Flexible Packaging

By Jack Kenny | September 8, 2011

A strong print segment continues its steady growth in narrow and wide web.

Yoplait Minigo's lids, from Bemis Milprint Flexible Packaging, won a PLGA award this year.

Consumers make decisions in the aisles of the grocery stores. The National Retail Federation says that up to 70 percent of all decisions take place when the customer is examining the goods right there in the store, and such decisions don't take long. Those few seconds are what consumer product producers want to own, and they must devote a large part of their product spend on visual attraction: the right images, the right colors, size and placement of type, the package shape. And, of course, perfect printing. More and more, flexible packaging has been fitting the bill for brand owners.

For the most part, the printing of flexible packaging products has been the province of wide web printers. That makes basic sense because the unfolded dimensions of many or most flexible packages exceed the width of common narrow web presses. Most of the narrower presses utilized for production of flexible packaging are, in fact, wider than the typical narrow web machine and start at over 20". That being said, nothing is stopping a converter with narrower equipment from entering this lucrative field. Like everything else it takes work, investment, training, and time.

The advantage of employing narrow web equipment to create flexible packaging products on is the short run capability. Changeover in comparison with a wide web press is far shorter, which should result in favorably truncated lead times and pleased customers. Speed to market is a critical factor today.

Product segmentation is a beautiful thing for the printer and converter. In Europe, with its multitude of languages and cultures, it has been a reality forever, and more so today with no end in sight for SKU proliferation. Plate changes for the narrow web printer are accomplished far more quickly and economically than on wide web equipment (and nonexistent when a digital press is employed), meaning that the cost of producing short, very short or extremely short runs can be much lower.

Several years back, The Freedonia Group projected that the demand for converted flexible packaging in the United States was expected to rise to $14.4 billion by 2009. Nobody's crystal ball is perfect, but the flexible packaging industry dusted that number. The Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) reports that as of June 2010, flexible packaging was a $26.4 billion industry in the United States alone. It is the second largest packaging segment in the US, with an impressive 18 percent of the nation's $143 billion packaging market. The industry employs more than 79,000 people, and the average flexible packaging producer employs about 193 workers.

Food, says the FPA, is the largest market for flexible packaging – both retail and institutional – and accounts for about 56 percent of shipments. Non-foods (12 percent), industrial applications (9 percent), consumer products (10 percent), institutional non-foods (5 percent), and medical and pharmaceutical (8 percent) make up the remainder. Food companies are strong in the label sector as well – and these days, they are proving themselves to be less susceptible to severe economic swings.

In 2009, the date of its most recent flexible packaging study, The Freedonia Group said that world demand for converted flexible packaging was forecast to increase 3.5 percent per year to more than 19 million metric tons in 2013, faster than real (inflation- adjusted) gains in GDP. "Factors contributing to rising demand will include growth in food and beverage production, which represents the largest market by far," said the research company, which is based in Cleveland, OH, USA. "In addition, cost, performance and source reduction advantages, as well as ongoing developments in high-barrier resins and value-added features, will continue to favor flexible packaging products over their rigid counterparts.

"However, gains will be limited by the mature state of the packaging industry in developed areas such as the US, Western Europe and Japan, where the main markets for flexible packaging (i.e., food, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics) are well established. Material downgauging will also restrain volume gains. Nonetheless, demand for converted flexible packaging will benefit from the products' environmentally friendly image (as they are often associated with reduced packaging efforts), as well as cost advantages compared to rigid containers – especially considering their lighter weight (which imparts transportation cost savings), their smaller size (which imparts storage space savings) and their lower energy requirements during production."

Freedonia reports that Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Africa/Middle East region will all outpace the global average. "Population growth and greater urbanization (except in Eastern Europe), industrialization trends, and expanding international trade will support advances in these regions' generally underdeveloped packaging sectors. Rising consumer income levels and expanding middle classes will also generate robust internal demand for packaged consumer goods like processed foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics and toiletries, boosting converted flexible packaging consumption.

