Narrow Web Opportunities in Flexible Packaging

By Chris Mitchell | July 11, 2005

No longer the sole province of the wide web converters, flexible packaging is narrowing down.

Are you swayed from one product to another at the grocery store just by the product's packaging or shelf appeal? If so, don't feel guilty. You are not alone. Today more consumers are making buying decisions at the point of purchase than ever before. And when comparing similar products, the outer packaging heavily influences what consumers buy.

The major push to use flexible packaging in lieu of rigid packaging began in 1975, when plastic bottles were introduced to replace glass bottles. Flexible packaging differs from rigid packaging because it has no form of its own and conforms to the product it protects, generally taking the shape of bags, pouches, labels, liners, and wraps. It is used by nearly every industry to protect and preserve its products, with over 50 percent of flexible packaging used in the food industry. Rather than a consumer seeing a simple hang tag or label embody a product, now the entire product can be engulfed in graphics.


Narrow web opportunities emerge
Packaging continues to evolve and grow with the products we use. For instance, we've watched the development of plastic replacing glass, boxes turn into bags, and tin cans progress into stand up pouches, bundling everything from soup to nuts.

Consumers are demanding hassle-free packaging. Easy to open. Easy to close. They want to open a product and be assured that the package won't burst open and spill its contents. Manufacturers want product visibility to improve sales. And everyone wants to eliminate clutter and create easy-fit storability. As this progression continues, the smaller regional manufacturer is being forced to create new packaging in order to compete with larger national competitors.

A change in consumers' expectations for packaging is producing a market gap for flexible packaging. It occurs when a regional manufacturer wants to use flexible packaging or unsupported film for their product. They know that in order to compete with national companies, their packaging has to have "eye appeal" for the customer. However, many times regional manufacturers' orders are too small for the wide web printers.

This is where the narrow web printer fits in. Narrow web printers can produce smaller quantities of flexible packages at very competitive costs, allowing a smaller manufacturer to emulate a larger manufacturer's package and graphic shelf appeal. In the past, a small manufacturer would buy plain film and apply a label to a product, while a large manufacturer would have a wide web printer print six colors onto the same film. When the product reached the stores, it was difficult for the labeled product to compete against film-based graphics that visually grabbed the consumer.

The narrow web printer also has the experience and capability to run promotional packages. These could include instant winner games, scratch-and-win, etc. They can regionalize the package design and run smaller quantities required. An example of this would be printing the schedules of local sports teams to a package, i.e., the Packers in Wisconsin, Vikings in Minnesota or the Cowboys in Dallas.

Today narrow web printers who were simply providing labels to their customers can now offer printed film stock. The manufacturer benefits by working with an existing supplier who is set up to run small quantities efficiently and quickly for competitive prices, and the printer has the opportunity to increase sales and enter new markets.

Market growth for overall flexible packaging in the United States is growing at a 5-7 percent rate annually, with narrow web growth expected to rise much faster due to the ability of narrow web printers to take on small-run business from the wide web converters. The narrow web printer's small minimums can also create new customers. They can order what they actually need, instead of having to meet wide web's larger minimums, which sometimes forced printers to order a year supply of stock at a time.


Providing flexible packaging solutions
There are three main barriers that narrow web converters might experience as they enter into the flexible packaging market: material procurement, product knowledge and manufacturing experience.

The biggest obstacle is obtaining stock. Typically the lead time for obtaining product directly from the unsupported film producer and the laminated film converter is four to six weeks, even for common biaxially oriented polypropylene (OPP), balanced biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP), and paper/poly/foil/poly (PPFP) materials.

Some narrow web printers have worked around this lead time by obtaining material from a three-tiered distribution channel — manufacturer to wide web printer to narrow web printer. For example, the manufacturer will sell a 54" roll to the wide web printer. Perhaps the wide web printer only needs a 36" roll, but purchases the 54" roll to get the material in-house and to meet their customer's deadline. The remaining 18" of the first-quality trim that would otherwise be thrown out, reground or recycled can be resold to a narrow web printer who normally cannot buy mill direct due to the inability to meet minimum quantity requirements. The risk with this distribution channel is that the narrow web printer is always dependent upon the wide web printer. What if the wide web printer changes substrates, or the quality of the material changes, or the off-cut is no longer available? It becomes difficult for the narrow web printer to run their business dependent on this type of tier channel.


The education process
So how can narrow web printers overcome the obstacle to receive first-quality flexible film substrates when needed as well as improve their product knowledge and manufacturing expertise? Select a reliable vendor by asking the right questions. Find out who their suppliers are and how they fit into the overall supply chain for these products. Do they stock a full selection of necessary materials? How long are the lead-times? What kind of experience do they have in flexible packaging? What kind of technical support and service do they offer? Are they strictly a supplier or are they a partner in the narrow web industry?

