Louis Piffer, senior sales engineer, Davis-Standard, a designer, manufacturer and supplier of plastics and rubber processing equipment, and extrusion technology and extruder converting systems.
What top trends are you seeing in flexible packaging and why? What are the drivers?
Piffer: Companies want to be able to run shorter runs more economically. This involves reducing the downtime between running one product to another, which requires less purge time and faster equipment reconfiguration. Fortunately, recent work in adapter and screw design, along with proper purging techniques, can reduce purge times. Faster equipment reconfiguration has been available for some time, it’s just a question of the level of automation required.
What challenges is the flexible packaging market encountering now and how are they being addressed?
Piffer: I have constantly heard plant managers bemoaning the fact that they can’t get good operators and helpers. Lower unemployment level may be good for our country, but it can play havoc with flexible packaging staffing. As an equipment manufacturer, we get asked to provide a line with the proverbial “easy button.” They don’t want a line where the quality of the end product is based mainly on the experience of the operator. To do this, greater automation is required, and variables possibly left to the whims of the operator are being documented, tracked and controlled.
Where do you see the biggest growth for flexible packaging moving forward and why?
Piffer: The growth opportunities remain in the barrier segment with brand owners and converters looking for higher barrier structures to extend shelf life and reduce the need for preservatives and other non-organic additives. Today, market trends are driven by our aging population, as well as the emergence of the Millennials. The successful converter needs to incorporate features that address those trends, such as greater convenience, portion packaging and reduced amount of packaging materials. These features can be key to differentiate a given brand and expand product offerings.
In terms of technology, the increased use of digital printing as part of the converting chain is a growing trend to meet the needs of the market. By surface printing and lacquer coating a pre-lam material as opposed to laminating a reverse-printed film, the converter can realize a cost advantage by printing on demand, which can reduce waste and allow fewer product changes on their extrusion coating lines.
What, if anything, is different about the sustainability message of flexible packaging today versus, say, two or three years ago?
Piffer: The message has not changed much but the reality of what can be done is more aligned with the goals being set. Continued work in using renewable resources is yielding new materials, and easier ways to use recycled materials make it more viable to increase the amount being used—but the challenge remains in closing the gap between the increased cost and the expectation from brand owners not wanting to pay a premium for using these materials.
New equipment is energy efficient, and new technology and automation have reduced the amount of waste being generated, as well as have improved its value in the recycle stream. But this is just the first step in the process. Continued work in source reduction is needed to eliminate “over packaging” by moving to simpler structures utilizing high-performance materials.
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