Lamination and sustainability20 January 2020
Laminates and coats are a fundamental part of the packaging industry, keeping the products inside safe and free from contamination. Any failures can have terrible consequences, both from a financial and health perspective. Andrea Valentino talks to Evan Arnold and Ken Brunnbauer, at Glenroy, about how companies are working to keep their laminates efficient, and how new technology is helping keep costs down
Whether for protection or beauty, people have been coating objects for almost as long as civilisation has existed. Homer talked of laminated shields and laminated knives have been found near the Pyramids of Giza. By the 1300s, craftsmen in Bohemia were coating iron cans with tin, protecting the vessels from rust and giving them a handsome shine. The Czechs were able to keep their talent a secret for a while, until the Duke of Saxony stole the technique and spread it across Europe.
These older traditions dovetailed with the rise of the flexible packaging industry in the 1800s. Today every package worth the price will gleam with laminate or coating, protecting the product inside, sealing it from the elements and making it more attractive for customers. It is therefore unsurprising that the laminates market is growing by over 8% a year, and is now worth a spectacular $2.2 billion. The flexible packaging industry has kept its grasp over laminates too, and represents 74% of annual demands.
Not that converters can just sit back and expect their bank accounts to fill up. Laminating and coating is a decidedly tricky business and mistakes can quickly ruin a package, wasting money and potentially even putting health at risk. And with new environmental pressures looming over the planet, manufacturers are now expected to balance quality laminates with keeping climate change at bay. Not that the situation is unsalvageable. From more efficient machinery to powerful digital tools, the industry is undergoing some remarkable transformations – opening the path to a sustainable future even as profits continue to rise.
Laminations for the nations
Laminates are used in a bewildering array of products. In the food industry alone, they are employed to protect everything from boil-in-bag pouches to microwaveable dinners and ice cream packs. Beyond the supermarket gates, meanwhile, they can be found covering medication in pharmacies and cosmetics in beauty salons. This breadth is echoed by depth, with laminates being expected to fulfil a huge range of functions. When it comes to mechanical properties, after all, laminates might be conscripted to make a product more robust or protect it during distribution and storage. From there, laminates are often enlisted to keep products from deteriorating agents, like gas and moisture, and preserve aroma and freshness.
Evan Arnold is in an excellent position to reflect on all this. As the director of product development and engineering at Glenroy – a Wisconsin-based firm with 50 years of packaging experience – he has worked in the packaging field for over a decade. As Arnold puts it, laminates are the “backbone” of how to make flexible packaging functional. “That can [mean] how they’re shipped, how they’re used, how they protect the products. But using laminate materials versus just monomaterials allows companies to extend their reach and products, keep their products safe for the end consumers.”
Yet with great power comes great responsibility, and Arnold is keen to emphasise that the consequences of faulty laminates can be grim, not least from a reputational perspective. “Leaking packages during shipment – especially depending on the market of the product that is inside – can be extremely detrimental. Once a leaking or compromised product gets to the consumers, it’ll not only turn the consumers off that brand and that product, but they’ll also start to wonder what else is going on within that package.”
That reference to “the product that is inside” is no accident. As a company that works primarily in the food and pharmaceutical space, Glenroy is acutely aware of the health risks of dodgy laminates. Apart from working closely with customers to develop laminates that fit their needs, the company is careful to put new products through its paces. “We do extensive quality-control testing at our end,” says Ken Brunnbauer, a marketing manager at Glenroy. As Brunnbauer explains, that covers everything from burst and seal tests to checking for punctures. This caution makes sense. According to European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, compromised seals and the faulty medication that ensued contributed to 37,000 deaths across the EU in 2014.
Yet even as these general challenges bubble under the surface, they are only one part of the story. To put it another way, the converting industry is increasingly expected to do far more than just get the basics right. Perhaps the most obvious pressure is that of sustainability. As climate changes become a global concern, companies are increasingly being pushed to do their bit for the planet. For his part, Arnold describes how Glenroy is working to “enhance our environment” and he is far from alone. As Giancarlo Caimmi, a commercial director at Nordmeccanica, put it earlier this year, “we are witnessing a significant evolution in the flexible packaging industry in which packaging is easier to recycle and more respectful of the environment.”
