Film Trends in Narrow Web

By Jack Kenny | July 19, 2005

Films are taking market share from papers in high visibility consumer markets.

By all accounts, film substrates in the packaging industry are becoming the product of choice. Visibility on store shelves is the mantra of the product marketers, and the characteristics of film give a label advantages over other substrates in many regards. Moreover, they are durable, offering resistance to the elements and longer life to the package.

Global volume of biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP) films reached above three million tons in 2001. "In the last 25 years, the market for BOPP films has mushroomed from a specialist replacement for cellulose film, accounting for a volume usage of less than a quarter million tons to one of the leading flexible plastics packaging materials," says a new report from AMI Consulting, Bristol, England. And that's just BOPP. Polyester, polyethylene, vinyl, synthetic papers (which are film based) and more are on the front burner in many prime label markets today.

Those markets have always included cosmetic products and health and beauty aids. Beverages have entered the film market with a roar over the past decade, and now the talk is about household cleaning products. No more hiding under the sink for these items.

Industry watchers tend to agree that among narrow web packaging substrates, films can claim a share as high as 40 percent. Bruce Wilson, of Avery Dennison, notes that the pressure sensitive films market is growing at an annual rate ranging from 7 to 10 percent over the past three years, whereas PS paper is holding at a rate of 3 to 4 percent. Wilson is prime films product line leader at Avery's Fasson Roll North America, Painesville, OH.

And that's just pressure sensitive. Shifts in product marketing strategies have put strong wind into the use of unsupported film on bottles and containers of all kinds, a field apparently dominated today by beverages, but also including household products.

AMI forecasts BOPP growth at 7 percent per year, and reports that incentives abound for new players to enter the business. The forecast comes with a note of caution, however: "The increasingly global nature of the packaging industry, with major food companies seeking to deal with just a handful of suppliers that can operate on a worldwide basis, will mean regional players will have to either specialize or consolidate. The outcome is likely to be a considerable shake-out among BOPP film producers over the next 10 years."

Despite capacity surpluses and price competition in the films arena, major players have not shied away from investing. Raflatac, the Finnish substrate supplier, opened a major plant in the United States last year. Avery Dennison invested recently in a second coating line in Greenfield, IN, at a cost of $35 million.

Educating converters
"We are getting a lot of requests for films — many, many requests. What used to be done on paper is now done on film," observes Lori Davis, vice president of Contract Converting, Greenville, WI. "We're in the process of producing a new pricing guide, and it is amazing how many new film products we're adding. That's what people want to hear about." Contract Converting is a slitter and distributor of a wide variety of substrates.

The burst of activity in film underscores the need for education. "There is a whole lot to know," Davis says. "We can't get enough of an education about films. Different types of slitters are required. Just because you can slit paper doesn't mean you can slit film. It requires different blades, with different settings altogether."

Several film producers — such as ExxonMobil Chemical Films, the world market leader in BOPP films — conduct educational programs for suppliers, converters, and their customers. Jeff Smith, president of Valley Label, Menasha, WI, knows the value of such education. Valley Label specializes in converting films.

"We studied a lot before we got into this," he says. "ExxonMobil offers classes on films, and we took advantage of that. We have relied quite a bit on our suppliers' expertise to learn how to handle films, what the different properties are, especially in flexible packaging."

According to Davis, converters call frequently to ask for guidance in selecting film substrates. "We ask what the end use is, and once we can visualize that we ask about the caliper, whether it has to be tear proof or merely tear resistant, whether it will be used outdoors or indoors, if it should be waterproof, what the life expectancy of the product is, whether it will be subject to UV exposure in a window, what type of finish they're looking for — matte or gloss, clear or white. The answers help us go in the right direction. "We get calls from people who are desperate for help," she adds. "They know they need a film product, and that's all they know."

Pouch labeling
"Film usage is increasing typically in prime label applications — food, beverage, household chemicals, personal care," says Michelle Ostiguy, market development representative for the Packaging Business Team at FLEXcon, Spencer, MA. "We are seeing more resealable pouches in the personal care and household chemicals segments. These include products such as sanitary wipes, baby wipes, and window cleaning towels. The segment is growing because of the convenience these products offer to the consumer."

She notes that some of the pre-moistened wipes contain chemicals that could prove harsh to paper label materials, and also provide a strength factor. "Pressure sensitive films have the durability to put stress on that resealable pouch, usually up to 80 times."

ExxonMobil films on coffee containers

FLEXcon supplies the resealable labels for many of these pouches. They range in size from two to three inches high and three to six inches wide, depending on pouch size. The rest of the pouch is a non-PS flow wrap material. The label film is a polypropylene, "which has strong chemical and solvent resistance. It's a very durable film, and rigid, so it dispenses and diecuts well," she says. The polypropylene used for the labels on this type of pouch is BOPP, though FLEXcon does supply machine direction oriented polypropylene.

In the wildly popular beverage market, films are being used for a multitude of purposes. Flavored alcohol beverages, as well as those without alcohol, are heavily marketed and highly competitive, and packaging plays a significant role in the movement of these products.

