Seven years ago, film converter Flex Pack USA, Inc. (www.flexpackusa.com), Orlando, FL, dipped its toes in the water of flexible film pouches, and found it quite inviting. At the time an established supplier of simple, low-density polyethylene film constructions for industrial use, Flex Pack initially supplied its customers with flexible pouches sourced from its U.K. operations. Not long after, it added copacking to its services, with semi-automated filling equipment. In 2003, when the trickle of customers wanting to switch to flexible became a flood, the converter made a $5 million investment, bringing film production and bagmaking capabilities in-house.
"About two years ago, we installed an extruder, a press, a laminator, a slitter/rewinder, a pouch-making machine and a fully automated filling machine," says Rod Ali, Flex Pack sales manager. "We brought these capabilities in-house because a lot of our customers did not want to get their pouches from a foreign supplier because of the turnaround time involved. Since we already had the infrastructure here to manufacture the pouches, it seemed like the best way to control our leadtimes."
Flex Pack specializes in manufacturing pouches and filling them with dry, granular products, particularly sugar. It also works with other food items such as salt, pepper and snackfoods, as well as with nonfood items, including lawn and garden and pet-supply products, and pharmaceutical-grade Epsom salts. "Because of our equipment, we are open to a lot of different items that are dry granular," Ali explains.
As Flex Pack relates, the advantages of flexible pouches over other packaging formats for dry, granular products are many. During a visit by PD, Ali described a typical application, relating the details of a recent project that involved converting a 10-lb paper pack into a flexible format for a major supplier of granulated sugar products. (For complete details on Flex Pack's film-converting capabilities, see PD (April '05, p. 60.)
"They were looking for a way to differentiate themselves from other clubstore sugar products and also to reduce chargebacks for breakage," says Ali. "The ten-pound bag was an existing clubstore product, but it was in paper. Paper packaging is not very forgiving, and the sugar supplier was experiencing breakage problems. Flexible packaging was the next logical step.
"The only thing that we took from them was their existing artwork. Then we changed the package from a four-sided paper bag to a two-sided film pouch." The bag is a laminate of reverse-printed 12-micron polyester/125-micron linear LDPE. Created to meet the strength requirements of the 10-lb pouch, the polyethylene comprises a proprietary blend of three layers.
Ali says that the film construction was also chosen for its excellent barrier properties. "Paper breathes very easily, so when sugar is in a paper bag, it gets hard," he explains. "The pouch we created provides a very good barrier, so you don't have that exchange of oxygen going in and out. And, if the sugar does happen to get a little bit hard, you can always squeeze the bag to break the sugar down, without breaking the package itself."
Another benefit of the film construction is its glossy, eye-catching appearance. Brightly printed in four colors, the bag includes a bottom gusset that allows it to stand up on the shelf, providing more marketing impact. In addition, a reclosable Fresh-Lock(R) zipper from Presto Products (www.prestoproducts.com) allows consumers to store the sugar in its original packaging, rather than transfer it to another container. "Every time you go to the cabinet to take this out, you see the product name, which reinforces the brand," relates Ali.
Due to its ability to both convert and fill the packaging in-house, Flex Pack was able to turn the finished product around within four weeks of being contacted by the manufacturer. "The typical converter does not have a graphics department," Ali says. "Usually, they would just buy film, print it and laminate it. Because of the way we have everything set up, we can go from graphics through production to finished product in four to six weeks. That's the amount of time it would take a typical converter to order film and have it delivered from the manufacturer. In fact, we've been known to turn around a job in two weeks—from the time we get the order in, to producing the pouches and filling them, and shipping out the product."
Flex Pack's bagmaking equipment is housed with its converting division in a 75,000-sq-ft facility, staffed by 100 employees. Filling is done in a separate, 45,000-sq-ft building—the third since the company began supplying flexible pouches—that is run by 50 employees. "We do consider them two separate facilities because of the nature of the business," relates Ken Dorey, vp of operations for Flex Pack. "One is for manufacturing, and the other is for copacking the granular products. We could never realistically coexist in the same facility."