"Some of the best gains are expected in China, which has surpassed Japan to become the world's second largest converted flexible packaging market (behind the US); and India, which will benefit from strong growth in domestic output and consumer product markets. Rapid gains are also expected in Russia and Indonesia, which will benefit from greater investment in state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment, resulting in improved product quality."

A decorating edge
Flexible packaging provides advantages to the consumer and the brand owner that other packaging processes might not. Making use of a flexible packaging material to completely enclose a product could reduce the cost to the end user, depending on the complexity of the construction. Flexible packaging can employ thinner materials, which could translate to a price advantage. Such materials also are lighter, which could be an advantage in the logistical stages of a product's life.

The flexible package also can provide the advantage of full biodegradability, being composed of just one substrate and making recycling easy. In some instances the material is a lamination of film to film or other substrate, thereby offering barrier properties that can preserve the contents.

Brand owners might have several reasons for choosing flexible packaging for their products. Because of its full coverage, it can open up more possibilities for package decoration. It provides a different shape and feel for consumers, and has visual prominence. Flexible packages that make use of film materials carry brilliant graphics, with much more sizzle than can be found on a paperboard carton. Because packaging is a strong influence upon the consumer's choice of purchase, flexible packaging carries weight in the marketer's decision-making process.

Convenience is another reason. Consider a pouch of tuna. The resealing capability on the flexible pouch offers something more to the consumer than does the traditional metal can of fish, which requires a can opener to get to the meat and no built-in means of resealing.

Flexible packages can be constructed with high-performance laminates that protect their contents from oxygen or moisture, among other contaminants. They are lightweight and unbreakable, and can be accompanied by such features as zippers and laser scores. They can also bear the weight of heavier content with less material than rigid packaging. For converters, they are easy to handle and to ship.

Paper, film and foil are the basic components that make up the flexible packaging substrate. The material is a multi-layer laminate produced either by the use of adhesives or by extrusion.

Alcan Packaging's package for Mesquite Marinade (above) won a first place award from the Packaging & Label Gravure Association (PLGA).
In the extrusion process, layers of packaging materials are laminated together by extruding a layer of molten synthetic resin, such as polyethylene, between the layers. Typically this is a PET/polyethylene/foil/polyethylene construction, and commonly used for cosmetic applications. Adhesive laminating is just that: layers of packaging materials are laminated with an adhesive.

The typical flexible packaging structure has three parts: the exterior, the barrier and the sealant. The exterior is the print surface, which has various functions that are dependent upon

CLP Packaging Solutions took a first prize for this pouch in the PLGA Excellence Awards in 2008.
the product inside and how it is packaged. In a prelaminated structure, the exterior layer usually is the print surface.

Barrier materials protect the contents; requirements for these vary according to the type of product, the expected shelf life, and the packaging, storage and distribution conditions of the final product.

The sealant layer is material that will adhere to itself or to another film when heat and pressure are applied. The hermetic seal blocks the penetration of gases through the seals into the package. It is typically applied to the inside layer of a multi-layer structure on the side that makes contact with the product.

Pouches that are paper-faced are designed to be surface printed and are used for fin-sealed containers. The paper is semi-gloss quality paper or higher. The pouching process will expose the construction to temperatures up to 375° F, which means that inks and coatings must be capable of enduring that much heat. For a paper/poly/foil/poly laminate, the typical end use is for dry powders, which have a long shelf life because of the foil barrier. Paper/poly/OPP constructions are suitable for applications that require more stiffness and puncture resistance.

This type of construction has fewer barrier characteristics and shorter shelf life.

Film-faced pouch materials are surface printed. The very thin single or double layers of film are used in some snacks. Multiple film laminations, some of which contain a foil barrier, are used for conditioners and shampoos. Longer drying times are required for film-faced substrates because the inks must bond to the surface, and excessive heat can damage the material. Chill rolls and flowing air are recommended to keep the temperature of the web low.

