Flexible Packaging

By Michelle Sartor | April 6, 2006

While narrow web has made inroads into this lucrative print market, it still has some distance to go to catch up to the wide web converters.

Above: Two 2006 FPA Achievement Award winners: Amcor Flexibles' SelfVent Stand-up Pouch, Gold Award Winner in Packaging Excellence & Technical Innovation, and McDonald's Apple Dippers from Printpack Inc., Gold Award Winner in Technical Innovation
Walk down the aisles of any store today and it becomes clear that flexible packaging is a popular packaging technique. Traditionally, wide web has been used to produce flexible packaging. One reason is the large volumes involved, because wide web can more easily provide long runs. Another is the size of the packaging, such as bags and pouches, which can be two feet across before they are formed into containers. The popularity of flexible packaging in the narrow web industry is growing, however, mainly because of the increasing demand for shorter runs, which can more easily be met on narrow web equipment.

There's still a long way to go with narrow web, however. Mike Lawrence, manager of custom applications at Mark Andy's Comco press facility in Milford, OH, USA, says, "The production of flexible packaging in the narrow web market is still relatively small compared to the wide web flexo industry and the gravure industry. It is a niche market, but is growing."

Dan Doherty, vice president of operations at Prairie State Group, a converting company in Franklin Park, IL, USA, says, "The gap [between wide and narrow web] is closing, but I think it's still huge." He believes that in order for narrow web converters to be successful with flexible packaging, they need to understand that there are different sets of skills and a different mindset when creating flexible packaging.

Some cite flexible packaging growth as the reason for an increase in narrow web production. Jakob Landberg, VP of sales and marketing at Nilpeter, the Danish press manufacturer, says, "The gap is not closing, but the market is growing. We expect growth of approximately 20 percent per year in our narrow web world, both because of end users asking for shorter and shorter runs, and because it's a way for converters to diversify."

Federico d'Annunzio, managing director at GiDue, an Italian press manufacturer, explains that wide and narrow web bring different advantages to the table. He says, "Wide web press manufacturers bring a better knowledge of the customer base and the specific product needs. Narrow web press manufacturers bring a more innovative approach and a consolidated know-how on short run management."

Flexible packaging growth

According to research done by The Freedonia Group Inc., Cleveland, OH, USA, demand for converted flexible packaging in the US is expected to increase to $14.4 billion in 2009, which represents an increase of more than 4 percent per year. The company predicts that pouches will experience the greatest growth of 6.6 percent per year and will reach $5.8 billion in 2009. It expects food markets to increase 4.3 percent per year through 2009, while nonfood markets are expected to rise 3.7 percent per year.

Leslie Gurland, vice president of Logotech, Fairfield, NJ, USA, says, "Flexible packaging has grown steadily for the past 10 years in the US and has had even greater success around the world. I think we're going to see continued growth in flexible packaging, though the door is certainly not closing on labels and rigid packages."

Anders Bisgard, marketing manager of flexible packaging papers at Boise Paper, a materials supplier in Boise, ID, USA, expects growth in his industry. He says, "We anticipate the demand for paper based flexible packaging to grow 2 to 4 percent per year over the next five years. We believe the growth is attributable to underlying demand for more prepackaged foods in retail environments and more consumers purchasing food away from home."

At Omet, a press manufacturer in Italy, VP Marco Calcagni also believes demand will grow. He says, "New types of films available, new printing technologies that allow better glossy and shining effects, new designs, are all factors which will bring a potential greater use of film for packaging."

Dick Chesnut, president of W. R. Chesnut Engineering Inc., Fairfield, NJ, USA, says that it is important to remember that a lot of flexible packaging is not printed, so when looking at projected growth for the printing industry you need to make sure you are looking at the printed section of flexible packaging. He says, "Flexible packaging is probably going to at least hold onto the market share." Chesnut Engineering manufactures narrow web presses mostly for the gravure market.

The Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) expects the market to grow 3 to 4 percent per year in the short term, which it believes is in line with the long term growth characteristics. The organization cites the continuation of advancements in barrier property films, shrink applications, and additions of reclosable and resealable fitments and spray devices to bags and pouches as reasons for the growth. The group also believes that enhancements in graphics and printability have opened further opportunities. The FPA believes the market will continue to be adaptable and meet the changing needs of consumers.