At the manufacturing site, Flex Pack uses two Freedom Series RSU-30 pouchmaking machines from Ro-An Industries (www.roan.com) to create the flexible pouches. With a 30-in. width, the machines are servo-driven and can create up to 4,800 bags/hr of bottom-loaded or three-side-sealed pouches. Standard features include a touchscreen interface and job setup, with job data stored in memory for instant job recall. Flex-Pack uses the machine's zero-clearance punch and die to create handled pouches, while zippers can also be added in-line. Off-line, Flex Pack can add spouts using equipment it designed and built in-house.
In the packing facility, Flex Pack operates two AMS A100 semi-automatic volumetric auger fillers, which the company purchased not long after its began offering flexible pouches. The AMS Filling Systems (www.amsfilling.com) fillers are used for short runs, as well as for nonwhite sugar products, and can operate at up to 30 pouches/min. Says Dorey, "AMS has always been very good to us; their customer service is superb. And the equipment is so user-friendly, that within a week, the operator can have full knowledge of the machine."
The fillers have an accuracy of ±1 percent and are versatile enough to fill pouches from 100 mg up to 50 lb, according to AMS. Flex Pack uses the equipment to fill product in 14-oz to 25-lb sizes, and seals the pouches with MPS 6000 and MPS 7000 sealers, both from Emplex (www.emplex.com). The pouches then receive a date code from one of two ink-jet coders—a Domino A100 or a Domino A200 series printer—from Domino Amjet (www.domino-printing.com/us/).
Flex Pack's newest filler is an automatic premade-bag filling and sealing machine from a proprietary supplier. Accommodating pouch sizes from 6.3x11.4 to 4.7x16.9 in., the machine includes some custom-designed elements that Dorey says were added to enable the filling of bags from 2 to 10 lb. The filler has a maximum operating speed of up to 50/min, depending on the size of the bag; 22/min is average with the 10-lb size.
Another benefit of the film construction is its glossy, eye-catching appearance. Brightly printed in four colors, the bag includes a bottom gusset that allows it to stand up on the shelf.
Ali says it took Flex Pack some time to get used to using an automated machine, but adds that it provides many benefits. "In this industry, it is very unusual to have an automated filler," he explains. "While we are not the only company filling sugar pouches, many of the other companies use form/fill/seal machines. Our machine only takes preformed pouches, so we don't have to deal with any type of manufacturing during the filling process. This gives us a better pouch, in terms of the integrity of the seal, because you are actually forming it on a pouch machine, as opposed to on a filling line. You also don't have issues of contamination or dust getting into the seal area during filling."
The process of filling the 10-lb bags—the only size presently being run on the new fill-seal equipment—begins when Flex Pack receives its daily shipment of 50,000 lb of white sugar. The sugar is delivered by three tanker trucks each day, which pull up alongside the Flex Pack facility and blow the sugar into pipes that carry the product through the roof of the building and into silos inside. As needed, a filter/receiver then sucks the sugar from the silos into a hopper above the machine, and the sugar is then gravity-fed to the filler. "The only manual operation we have on the machine is an operator feeding in empty pouches, and the machine does the rest," relates Dorey.
The eight-station fill/seal machine is computer-controlled and CAM-driven, which enables the operator to make adjustments to weight, seal temperature and other parameters on-the-fly. As the bags are delivered to the machine, suction cups and fingers hold the pouches, while air is blown into the bags, opening them to their fullest. As the pouches are being opened, they receive a date code on the bottom gusset. A sensor then alerts the auger filler that the pouches are ready to be filled.
Once the bags are filled, the gripper arms holding the bags widen while retaining their grip, effectively closing the bags so that the seal bars can seal effectively. Sealed bags then exit the machine on an outfeed conveyor.
More information is available:
AMS Filling Systems, Inc., 800/647-5390. www.amsfilling.com
Domino Amjet, Inc., 847/244-2501. www.domino-printing.com/us/
Emplex Bag Sealing Solutions, 800/265-1775. www.emplex.com
Flex Pack USA, Inc., 800/736-5618. www.flexpackusa.com
Presto Products Co., 800/558-3525. www.prestoproducts.com
Ro-An Industries Corp., 800/255-7626. www.roan.com