Industry experts say that a thorough examination of the flexible packaging market is highly recommended for any narrow web converter who is contemplating entry into the segment. There's a vast selection of stocks to work with, each of which has a specific function or strength. Knowledge of seal integrity and barrier properties is crucial, as well as the overall substrate appearance.

The Hershey's package (top) won Bemis Milprint a PLGA first prize in 2008 for film/film lamination, as did the Heinz promotion for Alcan Packaging in the foil/film lamination category.

Prairie State Group, a label and flexible packaging producer in Franklin Park, IL, USA, has been working with flexible products for a dozen years, and prints with solvent inks on presses that range from 20" to 26" wide. Executive VP Dan Doherty, one of the partners, says that the process has involved years of research and education. "The most difficult portion," he says, "has been understanding the materials, understanding all the various options out there. It has been an interesting curve."

Doherty says the cost of entry to flexible packaging is much higher than with the label business. "The investment to get into it is so much more if you are coming in with a label mentality," he notes. "You can find a used midweb press, but the new ones are $1 million or better, and then there's all the R&D and QA that you have to put into place." Add to that the training of operators – they're not easy to find, he says – and it amounts to a significant challenge. Still, he adds, the company's
flexible packaging division has grown significantly in size beyond Prairie State's label division.

The laminates have specific and different handling and printing properties. Material testing is critical, and might require investment in a laboratory and equipment.

FPA to examine growth opportunities for flexible packaging

The Flexible Packaging Association has commissioned SAI Industrial LLC to conduct in-depth research on growth opportunities for flexible packaging. The research is aimed at identifying the top trends, opportunities and barriers to growth. SAI's mission is to define issues and opportunities for conversion from other packaging formats to flexible packaging. The research will also examine:

Advantages for flexible packaging over other packaging formats in end-use categories where the trend favors flexible packaging, and market segments that currently have low flexible packaging penetration.

Challenges to growth of flexible packaging within defined market segments. Challenges examined may include cost, materials, equipment needs, capital barriers, performance, contract packagers, market perceptions, and education.

Flexible packaging's position in the total packaging market, breakdown of total dollar volume share by key segments, packaging segments growth comparisons from 2005-2011, and growth projections for the next five years.

Trends, tradeoffs, and movements within end-use categories and between packaging segments, and analysis of end-use markets including the percent of each packaging segment in specific markets.

Globalization and global sourcing strategies of the major consumer product companies and their impact on the growth potential of the US flexible packaging industry.

A presentation of the research findings will be provided during the 2011 FPA Fall Executive Conference on October 5 at The Ritz-Carlton in Chicago, IL, USA. For more information, email fpa@flexpack.org.

The converter must have a sure grasp of tension management, heat management and drying capabilities. Tension on conventional label presses most likely cannot accommodate the low levels that flexible materials require, which is why successful flexible packaging converters are making use of newer servo driven presses with advanced tension controls.

Inks have to be able to work with the lamination process inline, and holding register is also a serious issue. Because drying is a highly sensitive process and heat can damage the web, the press must be equipped with the proper drying systems.
FlexPack White Paper

Avery Dennison has written a detailed white paper titled "How Narrow Web Printers Can Capitalize On Flexible Packaging Opportunities." The work addresses nine frequently asked questions from narrow web converters starting out in the flexible packaging market. It provides a variety of technical considerations and recommendations to clarify the flexible packaging process, and, as a result, helps assess the viability of adding flexible packaging to their capabilities.

The white paper is published exclusively at our website, www.labelandnarrowweb.com.

Though narrow web trails wide web in the production of flexible packaging products, the narrow web converter can pick up business that the wide web folks can't handle – typically the short run work. Partnering with a wide web house could turn out to be a profitable move. The narrow web professional can integrate this lucrative and challenging process with the right degree of knowledge, research and investment. It is a new level of innovation for the label converter, who already possesses broad knowledge of printing beyond that of most in the field.