Flexible Packaging

By Steve Katz, Editor | April 10, 2013

Narrow web label printers have what it takes to offer convenience and versatility in a one-stop-shop.

Flexible packaging has become a hot topic within the label industry. Regularly featured at the industry’s most prominent forums for education such as Labelexpo and the TLMI Technical Conference, the flexible packaging market is billed a potential additional revenue stream for narrow web label converters.

The flexible packaging industry is big, and it’s growing. The most recent estimates by the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) has flexible packaging making up around 18% of the $144 billion US packaging market. This is makes it the second largest packaging segment behind corrugated. The FPA reports the industry had $25.4 billion in US sales in 2011. 

Food accounts for the majority of the flexible
packaging market.
Why is flexible packaging so healthy? For an answer, look no further than the product featured in this month’s Packaging Spotlight (page 44). The Eco Ultra FlexPak is truly innovative, perhaps changing the way consumers think about motor oil packaging. With consumers more inclined to buy eco-friendly products than ever before, the Eco Ultra FlexPak requires 68% less material to make than the traditional hard plastic bottle. This translates to lighter shipping weights, and, once used, significantly less landfill.

By definition, flexible packaging consists of bags, envelopes, pouches, sachets and wraps made of easily yielding materials such as film, foil, or paper which, when filled and sealed, acquires a pliable shape. A variety of markets incorporate flexible packaging, with food being the largest (both retail and institutional), accounting for about 56%, according to the FPA. Other markets include retail non-food at 11%; industrial applications at 11%; consumer products at 10%; institutional non-food at 4%; and medical/pharmaceutical applications at 8%.

So why is flexible packaging so hot within the label space? The answer is because these products can be made using the same machinery being used to print labels, as long as said machinery can handle unsupported film.

“Flexible packaging is one of the fastest growing markets and complementary industries for a narrow web label converter to enter into,” states Cheryl Caudill, marketing and communications director for film manufacturer Multi-Plastics, Inc. “Flexible packaging, includes single web, thin gauge unsupported co-ex BOPP films and laminated PPFP (paper poly foil poly) or film-faced structures. Both offer various barrier and shelf life extenders to protect the package contents.”

In years past, flexible packaging was printed via wide web gravure. However, as Caudill notes, with the successful advancements and penetration of film presses, diversifying into flexible packaging is no longer a difficult transition for the flexo printer. “Servo driven film presses with chill rollers and tension controls make printing thin gauge unsupported films feasible. High quality flexible packaging applications can now be flexo printed at competitive prices, in smaller run quantities, and delivered in shorter turnaround times. Approximately 20 – 25% of our narrow web customer base is already supplying some type of flexible packaging, and this number continues to grow every year.”

The trend toward short runs for flexible packaging is good news for the label converter investing in the market. “What is exciting for

Flexible packaging appeals to the “on-the-go”
the label printer is that flexible packaging runs, as with labels, continue to get shorter and shorter,” says Jerry Henson, regional sales manager for flexo press maker Mark Andy. “Private branding, more SKUs, and inventory reduction initiatives are driving the run lengths down more every year. This trend will continue well into the future. With traditional label converters already producing at a fraction of the run lengths of the average wide web flexible packaging converter, it fits well into the manufacturing model currently in place for the label converter. And with today’s servo technology giving printer’s the ability to accurately control web tension, automatic register controls and tight temperature management, the challenges for the converter to run flexible packaging on an inline press have been significantly reduced.”

A complete package
There are number of factors that make flexible packaging appealing to a brand owner, all of which add up to a versatile package that is cost effective to produce while offering convenience and sometimes green advantages to the end user.

“Flexible packaging is one of the most cost-efficient forms of packaging, especially for food,” states Nancy Smith, marketing manager North America, food and specialty packaging, medical packaging, Labels and Adhesives, Dow Packaging. “Converters and brand owners can customize packaging applications to provide the best balance of barrier protection, durability, branding and user experience. Flexible packaging is truly adaptable to many conditions and formats.”

