By Leah Genuario | July 20, 2005

Growth in the pouch market has more converters looking for new opportunities.

The proliferation of SKU's is one reason
for the trend toward short runs.
(Photo courtesy of MACtac)
A couple of years ago in a Missouri grocery store, a manager placed a stand-up pouch and a box next to each other. Both packages contained the same amount of Teddy Grahams, but the pouched product was 10 cents more that the boxed product. When it was time to calculate sales, the results were telling.

"The pouch outsold the box about six to one," says consultant Gary Gates, CEO of The Garron Group Inc. in Monroe, NC. "It's the convenience of being able to reseal it, it's a bright new look. It's something different."

For other companies, converting to a pouched product is not only about aesthetic appeal and consumer convenience. It's also about product freshness.

Such was the case with StarKist Tuna, whose tuna in the Flavor Fresh Pouch was favored five-to-one by consumers in prelimary research. When paired with an aggressive advertising campaign touting the benefits of the new packaging, the pouch went from zero percent market share before the launch, in June 2000, to 2.5 percent by mid-November of that year. Today, pouches claim approximately 10 percent of the tuna market, with StarKist's share between 80 and 82 percent.

Add to the list one more advantage: cost. "Pouches are cheaper than rigid containers," says Sonay Karamanci, sales manager for Polinas Plastic of America located in Fort Lee, NJ. "In addition to that, flexible packaging creates incredible cost advantages in terms of warehousing and transportation."

With all the benefits associated with using a pouch, it's no wonder that pouch use is on the rise. According to Pouches to 2006, a study published by The Freedonia Group, US demand for pouches is forecasted to grow 6.9 percent per year through 2006. More specifically, stand-up pouches are projected to rise 16.6 percent per year through 2006.

"For a number of reasons, we believe the pouch market will grow and at increasing annual rates. Some of the reasons will be shelf appeal and graphics, convenience packaging and packaging material reduction," says Fred Zinnbauer, GiDue public relations representative for ZPR & Publicity located in Oxon, England.

Printing for pouches has been the dominion of wide web presses for a long time. These presses are economical for long run printing jobs, and they are capable of printing on wider substrates. But as with any industry, changes are afoot in the pouch market. Demand for short run has increased. High end graphics are becoming all the rage. And narrow web is increasingly finding a place within the growing pouch market.

A growing presence
With the pressure sensitive industry stuck in neutral for the past few years, many narrow web converters have gone in search of new markets.

"The phenomena of the narrow web marketplace — which has always been pressure sensitive — has gotten to the point where the margins are squeezed so tight. Even though pressure sensitive is still a growing market, and will continue to grow, people are looking for those things which contribute more to their profit," says Gates.

The search for more profitable markets has led converters in a variety of directions, and one area is the pouch market.

Currently, the number of narrow web printers involved in printing on pouch material is small, but the group is growing. "The growth is almost exponential, I believe," says Cathy Kimpton, technical support for MACtac in Stow, OH. "Narrow web printers see flexible packaging as a way to grow their business and offer more value to their customers."

Narrow and wide webs
For a number of reasons, narrow web and wide web printers tend to approach the pouch market differently.

First, most narrow web converters involved in the pouch market buy the pouch material already laminated together and surface print. This differs from wide web converters, who are mainly reverse printing.

"MACtac is providing flexible packaging engineered by Curwood especially for surface printing. After printing the film, the printer can either varnish coat or put a very thin laminate on it as needed," says Kimpton. The extra layer can add additional cost, but this can be overcome from the standpoint of short runs, lower set up costs, and sometimes lead time.

For the handful of narrow web converters who have ventured into the world of laminations and reverse printing, there are differences in the inks and adhesives used by wide web and narrow web converters. Wide web converters generally use solvent based inks and adhesives. Narrow web converters generally use water based. This can be a challenge for narrow web converters.

"Once you laminate, you are actually sealing everything in between the two structures, which really doesn't have any air to breathe. When you laminate everything inline — and that's one of the hurdles in narrow web when you are trying to do everything inline — everything must be cured, or setup, before the two structures are laminated together," says Frank Vacca, president of Eagle Flexible Packaging in West Chicago, IL.

Figuring out how to dry the inks and adhesives quickly is the key to successful reverse printing. "There's a lot of research and development. You have to work closely with your ink and adhesive people. The other thing is the dryer system," says Vacca. "You have to have a system where it conditions the air coming in so there is no moisture in the air coming onto the surface of the material."

While narrow web faces some challenges that wide web does not, there are some areas where narrow web has advantages. Perhaps the strongest is narrow web's ability to service short run requests.

For a number of reasons, demand for short run jobs is growing. "As with other packaging applications, there are more and more demands for short run and/or just-in-time projects for say regional promotional specials, test market launches, etc. Here the versatility of the narrow web press fits the bill," says Zinnbauer.

"There's a lot of demand for short run jobs right now," says John Price, president of Karlville Development, a pre-made pouch equipment distributor in Miami, FL. "If you have a narrow web press, your plate costs and set up costs are a lot less than someone with a wide web machine and you can be more effective in terms of price, and a lot of times, in terms of response."

There can also be an advantage in printing quality. Bruce Riddell, vice president of technical development for Spectrum Label in Hayward, CA, explains that the quality attainable with all web widths of gravure and lithographic presses is "aesthetically equal."

In an informal study, the Teddy Grahams pouch outsold the Teddy Grahams box six to one. (Photo courtesy of The Garron Group)

However, "the quality of any narrow web flexographic inline label press is greatly enhanced compared to any wide web flexography central impression press. The narrow web flexographic label presses of today are capable of printing near or equal quality to lithographic and gravure presses, while conventional wide web central impression presses are not. Having said that, the quality attainable on wide web presses is significantly improved since the 1980s; it's just that the four-color is not equal to gravure or litho," he says.

