Resource efficiency – cutting costs with flexible packaging

2 December 2014

Throughout 2014, the packaging industry has continued to see growth in the pouch and flexible-packaging markets due to flexible’s ability to take considerable costs out of the development while still providing eye-catching shelf presence. In association with Packaging World’s playbook series, Pat Reynolds prepared the following analysis.

Trends often come and go before one notices them. Flexible-packaging trends seem to have a longer lifespan than most, signalling that the format is here to stay. Here are some recent and developing trends currently being monitored.

More easy-open, easy-reclose options
A wider range of opening treatments, fitments and closures are available today than ever before, including linear-tear characteristics, reclosable zips that don't require any tearing of the pouch header to open and screw-on spouts for liquid pouches. Machinery has advanced, too, with increased ability to apply these features inline during filling and sealing, with minimal downtime issues.

Clear high-barrier films
A new generation of clear films and coatings is beginning to approach the barrier properties of foil and metallised films. This provides new opportunities to showcase appetising products while avoiding flex-cracking problems associated with foil and some older coating technologies. These structures also offer the potential for microwave-compatible pouches.

Penetration into entirely new categories
Flexible packaging tends to sweep through entire product categories, though admittedly over a period of years. Classic examples include tuna and pet food, where retort pouches are now common after decades of can dominance. More recently, baby food retort pouches (and thermoformed trays) are replacing glass jars. Flexibles are also being used for home and garden supplies such as fertilisers, where resealability is a key feature.

A quick look ahead
Now that ketchup in larger retail flexible pouches is no longer a novelty, other viscous condiments that can be more efficiently evacuated from a pouch are a prime prospect. Test-market successes in Western and Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America tell the early tale. Health and beauty products, such as shampoo and liquid soaps, might also be ripe for conversion. Further expansion in soups, stocks and canned fruit is likely as well.

The slow roll of the cereal aisle
While flexible packaging has made inroads at the high end (granola) and low end (value cereals), experts agree that cereal makers simply have too much invested in existing bag-and-box equipment to expect widespread change anytime soon. Replacement is further complicated given the predominance of recycled paperboard cartons made from renewable resources in this application. Just because a package converts to flexible doesn't mean consumers in a given country will accept it. The new global perspective means packaging structures or formats - including flexible innovations - originate anywhere in the world.

More layers in co-extrusion
Though it sounds counterintuitive, the addition of layers into a flexible packaging structure can actually lead to improvements in economics and functionality. How? It allows for more precise control of the layers. Three and five-layer film co-extrusion manufacturing lines are limited by the size of the extruders, and by the design of the dies. More converters are moving to seven and nine-layer co-extrusion lines that provide more flexibility for desired functionality, thickness and cost without over-engineering the structure. One technique is to use less-expensive resins as bulking layers. Another is to split the barrier layer into two thinner layers, with one serving as a "backup" in case a pinhole breeches the other. This approach also multiplies the number of material interfaces a permeate must cross, further reducing permeation rates. Several technologies for splitting barrier materials into many layers are being introduced, with data showing more than linear improvements in barrier properties.

Shaped flexible packaging
The current generation of form/fill/seal packaging can produce more bag shapes and styles than ever. That's important for consumer packaged goods companies hungry for new shapes that stand out on the shelf. Shaped pouches that cut a mostly two-dimensional, curvy shape have been out for years; though mostly outside the US, machinery manufacturers are working on efficient equipment for creating pouches with a conical or three-dimensional shape. A challenge here is to hold down the design waste inherent in more complex profiles.

More retortable pouches
A retort package is "cooked" after it is filled at high enough temperatures long enough to kill bacteria and microorganisms that can spoil food. Several factors are driving the growth of retortable flexible packaging. It is easier to open than cans, weighs much less, and can have a smaller environmental impact than metal cans and glass jars. Additionally, pouches can minimise loss from denting or breakage and enable package innovations such as cooking capability. And then there is the taste. Many believe the food from retortable pouches tastes better because of less-abusive sterilisation heating cycles. The flat geometry of the flexible package means that food closest to the surface doesn't need to be heated for as long or at as high a temperature before the food in the centre has received the proper time and temperature exposure to ensure sterility.

Pouches' wide impact
Because pouch structures can be customised to meet a wide range of barrier requirements, a host of new product applications are emerging, such as liquid, viscous, powdered, granulated and particulate. This growth will cross multiple markets, including food and beverage, cosmetics, healthcare, pet foods, automotive, pharmaceutical and agricultural. While pouch-filling speeds are not yet on a par with those of many conventional container types, this gap is closing, particularly in the dry-product arena.

