Flexible packaging printed on the wide web constitutes the more visible end of the flexible packaging industry as it is largely responsible for printing and constructing such items as large stand-up pouches and retortable packaging, used widely in the food industry due to its functionality and increased advertising space. Stand-up pouches refer to pouches that can stand up on their own. According to Rani Stern, chief technical officer for Israel-based C.L.P. Industries, retortable packaging is where the package and the product inside are "exposed to a heat process where temperature exceeds 250° F for a period of time required to achieve complete destruction of any organisms." Because of width constraints within narrow web, wide web is usually dominant in these areas. However, narrow web flexible packaging is growing in several niches.
"Narrow web will be competitive on short run, high quality packaging needed for product introductions, test marketing and product lines where there may be a wide range of items within a family of products," says Franklin Nice, president of Gintzler Graphics, Buffalo, NY.
Cola companies are an example of the growing trend in the food industry for a product to branch out from one flagship product into a variety of flavors. In today's market, not only can a consumer purchase diet and regular cola, he or she can now choose caffeine-free, lemon-flavored, diet lemon-flavored, cherry-flavored, even vanilla and berry. And of course, accompanying every new flavor are new graphics and packaging. As other companies utilizing flexible packaging follow suit and expand into new flavors, the need for shorter runs has provided narrow web converters another niche. This has been one more factor fueling the growth of the narrow web flexible packaging industry.
"Customers are looking for shorter and shorter run lengths, especially with more diversity of image," says Nice. Small runs also fuel other niche markets.
"Small runs are becoming popular for the simple fact that a lot of companies want to do some testing in the marketplace," says Frank Vacca, president of Eagle Flexible Packaging, West Chicago, IL.
Tear-off packages, small samples attached to a regular-sized product or to a print advertisement, are one way companies can test the market. Samples made for use as hand-outs are another. In fact, the sample market is such a large niche that Aaron Swartout, operations manager for McDowell Label & Screen Printing, Dallas, TX, estimates that 80 percent of his company's flexible packaging business is devoted to sample production. While the printing sample of pouches is a huge arena for narrow web flexible packaging companies, the opportunities for narrow web do not stop there.
"A lot of flexible packaging growth is in niche," says Tim Nicholson Sr., director of development for Fort Dearborn, Elk Grove Village, IL. "A lot of the narrow web guys are more entrepreneurial than wide web."
Advantages of flexible packaging
Whereas before, food might be contained in a pouch and then encased with a box, new technologies in flexible packaging eliminate one of the steps. The fact that flexible packaging is more efficient allows for a variety of advantages. "The main drivers are reduced package costs and reduced shipping costs," says Nice of Gintzler Graphics.
The reduced costs can be dramatic. Orlandi Incorporated, located in Farmingdale, NY, is a customer of C.L.P., dealing in forming, filling and sealing flexible packaging. One of Orlandi's customers is Clinique, a cosmetic company currently using a package printed on narrow web equipment. Clinique has recently switched from rigid containers to flexible packaging, and the switch has been advantageous in terms of cost. "We are saving them hundreds of thousands of dollars and they have mentioned that to us," says Ken Gerhardt, senior account executive for Orlandi.
Many companies also recognize the ability for flexible packaging to offer increased billboard space. Not reliant on a label, the package can feature glossy graphics that stretch from one end to another. While this can be an asset, it is not always taken advantage of. Lay-down packages are still common in the industry, such as candy and snack bags that cannot stand up straight on their own. Nicholson of Fort Dearborn says that if the lay-down packages aren't hung up or filled with air and propped up on the supermarket shelf, they don't have as much shelf presence as a rigid container would.
Sometimes the formless nature, characteristic of a flexible package, is more desirable. For instance, speciality chocolates often utilize foil packaging to enhance the interesting shape of the chocolate.
Most companies agree flexible packaging has room to expand. "It can go just about anywhere. It has a lot of different uses if people would just think about it," says Gerhardt.
Challenges for narrow web
While narrow web clinches an important spot within the world of flexible packaging, "There's a limitation as to where the narrow web market can play," says Nicholson of Fort Dearborn. Compared with wide web, narrow web is limited in both press speeds and width, says Nicholson. This makes wide web a more reasonable choice for large runs or large flexible packages.
"Once the runs are beyond a certain level, then running them on bigger equipment makes more sense," says Nice of Gintzler.
Narrow web has encountered other challenges as it expands into flexible packaging. Narrow web presses are usually in-line presses, with each print unit relatively independent from one another. While not a problem for printing a substrate such as paper, Nice comments that the stretchy nature of many flexible packaging substrates can sometimes wreak havoc on color registration. Wide web presses are often central impression. The advantage of a central impression press over an in-line machine is that while the substrate "is on the surface of the drum, it stays there relative to the position of when it first touched the drum," says Nice.
"Films all have natural tendencies to stretch … that's just the characteristic of the product," says Chris Mitchell, Product Manager of Packaging, Avery Dennison Fasson Roll, Neenah, WI. However, when film is paired with other materials, the reinforced substrate offers more control and improved ability to control color registration. For example, in the case of polyethylene, "If its being supported by foil, polyester or paper, it makes it less extensible," says Mitchell.
