Experts Scan the Future for Technologies with Impact

In 1455 Johann Gutenberg printed the Bible with movable metal type and, in doing so, changed the world. His invention was ranked by The History Channel as the leading "Milestone of the Millennium." Life magazine agreed, ranking it as the leading event of the past 1,000 years. And, in a London Times survey, Gutenberg was chosen as the most significant figure of the past 1,000 years in a survey of world leaders, artists, and scientists.

To find out what new technology will likely impact the converting world, Paper, Film & Foil CONVERTER talked to our experts: contributing editors David J. Bentley Jr., William E. Hawkins, and Richard M. Podhajny; and technical advisor Grover Foote. Is there a Gutenberg-style revolutionary invention awaiting converters in the next decade?

Materials
In the past, much new development work in the adhesives and coatings field was reactionary, says David J. Bentley Jr. Major advances came from pressures such as controls on volatile emissions by government agencies. A big challenge in the flexible packaging area today is to meet Food and Drug Administration regulations using novel chemistry, says Bentley. "The next great advance will be someone complying with the regulations but doing so in a very unusual way. That will mean taking chemistry not covered in those regulations and determining how to meet the regulations."

He explains, "I'm thinking of something along the lines of taking a very basic, inexpensive plastic film and putting this new adhesive or coating on it, perhaps running it under a gun that mists it, and zapping it with a curing source. Because of the advanced chemistry, the result would be something providing better barrier, better strength properties, and better chemical resistance than the laminations we use today. It could even form its own printing to bring out the graphics. In other words, a quantum leap forward."

It may be 10-20 years before this technology is developed and used on a widespread basis, and Bentley speculates that it probably isn't going to be designed specifically for flexible packaging. "People are going to start taking the fruits of other technologies and computer advances and bring them into this old, staid flexible packaging area," he says. "Somebody is going to figure out how to do this, and then someone involved in adhesives and coatings for the converting industry will see this new thing that's really intended for automobile seat covers, for example. He will say, 'I'll bet I could take that, turn it upside down, hit it with an electron beam, and obtain an adhesive or coating for use in converting that will conquer the world.' That is how I see it happening."

Web Handling
Technology that will impact web handling will be in the area of automation advances, says William E. Hawkins. "Machines will be smarter. They will diagnose the problems and execute the corrections so that the web is maintained in the order it should be. In addition, the machines will be more flexible. They have to be flexible to meet the needs of the marketplace, which change all the time."

In the area of winding, Hawkins says finished rolls have to maintain their quality for longer lag times, because they're held in warehouses or shipped overseas. "There are ways to make the product stand up. Some people can't believe that rolls could be good two years later, but there is technology available to do that."

He adds that advances will be made to allow converters to wind larger diameters and wider rolls at higher speeds with less waste.

Hawkins says the industry also will see more automation in finished roll handling. "Automatic packaging, labeling, weighing, coding, the whole bit. It's established, but there needs to be more of it."

In terms of better shipping containers, he says, "There are a lot of people working on that, too. A lot of product is not being sent overseas because the containers fail."

A need to keep older equipment performing will create opportunities for specialized companies with the technical expertise to design, build, install, and oversee upgrades for converting equipment. "There is an awful lot of product being produced right now with older equipment," Hawkins says. "New equipment is very expensive, and it's hard for a small converter to justify spending that amount of money. I think there's a big opportunity for companies to specialize in equipment upgrades."

According to Hawkins, education will be the key to future advances in web handling. "In order for converters to really take advantage of new technologies that are available from equipment manufacturers, basic education in web handling is going to have to improve. The physics of web handling could very well be brought down to the vocational school level. Converters need to promote that, because it will be their lifeblood as time goes along. Right now there are a lot of myths in the science of web handling."

Printing
In the printing arena, converters and printing suppliers are "looking over their shoulders" at digital printing, says Dr. Richard Podhajny. "Now, digital printing means different things to different people. There's ink jet technology -- that you see every day in your copy machines. Everybody is looking at ink jet technology to catch up to package printing. Though in the next few years it will continue to make a dent on some applications, it is not a significant threat in the next five years."

He continues: "Magnetography is another form of digital technology that might be more interesting, but, again, it's in an infant stage. I don't see it developing too rapidly in the next five years, even though it does have the advantage of higher speeds. Basically, it works [by putting] magnetic particles in image fashion onto a printing medium at high speeds. It is being used for some applications now, and it shows promise as a significant printing process, but, again, like ink jet printing, its impact on the packaging sector probably is going to be minimal."

Dr. Podhajny notes there is a third digital printing technology that may not necessarily see any widespread utilization in the next three to five years, but it also has promise. "It's called eletrophotographic printing; these are electric photographic digital printers, what I would call 'electrostatic' types; they depend on a charge movement of an image. In this type of printing, you're actually charging the particle, or the colorant, and then you're moving it to the image and transferring it that way."