"For some of these beverages, the trend is to introduce it using a pressure sensitive film label, so that the graphics will make it stand out against other products," Ostiguy says. "It's not uncommon that when a product becomes accepted by consumers, the producer will switch to a less expensive paper label. It doesn't always work: One marketer changed the label, saw a decline, and went right back to a PS film label. For them, PS film is the way to go. When you look at the cost of PS film against other substrates — in-mold, thermal transfer and paper, for example — pressure sensitive comes out with a lower total labeling cost, when you consider time, dispensing, waste, and other factors.

"A lot of looks can't be achieved with anything other than film," she adds. "The no-label look obviously is one of them, but also the peek-a-boo look, with graphics on the back label visible through the clear front label. This can be achieved only with film.

Application variety
The owners of Valley Label saw an opportunity to convert unsupported films using narrow web equipment, and Jeff Smith says that the company is busy running spiral labels, the laminated PP film labels that are used for cans and other containers. Parmesan cheese packaging is an example.

"We run a variety of films — clear, white, metalized — depending on what the customer is looking for," Smith says. "That has led us into the flexible packaging industry, producing material for pouches. It's a natural extension for the equipment we have." The company prints its films on a Mark Andy film press.

Activity is high for decorations on non-carbonated soft drinks and aerosol products, where wraparound shrink films are being put to good use by product marketers, says Dave Hill, market manager at ExxonMobil Chemical Films, Macedon, NY. "There is a lot of competition for those in narrow web," Hill says.

ExxonMobil has developed its ROSO (Roll On, Shrink On) line of films for this purpose. The substrates are BOPP films with extra shrink (18 to 24 percent) in the machine direction, says Hill. They are used for traditional wraparound roll-fed applications, but have the capability to shrink, and are ideal for contoured containers.

Unlike shrink sleeves, this type of label is not formed into a tube. Instead, it wraps around a container and forms a seal with a hot melt adhesive. It then goes through a shrink tunnel to shrink down to the desired size. The direction of the shrink is in the machine direction of the label.

Shrink sleeves require a higher degree of shrinking, and therefore the printer has to allow for image distortion. But the shrink of ROSO films is not as high as with shrink sleeves. "When the film is wrapped around the container, the heat is applied only to areas that are meant to shrink," Hill adds. "If a printer wants a higher shrink application and wants to print copy or image in the shrink area, he will have to make allowance for distortion. But most applications that we see tend to be in quiet areas, with solid color."

Such films behave on press as do most other film products, he adds. The converter's main consideration is always curl. Producing a curl-free lamination is important. Generally, any curl is not good for a roll fed operation. During the laminating process on press, the printer can induce curl into that lamination if the tensions on both webs do not match. He'll get curl if one web is under higher tension than the other, and when it relaxes it will curl." In roll-fed applications, slight curl in one direction is acceptable, but in another it is not.

"Your operation has to be much, much cleaner than in a paper environment. When you start feeding our material through the press, you're creating a magnet. Material handling is an issue," says Paul Ferron, president of West Pack Label, a recently launched film converting company in Corona, CA.

Inks, diecutting and material storage are also issues that require attention when converting films. "Many companies can make inks, but not all are equal; not all can react accordingly with your equipment," Ferron says. "It's a huge issue. Many people don't understand the chemistry, the handling of the ink." West Pack Label uses inks from Akzo Nobel.

"When it comes to diecutting, you have to get set up with a company that understands the liners (in pressure sensitive). Some big guys can't do the newer materials, the lighter weight liners," he adds.

Variable imaging
Films are growing in popularity among those who produce variable image printed products. According to Stacy Jackson, a big trend is for print-on-demand film labels. Jackson is product manager, laser/inkjet, for FLEXcon's Electronic Printing Business Team, which markets film substrates for use in thermal transfer, direct thermal, laser, inkjet and digital printing equipment.

"Film is a challenge for these printers," Jackson says. "The ink needs to dry on the surface immediately, because it's roll fed. With inkjet, drying is not a problem when the substrate is paper, but film has to have a coating that will absorb the ink immediately. She adds that FLEXcon is the only company to produce a film product for inkjet machines. Currently in development stages, the white film is called FLEXcon Jetbond PP.

"It offers a big advantage over paper products when moisture resistance is required, such as for water bottle labels," Jackson says. In the long term, the company envisions having a complete product line for narrow form inkjet equipment.

At Labelexpo, FLEXcon is showing its product on a VIP Color Technologies inkjet printer, which was released in April. The VP2020, a roll fed four-color printer, can accommodate a diecutting station at the end. It can handle a roll 6" wide, with an OD of up to 8", yielding about 450 feet of film. "This printer has generated a lot of excitement in the marketplace," she says.

The big switch
The converter base is getting more comfortable in handling and processing films," says Jim DeFife, directory of specialty business at Avery Dennison Fasson Roll. "Five years ago it was a specialty product, and converters were learning how to print, handle and diecut the films. The converter base has gotten a lot more comfortable processing them today. And the economics of films has come down.

"There are still a lot of people who don't know much about films," DeFife adds. "They think that they can't deal with what they see as high end products, and they're uncomfortable." But, he says, the expertise is readily available, and the marketplace demands creative films today.
"If you're going to do it right, you have to take the appropriate steps," says Paul Ferron. "It's all about quality and short run commitments, which is why narrow web fits so well in the film business."

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