With growth often comes innovation. Some innovations in recent years with regard to flexible packaging include retortable pouches, which can be processed under high heat and pressure like cans and jars; modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), which can govern gas or humidity in the package; enhanced and improved barrier materials; aseptic packaging; and self-venting microwaveable bags.

Why choose flexible packaging?

Companies can have several reasons for choosing flexible packaging for products. Andy Schmitz, sales manager in the Midwestern US for press maker Gallus Inc., Philadelphia, PA, says, "Flexible packaging opens up more possibilities for decorating the product." In addition to providing a different shape and feel for consumers, flexible packaging can also stand out visually. Schmitz says, "Nowhere else in printing will you see the brilliant graphics and the color punch like you find in flexible packaging." Since consumers often make purchasing decisions based on a product's looks, flexible packaging can be a strategic decision to increase sales.

The 380mm Chesnut press is used to convert flexible packaging materials.
Convenience for consumers is another reason companies may choose flexible packaging. When food items are purchased in flexible packaging such as a resealable pouch, this offers greater convenience than if the same product were housed in a can, which requires a can opener and no easy way to store any leftover product.

According to d'Annunzio, several advantages exist with flexible packaging. He says, "The comparable advantages of soft graphic packaging, among others, are lower packaging volume and weight that are good for logistics and for product transport from store to home; good shelf visibility due to high gloss, over laminating or direct printing on non ink absorbing films; high product visibility, especially for food packaging; and longer life and protection against external contamination (for example, reduced oxygen via vacuum, aluminum or plastic compound barrier layers)."

Gurland believes that using flexible packaging offers several advantages. "They can be constructed with high performance laminates that protect their contents, for instance from oxygen or moisture. They're ergonomic — lightweight, unbreakable and can be outfitted with features like laser scores, fitments and zippers. And they can be quite cost effective, especially compared with high end rigid containers," she says.

Gurland points out that there are advantages for converters as well. "From a manufacturing perspective, they're lightweight, low volume and easy to ship and handle. And films are extremely efficient — we can package a pound of product in a flexible pouch with a lot less material, whether it's PET or aluminum, than a rigid container would take," she says.

According to Doherty, flexible packaging can be more cost effective than using boxes. He uses the example of frozen fish. When using a box as packaging, the fish is placed inside clear film and then put into the box. With flexible packaging, the box is eliminated, saving money and time.

Environmental considerations may also play a part in the decision to choose flexible packaging. Calcagni says, "There can be a number of anti-pollution advantages by using films since some of them are considered to be more environmentally friendly than other raw materials and nowadays can be easily recycled."

Where it's used

Flexible packaging is used in a number of different applications. According to the FPA, the food industry uses flexible packaging the most, making up 55 percent of flexible packaging market. Non-food makes up about 19 percent (which includes health and beauty aids, pet food and supplies, personal care products, and lawn and garden supplies). Consumer products accounts for about 10 percent of the market (which includes household paper lunch, storage and trash bags, household film and foil wrap). Industrial applications make up about 9 percent of the market (including chemicals, agricultural products, construction and building materials, and automotive). Medical and pharmaceutical accounts for about 7 percent of the market.

According to d'Annunzio, "The food industry plays an important role, due to product visibility and to the extended product life advantages provided by flexible packaging, but liquid chemicals together with household, cosmetic and other industries also make up a large volume in flexible packaging applications."

Frank Vacca, president of Eagle Flexible Packaging Inc., a converter in Elk Grove, IL, USA, says that companies often use flexible packaging for samples because they can send samples through the mail or in magazines easily with flexible packaging.

The 380mm Chesnut press is used to convert flexible packaging materials.
Other items may soon show up on store shelves in flexible packaging as well. Chesnut says that motor oil may be put into pouches with a pour spout.

Among the types of flexible packaging, films, bags and pouches make up about 81 percent of the market, according to the FPA. The organization says foil and fabricated foil products make up about 10 percent and paper and multiwall bags account for about 9 percent of the flexible packaging market.