According to Dr. Podhajny, it will probably take more than a decade for these technologies to develop to a point where they are going to impact the packaging sector significantly.

But something that will continue to make an impact in the printing world in the next few years and beyond are the advances in flexo printing, Podhajny says. "I think flexography is going to continue to evolve, especially in light of the fact that ultraviolet curing in narrow web continues to grow extremely rapidly."

He also reports the flexography process will help introduce digital printing into packaging applications. "I think what will happen first is one [color] deck will turn into a digital deck, for real-time information purposes. For example, a digital system on a deck would allow you to put in information at the last minute, such as 'Today's sale is....' It's that kind of an add-on. At least, initially, that's how it will go."

Meat Packaging
According to Grover Foote, the meat industry is in the midst of implementing a change that will have a major impact on the converting industry.

"Right now," he says, "the biggest revolution in the entire meat industry is going on: Meat products in overwrapped packages-including pork, beef, chicken, and turkey-are all being replaced. Rather than meat being packaged whole in an overwrap, now you're seeing things like breasts and drumsticks packaged in modified atmosphere packaging, and they are being packed separately. It won't be very long -- and I'm talking in the next three to five years -- until you won't be buying an overwrapped package in the supermarket. Meat will be sold in modified atmosphere packaging."

Foote also reports that meat producers are coming out with individual brand names. "This means that all the meat in the meat case-all the beef, all the chicken, all the turkey, all of the pork-will be packed and be identified with brand names on the label."

So, how is that affecting the converting business? "Well," says Foote, "big time: All of this lidding film has to be coextruded and printed, and all of these materials have to be manufactured. Converters are going to find that the overwap business is going to decrease, and the sealed-on lidding material is going to increase. The printing business is going to go crazy in this area, because the new meat packaging [will feature printed brand-name labels.]"

Foote says this change in meat packaging is a result of the marketplace moving toward advertising and selling "fresher products." He explains, "For instance, let's assume you as a consumer go out and buy a frozen product. You have no idea how old it is; it could be a year old, or it could be two years old. However, if that same product is packaged in a modified atmosphere pack, it's in a tray, you can see the product, it's got a date on it, you know exactly how old it is. All of a sudden you say, 'This is much fresher than the product I could pull out of this frozen food case.'"

Foote also talks about a technology called "irradiation," a bacteria-killing process that will affect both the meat industry and converting industry.

"There are several ways of implementing this technology, but let's just take one. A meat producer takes its products, let's say chicken products, and the chicken products are placed in trays with lids on them. [The products also can be placed in film bags.] Next, you place the chicken packages in corrugated boxes, and the boxes are put on a pallet. Then you send the pallet through the irradiator. The irradiation rays go through the corrugated boxes, go through the film, irradiate the meat product, and kill all of the bacteria. Thus, harmful bacteria such as listeria and E.coli are eliminated."

The amount of irradiation the products receive is regulated by the government. Foote adds that this process most likely will be utilized in insitutional settings such as nursing homes.

The type of packaging Foote describes above is the type of packaging that the meat industry will be utilizing in the future. "Today," he adds, "they package chicken [for institutional use] in corrugated boxes that have either poly or wax liners, and they put these boxes in the freezer. How is chicken for institutional use going to be packaged tomorrow? The meat is going to be packed in printed bags or in trays with lids."

And how is the converting business going to be affected? Foote answers, "Well, the production of trays and lidding film and film bags is going to increase significantly in the irradiated area, just like it's increasing significantly in the modified area."

Foote reports that irradiation is in its infancy in terms of implementation, but it won't be long before the practice will be widespread. "It's being done now, but in my opinion it will take three to five years for this to be widely utilized."

These are just a few of the technologies with impact that converters will see in upcoming years. They may not be so lofty as to bear the title "Milestone of the Millennium," but they are certainly technologies that bear watching.

Peerless Machine: 1926 Technology with Impact
A paper plate and tray forming machine introduced in 1926 was recognized as a "technology with impact" for its contribution to everyday life during the 20th century. In a competition sponsored by the Foodservice and Packaging Institute, Arlington, VA, the P-Line machine by Peerless Machine & Tool Corp., Marion, IN, was named the "Foodservice Package/Machine of the Century."

The Peerless P-Line machine has become the worldwide industry standard for converters producing plates and trays, the institute reports, and the machine's productivity has enabled plates to be affordable for nearly all US consumers and for many developing countries where sanitation concerns are prevalent.

According to Barry Conrad, VP of Peerless Machine, "After years of research, we believe we can confirm that the Peerless P-Line was the first paperboard plate-forming line to be roll-fed. Roll feeding greatly enhanced the economics of plate production and therefore the availability of paperboard plates worldwide."


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