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Flexing their muscles...with innovation

Innovation is one of the packaging industry's most prevalent themes. But, according to major players in the U.S.'s $21.3 billion flexible packaging industry, innovation isn't seen as innovative thinking at all—it's accepted as the industry norm.

And this mindset won't be changing anytime soon. Building on more than five decades of continuing innovation, industry leaders maintain that this key competitive advantage has allowed them to outpace other packaging options by nimbly responding to customer needs, aggressively pursuing opportunities to expand market share and forcefully moving into other product segments and geographic regions.

Let's look at the numbers. A recent study by the Flexible Packaging Association (www.flexpack.org) reveals that the flexible packaging industry directly employs more than 80,000 people in the U.S. alone, accounting for more than 17 percent of the $124 billion domestic packaging market. More than 55 percent of flexible packaging is for retail and industrial food applications.

With that kind of power, it's no wonder flexible packaging advancements will be in abundance at this fall's PACK EXPO International 2006 (www.packexpo.com), sponsored and produced by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI [www.pmmi.org]). Here's an early preview of some of the trends that will be highlighted at the show, being held Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, at Chicago's McCormick Place.

Students of World War II will readily recall the Big Three of that era: Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin. Overseeing the war effort and planning the shape of the post-war world, this trio left their imprint on the world. Their decisions, and the ramifications of their agreements, continue to reverberate.

Flexible packaging thought leaders have their own Big Three to lead them in the battle for market supremacy. The following key themes will undoubtedly mold the industry's growth in the years to come:

Safety: The development and implementation of new films and protective substrates will allow the industry to expand its reach within the food industry while also making strides in other markets.

Consumer Convenience: Packaging that eases consumer use (and reuse) and incorporates materials that can withstand heating and freezing, along with visible, value-added features such as reclosable technologies and convenient carrying handles, will grow in importance.

Shelf Appeal: The catchphrase across all packaging segments has clear implications in the flexible packaging arena. Advances in materials, printing technologies and structural designs add up to enhanced branding and in-store marketing opportunities for both consumer product companies and burgeoning private-label retailers.

While an obvious issue, safety remains, quite rightly, a primary focus for the industry. "Product safety, absolutely, is a very important factor in packaging decisions," says Alan Roberts, vp of processor sales for Robbie Manufacturing (www.robbiemfg.com). "Films used in today's packaging have to be top quality to meet the needs of specific applications. They are required to be puncture-resistant and engineered with barriers for moisture and gas transmissions for both hot and cold applications." Citing examples from frozen foods' sharp edges that tear packaging and provide openings for contamination to tampering of deli packaging handled many times in the cases before being selected, Roberts maintains that "structural integrity is extremely critical."

But the food market isn't the only place where safety comes first. Expansion into pharmaceutical and medical-device applications, which currently makes up 8 percent of flexible packaging's market share, according to Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. (www.smurfit-stone.com), reinforces the need for safety.

According to Tony Paolino, director of sales and marketing for Rollprint Packaging Products (www.rollprint.com), "medical and pharmaceutical packagers continue to look for lower-cost alternatives—without sacrificing performance."

Marla Donahue, president of the FPA, concurs that nonfood flexible packaging growth will be seen in the medical-device and pharmaceutical arena, as well as increased use of shrink and stretch films. Advances in barrier and multifunctional films play a large role in this key area of growth in flexible packaging. Also driving growth are "innovative materials that add to product safety and protection, as well as materials that add traceability," says Donahue.

Working closely with film manufacturers, consumer product companies and private-label manufacturers continue to develop new films that are tough enough to stand up to the changing environments of production, shipping, hot deli cases and other retail displays, freezer cases and home storage.

Safety remains a primary benefit of flexible packaging; one compromised package can inflict great harm on a product or brand.

The rise of the two-income family, extended work hours and the effects of globalization on lifestyle choices are among the pressures today's busy consumers face. Flexible packaging continues to innovate to meet the needs of a more harried, time-pressed generation.

George Thomas, vp and general manager of Ampac Flexibles (www.ampaconline.com), maintains that the convenience trends taking over the entire packaging industry will continue to favor flexible packaging over other structures in the future. "The ability to mold and design more convenient packages that preserve the nutrition and quality of foods and protect drugs is only going to improve," he says.

