut Produce Assn., Alexandria, VA; 703/299-6282; fresh-cuts.org