The switch to flexible plastic packaging allows for better portability – essential to conforming to consumers’ “on-the-go” lifestyle. Smith adds, “Since a plastic package can be easily tossed into a briefcase or a purse, it allows many more options for on-the-go eating and other functions. Flexible plastic packages also can resist breakage while in transit, and they can be carried virtually anywhere. They also allow manufacturers to meet the growing demand for single serve containers as consumers seek easily transportable goods.”

Mark Philion, director of sales for LasX Industries, a maker of laser cutters for flexible packaging, sees a rise in demand for user-friendly features, which promotes convenience while adding value. He says, “This includes a variety of easy-open features that increase overall satisfaction with a product, which influences the purchasing decisions of consumers.”

With all that it offers – user-friendliness, convenience, function and protection – flexible packaging allows the packaging itself to be a key selling point. According to Evan Arnold, product development manager for Glenroy, a custom converter of flexible packaging film, today’s flexible packaging can play an important role during a product’s consumption. He says, “An example of this is boil-in-bag technology. Today, packaging engineers are pressed to continuously develop new packages to meet consumers’ evolving demands.”

Within the segment, stand-up pouches with spouts or fitments are rapidly becoming more and more popular as alternatives to rigid packaging. “They can be seen taking over store shelves in categories ranging from food to household cleaning products. We are seeing them used in some industrial applications as well,” says Amanda Dahlby, marketing manager for Glenroy.

Mike Nowak, CEO of CEI, a supplier of flexible packaging, emphasizes that the move toward pouches from rigid packaging is global. “From a packaging format perspective pouches have been a fast growing segment. More products are changing from rigid packaging to flexible packaging in a pouch. Europe and Japan are far ahead of the US in this trend,” he says.

Nowak emphasizes flexible packaging’s sustainability aspects as a key selling point, despite the filmic construction. “Flexible package is substantially lighter and utilizes less resources. That means we are reducing the quantity of packaging going to landfill. The carbon footprint of film flexible packaging generally is less than rigid packaging. Many people look at a flexible package and say ‘It is film, which is made of petroleum products, which is bad.’ What these people do not realize is the production of rigid packaging actually uses more petroleum products. You cannot see this in the final product because this energy is used in the production process, like during paper drying or melting metals. In fact, when energy prices increase there actually is more pressure on rigid packaging than on flexible packaging.

“Because the package is lighter and less bulky, more packages can be shipped in the same space. That means less truckloads of flexible packages being shipped to the packager; and it reduces the warehouse space needed to store packaging,” Nowak says.

One stop shopping
“More and more label converters are being asked about flexible packaging laminations from their current customer base,” states Cindy Collins, flexible packaging business development manager, Avery Dennison Label and Packaging Materials. “We are seeing more interest from label converters to understand the narrow web marketplace for flexible packaging and how they can participate. The breadth of product offerings is expanding within the converters who are focusing on flexible packaging, which is leading to more growth potential within a converter.”

To Collins, the growth a label converter can find in the flexible packaging market is made possible by appealing to a brand owners desire for convenience. She explains: “We are a society of wanting things to be fast and easy, so the advantage to a converter is the ability to be a one-stop-shop for a customer. It is very common to see a contract packager do both pressure sensitive labeling and form, fill and seal packaging, so the converter can now bring their quality and service to the packager in both areas. The CPG’s are all looking to launch new products with a growing focus on targeted marketing which ultimately means shorter runs and a real need for faster service to test and launch new products. This type of regional or targeted audience testing is often done via flexible packaging samples and giveaways, which are a perfect fit for the narrow web marketplace. Flexible packaging lamination structures that we are providing to the narrow web converter base – and ultimately to the contract-packaging arena – are commonly used for personal care, promotional items, food and nutraceuticals.