Sustainable packaging is taking on new forms
Many people play up the recyclability aspect of sustainability as it relates to packaging at the exclusion of the front end of a package's life cycle. The carbon footprint of various packaging types has to consider many factors. For example, pouches offer tremendous energy savings in their production and transport. Comparing rigid containers with pouches, one can ship a truckload of flat pouches that have the equivalent product-holding capacity of upwards of 15 to 25 truckloads of empty rigid containers. Packagers can also save hundreds of thousands of dollars in packaging material costs and secondary packaging operations systems due to simplifications of packaging systems, such as the elimination of labelling or capping.

Waste-to-energy is coming of age
Following a successful track record in European and Asian countries, waste-to-energy (WTE) is becoming a more viable end-of-life option for flexible packaging materials in North America. Advances in municipal incinerator technology have tackled issues related to harmful emissions, increasing the likelihood that US companies will support efforts to turn waste into electricity, synthetic gas, fuels and recycled materials. WTE can reduce air emissions, landfill loads, energy usage and costs. Also, by reducing municipal solid waste and generating energy that can be sold back to the local grid, organisations can help reduce energy costs community-wide. This, in turn, may feed into larger goals, such as compliance with corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Top ten factors in the digital printing equation

It may be difficult to see through the hype surrounding digital printing, because the actual packaging market penetration, by percentage, is still quite low. Its early success has been in labels for food and beverage products, but it is poised to move to other categories and other substrates, such as folding cartons and flexible. It's important to plan ahead and think of all the factors that warrant consideration when preparing to go digital:

  1. Run size
    Digital printing is growing in markets that require specialised, frequently updated labels like wines and craft beers. Small brands or brands with many SKUs benefit most from digital printing. The short changeover times and reduced material waste can make it an economically advantageous option. The run numbers are getting higher for competitiveness on price and lower for competitiveness on speed.
  2. Speed to market
    Traditional print methods like flexographic, gravure and offset sometimes take weeks to prepare the plates or rolls and get the printer run-ready. CPG companies these days, whether through poor planning or for a competitive advantage, can't wait more than a few days before getting new designs out the door, especially with seasonal or promotional campaigns.
  3. The cost of materials
    In a way, comparing digital to flexo is comparing apples to oranges, but careful consideration of all the numbers reveals where the cost savings can be realised. Settle on the cost of materials first and then compare total costs. Waste, as already mentioned, is a significant factor in assessing printing costs long term. Standard overrun percentages are often lower with digital, and with the ever-changing demands of customers and retailers, labels in storage often become obsolete, and that can be a substantial loss to absorb.
  4. The cost of time
    The cost-of-time equation, short term and long term, is being scrutinised more and more. The limiting factor in any production chain can clog up design and management processes in unseen ways. It's difficult to focus intently on the next project when the current one is on hold or held up in prepress.
  5. Variability of SKUs
    Beverage companies with many flavour varieties, diet options and performance lines can see the benefits of localised, on-demand printing. But even without a multitude of SKUs, many upstart brand-owners are introducing multiple designs within a single SKU. A wine maker, for instance, packed every case of one varietal with 12 different label designs, albeit all aligned in a theme.
  6. International presence
    Even if foreign expansion is only on the horizon, it is worth factoring into long-term printing plans. Foreign language requirements on packaging continue to evolve and become more specific. Digital is a go-to solution for national brands expanding into international markets, because even dominant players sometimes have to start with small volumes. Plus, they want to appear committed to the market with well-designed and well-produced multilingual packages. For those companies, asset management software is also a must.
  7. Promotion opportunities
    Two examples of consumer-directed, design-your-own packages are telling. Heineken beer in Europe has run several campaigns that allow customers to order six-packs of beer, through the post, that arrive with the customers' own personal design. Jones Soda in the US uses only customer-submitted label designs on its products. Fans send in pictures and Jones decides which to use in broad distribution.
  8. High-end effects
    Digital printing does not allow as much expandability to add effects, embossing or die-cutting inline. However, more brand-owners are testing out the cost efficiency of "combination printing", which runs the packaging substrate through two different print cycles.
  9. Comfort with your print provider
    Be careful that one's print provider is knowledgeable in digital printing inks. The chemistry of digital inks can be tricky because of the way inks adhere to the substrate. Different substrates have different surface tensions regarding the energy of the ink transfer, its adhesion and the post-printing treatment.
  10. Cross-substrate colour matching
    Be aware that it's not always easy to match what was produced digitally with a different process on different substrates, such as flexible film or paperboard. That's why some printers will do a "dumbed-down" test run on digital to show what's possible on other printers. Digital on flexible substrates has limitations that include limited web widths, lamination time limits (within 24 hours) and longer run minimums.

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