- October 01, 2000, Edward Boyle, Contributing Editor
Microwave popcorn is a favorite treat of many, and consumers can get it faster and cheaper these days thanks to the pioneering efforts of Phoenix Packaging. The company did not invent microwave packaging, or even the specific technology that allows corn to pop in a microwave, but Phoenix did develop the proprietary equipment that can print, coat, and slit popcorn bags in-line in one pass. And it does just that at two facilities, one in Maple Grove, MN, and one in Marion, OH.
Benefits of In-Line System
Prior to Phoenix's development of the press, each step in the converting process had to be completed separately, off-line. This cumbersome process increased both the cost and delivery times of converting popcorn bags. The result, says company president Eric Jackson, was "high conversion costs, excessive waste, and long lead times."
Phoenix brought its first all-in-line press into production in 1990, and the company reports that since then it has grown to the point where its two facilities, encompassing 170,000 sq ft with 150 employees, produce approximately 60% of all microwave popcorn bags sold in the US. And, the company now ranks as one of the top 20 flexible packaging converters by sales volume in North America.
Since developing that first in-line press, Phoenix has added five more machines that can print up to six colors in widths to 46 in. The company expanded its popcorn bag base in 1994 to include barrier laminations for other food packaging, such as cookie and cracker bags. Phoenix's most recent press, a six-color, 42-in. machine, was designed specifically to print, laminate, and slit snack bags in-line.
Jackson explains that the process of printing and converting a finished product in-line is more efficient, requires less lead time, and produces less waste. "Converting in-line improves efficiencies through reduced setups, because you're putting raw material in one end and getting a finished product out the other. You have shorter lead times because you don't have to worry about work in process, and you have less waste because of the reduced number of steps."
Jackson continues, "If you were to visit Phoenix Packaging in 1986 [when the company was founded], a good day was the production of 80,000 microwave popcorn bags. Now, we can produce six million bags on a given day; that wouldn't be possible without our in-line technology."
Phoenix Packaging's proprietary converting process also has resulted in sales-per-employee said to more than double the industry average. He credits the "entrepreneurial spirit" of the employees, who are encouraged to promote cost savings through profit sharing that rewards innovation. In fact, since 1990 employees have been able to earn up to 20% of their wages through profit sharing.
Since the company already holds a dominant share of the microwave popcorn bag market, Phoenix is looking to the barrier lamination and microwave packaging side of the market—which currently amounts to just 10% of its overall sale—as a key to future growth.
"One of the things that we bring to the table is a spirit of innovation," says Jackson. "And our challenge, especially in being a sole source supplier to the Orville Reddenbachers of the world, is to improve continually what we've already done. For example, the consumer won't recognize the change in a microwave popcorn bag from year to year, but it has changed dramatically since 1990."
Innovation Earns Awards
That same drive for continual improvement has helped Phoenix win several awards for innovation and environmental achievement in the past year alone. The most recent acclaim came when its Wave Wrap Microwave Crisping Wrapper was recognized in two industry awards competitions. That product had been developed for Con Agra to replace the paperboard microwave packaging it had traditionally utilized to cook microwave foods. The new package replaced a two-part system (an oriented polypropylene overwrap and rigid paperboard susceptor sleeve) with a single flexible wrapper, said to result in greater ease of use by the consumer and representing significant source reduction over the previous two-part package.
The system offers two significant benefits to consumers, says Jackson: The flexible wrapper greatly reduces packaging costs compared to using a paperboard sleeve, and Phoenix's proprietary demetallizing process allows food products to cook at about 250 deg F versus 450 deg with a standard microwave susceptor.
The Flexible Packaging Association recognized the wrapper as one of seven winners in the 1999 Top Packaging Awards and also gave it the Green Globe Award for Environmental Achievement. In addition, the product was cited for its environmental and commercial contributions to the packaging industry during the 1999 3M Scotchban Innovation Awards.
Jackson gives a great deal of credit to Phoenix's three-person research and development staff for improvements in both microwave popcorn bag technology and barrier laminations. The company brings a similar "all-in-one" converting mentality to the production of barrier laminated bags for cookies, snacks, and microwave packaging.
"We're looking for microwave applications and the ways we can bring our proprietary susceptor technology, along with the ability to demetallize [which is the case with the Wave Wrap] to microwave products," says Jackson.
New Projects in the Works
Jackson notes that new product ideas result from both customer demand and ongoing R&D efforts. With the Wave Wrap, for example, Phoenix approached Con Agra after the new microwave technology had been developed. It also has formed partnerships with other potential customers, such as ingredient suppliers, to develop the "next generation" of microwave technology that will allow the customers' products to be cooked in a microwave successfully.
"We are striving constantly to improve existing products as well as develop new ones," Jackson adds.
In the barrier lamination market, the company has focused its efforts on perfecting alternative barrier laminations for converting cookie and cracker bags. Phoenix also is working to develop an all-in-one converting system for barrier laminations expected to result in similar improvements in production speed and waste reduction achieved in the microwave popcorn market.
Other projects include working with another Con Agra company to develop such a bag for the snack market; and working to develop new types of packaging to produce fresh dough pizzas in a microwave.
"Microwave popcorn bags will always be important to our business," says Jackson, "and yet we see our growth coming from barrier laminations and other microwave packaging. In general, we see growth in applications that can fit our in-line press technology. When we do that, we're going to come in with the low-cost position, and we're very focused on our customers, so generally we are coming up with innovations that will keep them with us for a long time."
Phoenix can laminate paper to paper, paper to film, and film to film. The company uses flexography to print images on the front of a product and gravure to apply coatings on the reverse. It also can laminate both sides of a printed web in register, in-line. Phoenix buys its paper from Rhinelander/Wausau Paper, International Paper (Thilmany), and EB Eddy Paper. Ink and adhesive suppliers are proprietary.
"Development of the in-line web process technology has been the key to our success, and a roadblock for other people who want to get into this industry," notes Jackson. "Our plan is to build on our past successes and our technology base to offer even greater advances to the microwave industry."
Rhinelander/Wausau Paper, Rhinelander, WI; 715/369-4268
Thilmany/International Paper, Kaukauna, WI; 920/766-8239
EB Eddy Paper Inc., Port Huron, MI; 810/982-0191