A pouch application from Multi-Plastics
Joel Carmany, president of Consolidated Label, a label manufacturer that has successfully penetrated the flexible packaging market, says that being able to offer flexible packaging in addition to custom label printing gives his customers more options with regard to how they want their product packaged. “By offering both capabilities, our customers can have more marketing and promotional options with multi-packs, cross-merchandising, promotional band and on-pack sample promotions,” he says. “Also, customers don’t have to wait as long for their finished products because they don’t have to coordinate between two companies.”

Multi-Plastic’s Cheryl Caudill points out that many label companies’ existing customers are already purchasing a commodity label they are placing on a flexible package. “The label converter has the ability to be this one-stop-shop for both their customers’ labels and packaging needs. Many regional businesses need to differentiate themselves from the national chains through flexible packaging. Additionally, offering pouches opens the door to a world of opportunity for nutraceuticals, health and fitness, energy, enhancement, single serve food and drink products, and cosmetic options.”

For a brand that is looking to offer samples or single-serve and travel sizes, maintaining consistency with design aspects like graphics, color and typeface is a key selling point in buying both labels and flexible packaging from one supplier.

“Consistency across branded output is always desirable,” says Sharon Rothschild, packaging product line and segment manager, Landa Digital Printing. “The fewer suppliers, the more cost and quality control, and efficiency, for brand owners. Today, label converters can enjoy increased abilities for color matching across substrates – making diversification into flexible packaging applications a more feasible undertaking.”

The process
Many label converters already have in their shops the necessary equipment needed to produce flexible packaging. For them, it’s just a matter of being educated, and making the leap.

“The process of converting flexible packaging is similar to traditional pressure sensitive label printing but differs in several important ways, explains Consolidated Label’s Joel Carmany. “First, flexible packaging must be printed using a press that can print unsupported film. Another difference is that flexible packaging uses a heat-activated adhesive while PS labels use a regular adhesive.”

Carmany notes that flexible packaging is a more involved process. “This is because we have to know certain factors – before production can begin,” he says. “For example, we need to know what will be filled in the flexible packaging and which co-packer the customer is using. We make sure we know all the variables before any presses are run because unlike PS labels, there isn’t much time after production to resolve issues or correct errors. Flexible packaging has a more stringent timeline, as we’re working with customers and co-packers who have their own deadlines to meet.”

Processing flexible packaging material requires the proper heat-resistant flexible packaging inks and varnishes, which are readily available from the same suppliers label converters are already buying their label ink from.

Avery Dennison’s Cindy Collins points to some aspects of the process that facilitate getting into the market. She says, “When printing flexible packaging for form, fill and seal, there is no need to diecut, which is common for labelstock, and you are basically working with one ply of product, so no adhesive or liner is present on the roll. Many of the same quality aspects that you would expect on a roll of labelstock apply to a roll of flexible packaging stock. Most important to remember is that the roll off press will be put directly onto the packaging line, so edges must be pristine in order to feed through the packaging equipment with ease.”

Glenroy Regional Manager Ken Murtagh says that label converters can typically utilize the same printing presses they currently use for pressure sensitive labels, because most flexible packaging materials are receptive to most types of flexographic ink systems. He says, “In terms of the converting process, aside from not having to remove the waste matrix as they do with pressure sensitive labels, label converters need to focus on their ability to control wind tensions. It is very important for label converters to have the ability to provide printed finished rolls with good roll conformation. Good roll conformation is critical to ensuring that the material will perform properly at the next stage of converting, which involves the forming, filling & sealing of the pouches.  This is especially true of vertical form, fill and seal equipment.

In addition to the technical differences of the process, a converter also needs to understand the stringent food contact requirements of some flexible packaging applications. Multi-Plastic’s Cheryl Caudill says it is important they communicate with their suppliers about their needs regarding inks, drying systems on presses, and material handling for food contact. “However,” she says, “entry into flexible packaging does not have to mean a large capital investment.  Paper poly foil poly (PPFP) and cosmetic web laminates are approximately 3 mils thick and can be converted on many existing label presses using existing ink systems with minimal learning curves for press operators.

“Additionally, understanding the product contents / ingredients and matching the correct material type to those contents is critical to avoiding sealing and contaminate issues. Multi-Plastics also partners with packaging machinery companies to provide the technical support for the fillers of the products.”