Converters can learn more about flexible packaging through a new program developed by Dunsirn Industries called FlexPak. Marketed within their Rapid-Roll program, FlexPak was created so narrow web printers could easily obtain first-quality flexible film print stocks in workable quantities. "We've noticed that traditional material suppliers are not completely focused on supplying flexible packaging materials to the narrow web industry," states Jim Volkman, Rapid-Roll sales and marketing manager. "Printers want product, as well as education, advice and training opportunities. We've been providing product and support to printers in the tag and label industries for almost a decade, so it made sense for us to expand our Rapid-Roll program to include FlexPak materials."

Dunsirn has formed strategic agreements with key material manufacturers to support their program. Applied Extrusion Technologies (AET), a leading developer of highly specialized plastic films used primarily in consumer product labeling, flexible packaging, industrial or non-packaging uses and healthcare applications, supplies FlexPak with an array of clear and opaque OPP and BOPP films. Jen-Coat Inc., a specialty extrusion coater and laminator of papers, films, foils and non-woven fabrics used in medical, industrial and consumer packaging, supplies the FlexPak program with several grades of PPFP pouching substrates.

Fortunately today, obtaining BOPP, OPP and PPFP materials is far easier for the narrow web printer than ever before. Printers can now purchase first-quality materials in small quantities to meet customers' needs and to grow their business.

Equipment & inks
To move into the flexible packaging arena, narrow web printers might simply have to make adjustments to their existing equipment. This is especially true for finished packaging films like PPFP or laminated structures. These materials need only to be surface printed with overlaquering or a varnish if necessary and they are ready for pouching. Presses that can run paper labels today can easily convert PPFP substrates. PPFP materials provide narrow web printers with an excellent point of entry into the flexible packaging arena.

For some lighter-weight films that require low web tension and lower temperatures to process, it may be more suitable for the printer to invest in new equipment that can run those materials efficiently. With the surge of flexible packaging materials, press manufacturers are developing more versatile presses to meet printer's needs.

Ink suppliers have made the transition to flexible packaging easy for narrow web printers. Typically they carry inks to cover flexible packaging materials as well as paper stocks. narrow web printers should contact their current ink supplier to see what is recommended.


Good things come in great packaging
Sales appeal is easy with a combination of brand recognition and graphics that "pop." A high-gloss glimmering shine can grab a consumer's immediate attention and win a marketing edge with manufacturers. Flexible packaging is versatile. It can be a rugged, leak-resistant package. It can conceal an aroma. It can be moisture- and oxygen-resistant. It can keep an inner product fresh. It can offer a protective barrier, creating security for the consumer.

Today, traditional cereal boxes are being pushed aside for airtight bags that are easily resealable. Soda, juice and water bottles are available in a variety of sizes from two-liter to 16-ounce to convenient 8-ounce sizes. Consumer wipes for hands, eye glasses and computer screens are now packaged individually for our convenience.

Flexible pouches take a stand
Flexible packages, particularly stand-up pouches, are aesthetically pleasing packages that are also functional. The trend toward source reduction (less packaging waste in comparison to plastic bottles and other rigid containers) and lower warehousing and shipping costs make a flexible package more attractive to manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Stand-up pouches, in particular, catch the consumer's eye and make people notice the packaging.

First introduced in the 1980s, the stand-up pouch is finding many new uses — from food and beverages to paints and coatings. Dry goods, coffee packs, soup mixes, croutons, cookies, cheese, snacks, candy, beverages, shampoos, medicine, and even garden fertilizer spikes are being packaged and printed for convenience and appeal.


Target markets
An invaluable source of information for potential flexible packaging clients can be made by aligning your company with a contract packager who is responsible for filling, securing and shipping a finished product. Large companies often use them to introduce new products, and entrepreneurs use them to market their ideas. Both need manufacturing resources, and contract packagers provide the equipment and manufacturing support they require.

Wide web converters might also have opportunities available that do not fit their programs. Typically they work with major clients that require large orders, but periodically need a smaller run. These projects can be out-sourced and can run more efficiently at a narrow web house.


Top graphics make products come alive
Flexible packaging will continue to grow as more and more consumers in our take-and-go society want handy and accessible products. Regional manufacturers will not be able to justify purchasing a one- or two-year supply from a wide web manufacturer because the market is changing so fast. PPFP, unsupported films, polyesters, metalized products, overlaminates and roll-fed labels are now accessible to the narrow web industry.

Ask your large label customers where they get the packaging materials your label is put on. Would the product look better in a printed package rather than a plain wrapper with a label? What other flexible packages do your customers need? Are they happy with the quality of their flexible substrates? How about their material lead-times? You may discover that you already have a potential flexible packaging customer waiting. Today you can begin to seal the deal with your customer by offering tags, labels or flexible packaging solutions.

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