Narrow web applications
Considering its advantages and limitations compared with wide web, there are certain areas of the pouch market where narrow web has a presence, and other areas where it does not. Narrow web printers are mainly printing for markets requiring short runs and/or high quality graphics. Examples include the following:

- Beauty and personal care: "Narrow web printers generally serve more specialty markets, such as cosmetic and health and beauty aids," says Gary Bobko, vice president of marketing and sales for Glenroy, headquartered in Menomonee Falls, WI.
- Samples: "Particularly in the areas of sampling, pouches have increased in demand. The major reasons are requirements for even higher quality printing and graphics, quick turnaround, and excellent containment in the flexible packaging structure," says Bobko. Samples are becoming an increasingly common marketing tool, especially in the personal care market.
- Dry, powdered goods: "Traditionally, the narrow web business that we do has been stronger on paper face substrates, which are easier to print. They usually hold more dry powder, dry content," says Chris Mitchell, product manager for Avery Dennison in Neenah, WI. Examples of dry powdered goods includes gravy and soup mixes, spices, and some nutraceuticals.
- New product launches and promotions: This encompasses a wide variety of industries and is often temporary business for narrow web printers. "Some of this work the narrow web people are doing, they are eventually going to lose. It's going to go over to wide web because it's going to become longer run," says Denny McGee, sales manager for Comco, a division of Mark Andy, in Milford, OH.
Coffee is one market segment where narrow web has a presence.
(Photo courtesy of MACtac)

While narrow web has made inroads into a number of areas, there are other segments of the pouch market where this industry does not play.

"Very large run orders with one item of 300,000 or more would most likely be a better fit for wide web printers," says Riddell. "Conversely very large runs of 300,000 or more with 10 items or more would most likely fit narrow web printers. We're competitive on the smaller runs because it is much more costly to set up those wide web presses."

Width constraints also prevent narrow web converters from getting involved with larger pouches. "The main reason certain narrow web printers, say 18" and under, will have difficulties in printing some of the web for a flexible pouch is because of the gusset," says Vacca.

"In other words, if the bag is 9" tall, right there you've got 18" plus normally you have another two or three inches for the gusset at the bottom of a [stand-up] pouch. So now, for a 9" tall bag, they actually need a 21" width to accomodate the gusset."

The last area where narrow web printers do not usually have a presence is custom orders. This goes back to the common practice of surface printing. "If it's new and has never been pouched, or if it's a difficult product to hold, most of the time that takes research and development," says Mitchell. "Narrow web printers are generally purchasing pre-constructed pouch materials that are already put together. They don't have as much ability to mix and match according to the product."

Labels vs. packaging
Converters who switch from printing pressure sensitive labels to pouches cannot expect a seamless transition. There are many differences between the two disciplines.

"Narrow web converters are very knowledgeable about adhesives, face stocks, diecutting, and all the things associated with making a label," says Riddell. "But they are not as familiar with packaging requirements as their wide web counterparts."

In some ways, the world of pouches requires a completely different set of expertise. Converters encounter new concerns, like seal strength, compatibility and contamination between the product and packaging.

"The key to narrow web people getting into flexible packaging is understanding the substrates, the inks, the adhesives, and their relationship to the final packaging," says Dan Doherty, vice president of operations for Prairie State Group in Franklin Park, Il.

"It's not an easy market to get into unless they take the time to learn the material constructions, to learn the applications, to understand what they can do with their equipment," says McGee. "They need to know and understand the market before they hang up a sign that says they produce pouches."

One area of difference between printing for PS labels and printing for pouches is the thickness of the substrate. In the case of film, "Most PS structures are around seven mils thick. Whereas most of these film laminations are between two and a half through four mils," says Mitchell of Avery Dennison. "You can't necessarily pull on the product as much as you would when it's a PS substrate, because you've only got half of the thickness. If you pull too hard, it will stretch, so you've got to have some tension controlling."

Because of the thinness of the material used, converters must also be wary of heat stretching the film and registration challenges.

In addition to substrates, there are also differences in the performance characteristics for inks and adhesives used for the pouching market. For example, Jarek Sliwinski, narrow web and energy curable technical manager for SICPA North America in Brooklyn Park, MN, says that ink for pouches containing food should adhere to the following guidelines:

- Low migration and low odor materials should be used in the formula;
- Pigments should be suitable for pasteurization and food packaging;
- Inks should have excellent adhesion to the substrate and resistance to pasteurization; and
- Heat sealable inks, with temperature resistant pigments, should be used when heat sealing.

Adhesives also must adhere to strict performance guidelines. For example, "A lot of narrow web converters use UV laminations or UV adhesives. You've got to forget about that when you are working with food packaging. They'll have to look down different avenues to see what adhesives would be acceptable for the food environment," says Doherty.

Also, pouches often require heat seal adhesives, which are already in the lamination when a narrow web converter purchases it.

Even still, the product "requires a lot of testing. Narrow web converters buy the product, but then they are going to have to test for their individual application," says Dave Elliot, label production manager for Craig Adhesives, located in Newark, NJ. Problems that can occur from using the wrong adhesive for a particular application can include weak seals, and contamination of the surface.

Finally, printing for pouches places additional responsibilities on narrow web converters. Testing becomes crucial because the converter is not only responsible for the label, they are now responsible for the entire package. "The difference between packaging and labeling is in packaging, you're responsible. It's in your package," says McGee. "In labeling, you are responsible for the label, but you probably won't ruin the product."

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