Pouches seem to be the most talked about kinds of flexible packaging. "Certainly pouches have caught the limelight and continue to grow based on ease of use, ease of transportation and packaging and their ability to keep foods and other contents safe and usable (also reusable with resealed zippers, etc.) for extended periods of time," says Denny McGee, sales manager for MPS America, the US arm of the Dutch press manufacturer Multi Print Systems.

Bisgard says, "The most common type of flexible packaging is bags and pouches for the primary packaging of food; wraps are a distant second." Wraps refer to materials directly and more tightly around products, such as around ice cream sandwiches.

Gurland says, "The top categories would be bags, sachets, bakery tray pouches, stand-up pouches, and a growing segment of films used to cover trays for products like ready-to-eat meals, raw meats and other tray-packed items."

The popularity of flexible packaging can depend on geography. Chesnut says that in countries with fewer natural resources, pouches are more popular. For example, he says there are many more pouches generated in Europe than in North America. He says, however, that the trend is catching on in North America. Wealth of a nation might also affect packaging choices. Chesnut says, "In poorer countries, they don't want to spend money on more expensive packaging. If it fits the application, flexible packaging is a less expensive route for packaging and displaying products."


For narrow web printers to switch from producing labels to flexible packaging might be difficult. Doherty says it's important for them to understand the market and realize that there are many different types of films that perform various functions. He also points out that making flexible packaging requires looking at seal integrity and barrier properties as well as looks.

Working with laminates can also be a challenge. Gurland says, "Laminates — whether they're foil based tube material or thin pouch films — have very specific handling and printing properties, and those properties differ by product." She continues, "On top of that, there's a whole world of laminates for aggressive materials like solvents, iodine, cleaning wipes, and other hard-to-package materials. Those need to be tested rigorously, and most narrow web converters don't have the full laboratory setups that the big laminate converters do. It's a learning process."

Gold Award Winner in Packaging Excellence at the 2006 FPA Achievement Award from Printpack
When working with laminates, the types of inks also needs to be addressed. McGee explains, "Many true flexible packaging applications call for lamination, so inks being used on the narrow web printing press have to be friendly to the inline or offline lamination process. For years, narrow web presses were not designed to handle solvent based laminating inks. This had to change to give the narrow web printer the ability to operate in the flexible packaging space."

Nilpeter's Landberg says that holding register can be a major challenge, "when using UV colors and physical drying, because drying and UV curing both heat the web and make it more elastic. If you have good quality printing machines, including a chilling system, this is no problem."

Chesnut points out, "Newer forms of flexible packaging are always being developed." He says that those in the narrow web industry have to learn to deal with the new applications and materials on a limited volume basis to be cost effective.

Schmitz says, "Snap-back can be a problem that takes technological know-how and a highly advanced machine system to control the process to make adjustments for snap-back. We have found there is nothing better currently than an integrated servo drive system to control this problem."

According to d'Annunzio, the biggest challenge is commercial. He says, "Narrow web printers already have all the technical capabilities to provide excellent quality and productivity performance for the flexible packaging industry. The major obstacles are the reluctance to change and the somewhat conservative approach of the traditional flexible packaging industry."

Competitive or complementary?

With flexible packaging, the wide web and narrow web industries are both providing similar services. This may seem like it would cause fighting between the two industries for business, but many say it's more of a complementary relationship.

Vacca says, "I don't know if we're taking business away from wide web. I know that as customers are becoming more knowledgeable and more comfortable with narrow web in the flexible packaging industry, it gives them an alternative to sample markets doing short runs. As the product takes off, then they'll convert it to wide web. I think we pretty much compliment each other really."

Doherty believes Prairie State Group is taking some business away from those in the wide web industry, but adds that a portion of that business is with the blessing of those in wide web. He explains that his company started providing flexible packaging six years ago because of a need for shorter runs. He says that during the company's first  year, its top three customers were wide web printers. Although that is no longer the case, Doherty says they still deal with wide web printers.

Leslie Gurland of Logotech sees a good relationship between wide and narrow web flexible packaging. She says, "I think there is plenty of flexible packaging business to go around. Our experience with our sister company, CLP Industries [based in Israel], has been that we can print shorter runs than would be economical for them. They can use their wide web equipment to convert jobs that would be far too big for us."

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