In the early years of narrow web flexible packaging, it was also difficult for converters to purchase stock in the amount they were looking for. As demand has increased, so has the supply. "In the early '90s, we saw a need to supply narrow web printers with laminated films. Many end use customers required quick turnaround and small initial orders without sacrificing print quality or performance properties," says Gary Bobko, vice president of marketing and sales, packaging film, for Glenroy Inc., located in Menomonee Falls, WI.
Suppliers have also catered to narrow web printers in other ways. In the past, "all of the materials were designed to run on wide web systems with wide web inks, usually solvent-based," says Mitchell. "We've tried to design products that are more friendly to water-based and UV inks."
Despite the challenges present in flexible packaging for narrow web, both past and present, the industry is still becoming recognized for its quality and its increased capabilities, both in construction and in color.
"Our customers take full advantage of our capabilities," says Aaron Swartout of McDowell Label & Screen Printing. "We'll run packages up to 10 colors, and we do it all the time."
"We're becoming more recognized not just for short runs. We're being recognized for quality as well," says Vacca of Eagle Flexible Packaging.
Due to variations in the type of products utilizing flexible packaging — from scalpels to chips to suntan lotion — regulations and specifications concerning flexible packaging vary.
Food product regulations are one area of consideration. While films, such as polyester, are relatively inert, the coatings and adhesives need to be regulated. The US Food and Drug Administration mandates that UV adhesives cannot be used in food packaging. Instead, flexible packaging converters use 100 percent solids, water based or pre-laminated adhesives. Coatings are another regulated area. For example, some substances listed by the FDA can be used only in coatings that have contact with food at or below room temperature. The FDA also requires that flexible packaging cannot negatively react with the product inside the package.
One of the medical community's chief concerns when designing flexible packaging is keeping the product sterile. Made of high-density polyethylene, DuPont's Tyvek is often used for packaging medical devices that must be sterile because of the material's ability to hold out bacterial spores and test particles, in addition to its puncture-resistance.
Other materials, such as foil, provide barriers important within the pharmaceutical industry.
"A lot of products would oxidize over time and you want to avoid that… For example, if you have an effervescent tablet, if the package is not tight the effervescent tablet would get soft and sticky," says Angela Roggenhofer, Healthcare Marketing Manager for Hueck Foil, in Wall, NJ.
Barrier protection is necessary for most markets utilizing flexible packaging. Certain materials are designed to protect products against such elements as bacteria, humidity, gases, light and aroma. In the case of acidic products, such as tomato-based food, or products containing solvents, such as baby wipes, barrier properties also must prevent the product from destroying its own package.
Health and beauty products contained within flexible packaging also need to be constructed of materials that are considered high barrier. "Many of the health and beauty products are identified by our customers as 'hard-to-hold' and require barriers customized for their specific ingredients. For example, certain fragrances are more difficult to contain than others," says Bobko of Glenroy Inc.
"I haven't seen anything startling coming up, but there is a steady increase in the sophistication of packaging," says Sarah Laing, market development manager for UCB Films, Atlanta, GA. One of the biggest trends in recent years was the increased interest in multi-layered construction materials with increased capabilities. In the early years, flexible packaging utilized different materials. For instance, paper-poly/foil-poly was sometimes used in construction. The problem was, "you're completely limited to putting in only dry goods, whereas with multi-layered construction you can put your liquids into it too," says Swartout of McDowell Label & Screen Printing.
Bob Zaborowski, director of business and economic research for the Flexible Packaging Association, says polyethylene is currently the most used substrate among flexible packaging converters within the association. "Polyethylene gives relatively strong seals and is inexpensive. What it doesn't offer you in general is barrier," Nicholson of Fort Dearborn says. Barrier is an important feature needed in many areas of flexible packaging. As a result, multi-layered materials have gained in popularity.
Multiple layers offer a series of desirable characteristics. According to Nice, foils create a good barrier, films are clear and provide a good seal, and paper is ink receptive.
With respect to multi-layers, "There's a sealant, there's barrier, there's opaqueness and scuff resistance of the inks if you reverse print," says Bob Finke, sales and marketing director for packaging film at Mitsubishi Polyester Film, Greer, SC. Although multi-layers are often used because of the desired characteristics, notes Finke, surface printing on films is a technique that is seeing growth because of the potential cost advantage over multi-layered constructions.
Work has also been done to increase the capability of films. "The demographics and lifestyle changes in the US are very much influencing the specific functionality that goes into the films," says Laing. One area of focus, for instance, is the creation of microwave-friendly films.
There has also been an increased interest in developing packages that protect against counterfeiting. "You can have overt elements like a hologram, or something that is covered, like a micro-text," says Roggenhofer of Hueck Foil.
Other innovations, more often used in wide web constructions but occasionally seen in the narrow web arena, are re-closeable features, laser scouring and one-way venting techniques.
As in every industry, most converters agree that customers are looking for packaging that marries high quality with reasonable rates.
Customers want "barrier, more and more sophisticated graphics, and lower cost," says Nicholson.