"The desire for convenience and product protection is driving the need for more and more resealable packaging solutions," concurs Robert E. Hogan, director of international sales and marketing for Zip-Pak (www.zippak.com). "Focus-group studies reveal that consumers embrace flexible packaging with zippers and are willing to pay a premium for the added convenience. This trend is demonstrated by the popularity of 'slider' technology."

Robbie Manufacturing's Downing also agrees: "Packaging attributes designed to cater to the on-the-go lifestyle of the busy consumer will continue to grow in importance. In addition to easy-opening features and reclosable zippers, other innovations like handles for easy carrying and leak-resistant technology are important."

FPA's Donahue notes that strong growth is forecasted in meat, cheese, dry foods, shrink multipacks and overwraps for beverages.

Rollprint's Paolino sums it up, stating that "technology-driven flexible packagers constantly have to search for unique applications that require value-added structures and services."

In the quest for consumer success, product safety is an essential attribute. And while many convenience-enhancing features, such as reclosable zippers and easy-to-carry packaging are easily identifiable, other technological innovations are more covert, adding to functionality but hidden from busy consumers faced with an ever-increasing selection of products on store shelves. This leads us to the linchpin of the Big Three: Shelf Impact.

"Consumers are the driving force in today's move to flexible packaging," asserts Downing. With consumers spending only seconds in the grocery store aisle making their purchase decisions, Downing says that marketers and package designers are using "high-end, attention-grabbing designs to help differentiate products on the shelf to help the consumer in their decision making. The overall package communicates the integrity of the product inside."

Donahue agrees, citing that "advances in printing and materials have resulted in the dramatic shelf impact of flexible packaging." Examples can be seen in the FPA's 2006 Flexible Packaging Achievement Award winners (see page 22). Within the printing category, winning packages include a standup pouch produced by CLP Packaging Solutions (www.clp-packaging.com) for a Marks & Spencer sauce. "Its rich, luminous graphics clearly communicate luxury," says Donahue

"Another FPA winner, the M&M Holiday Special package, uses SonoMet technology from Sonoco Products Co. (www.sonoco.com), a combination of ink and cylinder technologies aligning specific cylinder engraving patterns and design manipulations, giving the packaging a metallized appearance," Donahue continues. A newer innovation, using a reverse-printed, flexo prepress platemaking process, has improved graphic reproduction, offering "increased image sharpness, brighter colors, higher densities, smoother vignettes and cleaner text," she notes.

In addition to moving product off the shelf, successful packaging must also communicate safety and convenience. Thanks to several technology advancements, flexible packaging seems well positioned to deliver the right mix of impact and convenience that today's consumers seek.

"With 3D CAD systems design, high-speed, computer-based motion controls and high-tech composites and materials, technology is changing the way we produce, fill, distribute and use packaging to improve the quality of life," summarizes Ampac's Thomas.

The results of these advancements are reflected in packages recognized by the 2006 Flexible Packaging Achievement Awards program. Winning designs will also be featured in The Showcase of Packaging Innovations™ at PACK EXPO this fall.

The themes of safety, convenience and shelf impact clearly comprise the Big Three in flexible packaging. These key attributes and benefits will continue to aid in the growth of flexible applications domestically and internationally, both in its traditional role in the consumer food industry and in other market segment applications.

Although challenged in the last year by increased raw material costs and lower profitability in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, growth in the flexible packaging industry still came in at a robust 3.8 percent, continuing its trend of outpacing the GDP.

Should we be surprised? Not at all. After all, 50 years of inspired innovation and continued growth demonstrate that this is one industry prepared for a profitable and growing future. For those wanting to join in for the ride, a visit to PACK EXPO International this October is a great place to start.

For more information about PACK EXPO International 2006, visit www.packexpo.com. Or contact PMMI's Show Department at 703/243-8555; fax 703/243-8556; or e-mail [email protected].


More information is available:
Ampac Flexibles, 800/543-7030. www.ampaconline.com.
CLP Packaging Solutions, 973/808-4441. clp-packaging.com.
Flexible Packaging Assn., 410/694-0800. www.flexpack.org.
PACK EXPO Intl., 703/243-8555. www.packexpo.com.
Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute., 703/243-8555. www.pmmi.org.
Robbie Manufacturing, 800/255-6328. www.robbiemfg.com.
Rollprint Packaging Products, 630/628-1700. www.rollprint.com.
Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., 877/772-2932. www.smurfit-stone.com.
Sonoco Products Co., 843/383-7000. www.sonoco.com.
Zip-Pak, 800/488-6973. www.zippak.com.
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