Mark Andy’s Jerry Henson adds that often times the equipment at your disposal will determine where you can fit within the market. He says, “Your press capabilities, press width, your lamination capabilities and what type of auxiliary equipment you have will dictate how large of the flexible packaging market you can go after. Flexible packaging products are run at a wide variety of widths. A wider label press however will offer more opportunity to fill a greater percentage of the market. A common press size utilized for flexible packaging as well as labels is 17 inches.  Narrower presses can also be used will limit the markes that can be served. With flexible packaging well over $20 billion in North America alone, a reduced market size still leaves a great deal of opportunity.”

Digital’s place
In terms of color digital printing, flexible packaging is a small but growing offshoot from the label presses that are sources of digital printing for packaging, such as HP Indigo, Xeikon and others. All things considered, the printing of flexible packaging by these presses is rare and small compared to the label printing. According to the digital market research and consulting firm InfoTrends, value of print at end user prices for 2012 was about $2.4 billion globally for color digitally printed labels, but only about $65 million for flexible packaging. “Flexible packaging tends to be something done by converters that have color digital presses as a side application. A converter whose main business is flexible packaging only very, very rarely has a color digital press. We hope that will change,” says Bob Leahey, associate director for InfoTrends’ Color Digital Label and Packaging Service.

The most important constraint for color digital presses in flexible packaging has been the narrow web width of the available color digital presses. Most digital webs are 8" to 13" wide. “This is fine for labels, but flexible packaging images are generally big, so they do not impose easily on most digital webs, hurting productivity. After web width, the next biggest constraint has been the general complexity of flexible packaging. There is big variation there in media type, in regulatory requirements, in finishing needs. Also, most flexible packaging is reverse printed – not a high hurdle, but a wrinkle the digital converter must deal with,” Leahey says.


Pouches with spouts are becoming
popular forms of flexible packaging.
Are there products available or coming that will cause the color digital printing of flexible packaging to ramp up? The answer is yes. HP Indigo showed at drupa 2012 the HP Indigo 20000, which is dedicated to flexible packaging. The HP Indigo 20000 uses the same liquid toner electrostatic print method as the HP Indigo 6000 and 4000 Series printers that dominate the label market, but it provides a larger, 30" wide web, of which 29" can be printed, a big help to image imposition for flexible packaging. HP Indigo will place one or more beta units this year, with commercial availability coming in 2014.

Color digital presses based on inkjet will also contribute. InfoTrends cites two products as possibly influential. One is the iPress 600 from Impika, the other is the Landa W-10 from Landa Digital Printing. “Each press uses water-based inks. The Impika product, which is available now, has a 20" web, resolution of 600 x 600 dpi with grayscaling, and speeds up to 250 fpm. The Impika iPress 600, which is designed for labels as well as flexible packaging, does currently require pre-treatment of films and other non-porous media, but the vendor says that in 2014 new ‘hybrid’ inks will be commercially available and will allow printing on untreated films,” Leahey says.

The Landa W-10, which was shown in prototype at last year’s drupa, has a 40" web, 600 x 600 dpi resolution, and full color speed up to 328 fpm. It features 4-8 color printing with sharp edged, high density images, including white ink.

Nanography is the technology behind the Landa W-10. “It’s built on water-based inks that have excellent adhesion to any standard substrate, and strong scratch resistance. All these aspects make it ideal for packaging production,” explains Landa’s Sharon Rothschild.

Is there a spur to more color digital printing in flexible packaging? Again, the answer is yes. Leahey says, “That spur is short run printing. “Brand owners need to be able to make and distribute short runs of products, to sharpen their marketing and improve their supply chains.” Concludes Leahey: “That need has spurred short run label printing, but it is also spurring short run printing of flexible packaging. True flexible packaging converters are mostly responding with more flexo printing – a good analog alternate to gravure in such cases. Color digital printing is an alternate too, though, so you’ll see more of it there in the next few years.”