Other aspects of the climate crisis affect laminates more directly. With manufacturers now keen to cut waste, they need their laminates and coats to last longer. There have even been moves, Arnold notes, towards preserving product freshness long after consumers bring it home. “Can we eliminate oxygen from getting back into that package once it’s been opened, to continue to preserve the food that’s in there?”
More broadly, the industry is adapting to wider shifts in how business is done. If products were once just piled onto a palette and shipped to a store in bulk, Amazon and other online retail giants make the process far more muddled. In other words, Arnold says, converters have to make sure that their laminates are “strong enough, robust enough and have the puncture resistance needed to withstand a rigorous supply chain.”
Shine for the environment
It seems clear that the coating and laminating fields are undergoing revolutionary changes. But what does that actually mean in practice? Given the stupendous consequences of inaction, it makes sense that industry experts seem most keen to talk about their environmental work. At Glenroy that begins with developing laminates using recyclable resins, something Ken Brunnbauer suggests is part of a broader campaign. “We work with partners with to get that message out,” he says, “so people in society see the benefits of what is happening in the marketplace.” His enthusiasm is certainly justified if you look at the statistics. Through its recycling programme, Glenroy now keeps over 100,000 pounds of material out of landfills – and in the materials cycle – every month.
This eagerness for recycling is shadowed by more sustainable production techniques. Converters are increasingly developing thinner webs for packages, both to keep prices down and to cut the use of laminate compounds for environmental reasons. A related area of progress, meanwhile, is scrap reduction. Because its packaging films roll down right to the core, Glenroy keeps its laminating process as sustainable as possible. You get the impression this is part of a broader trend. As Caimmi at Nordmeccanica put it earlier this year, “scrap reduction is paramount in coating and lamination,” something that seems to be borne out in the industry at large. For example, converters are tweaking the designs of their coating heads, keeping coating weights even and reducing scrap along the way.
Machinery can help sustainability in other ways too. Once again, Glenroy is a case in point. By switching its flexographic printing from an open-air decking system to a closed central-impression system, the company prevents nasty volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from escaping into the atmosphere. This is bolstered by thermal oxidisers, which destroy nearly 100% of leftover VOCs before they can cause any damage. Combined with a push towards energy and water conservation and you can understand why Brunnbauer is so confident that Glenroy can “help shape the conversation about waste” in the industry at large. Not that Glenroy is unique here. Around 20% of the equipment at Nordmeccanica, after all, is self-powered, and companies from Davis-Standard to Dow are going the same way.
All this is very impressive, but firms are doing far more than measure their environmental footprints. The move towards ecommerce – and the frantic shipping regime that follows – is a particular catalyst for change. “People are wanting to go quicker and more into flexibles than they had before,” explains Arnold. “These extremely drawn-out product development cycles no longer exist. Brands want to hit these new ideas and capitalise on them quicker than before.” In practice, Arnold says, that means developing machinery that “work well” for clients. Given packages now need to get out in an age of one-click shopping, speed, in particular, is now a huge issue.
Equipment like the Duplex SL One Shot laminator is filling this gap. Developed jointly by Nordmeccanica and Dow, the machine increases webbing speeds by between 25% and 50%. Not that the industry can afford to be lax with regulations, especially when it comes to food and other sensitive products. As it is, the One Shot machine promises food compliance within 24 hours, compared to the three or four days typical in older equipment. Environmental dangers notwithstanding, all this is being followed by a swing towards thicker-gauge webs that can survive the rough and tumble of modern internet shopping. No wonder the market for new laminate and coating machines is expected to reach $580 million by 2025, a CAGR of 4.1% from 2018.
Data day existence
Go to a converting plant today and you will likely find yourself faced with a mass of computers, throbbing with data, charts and information. This should not surprise you too much; as in almost every other area of life, new digital technology is transforming how converters go about their business. Just in the laminating space alone, the sheer diversity of projects is remarkable. Comexi, a packaging manufacturer based north of Barcelona, uses new cloud software lets stakeholders easily examine the parametres of every machine, from material thickness to running speed, all presented in elegant charts and available online. Across the Atlantic, Davis-Standard is developing a “continuous monitoring platform” that works with sensors to keep machines in check.
For Arnold, all this is incredibly exciting, both in terms of making production quicker and catching problems before they flair up. Even so, he is careful to emphasise that companies will hardly be able to sit back and let computers do all the work. “How do we keep enabling our operations to use technology to get smarter?” he asks. “How can we get the data out of the machine so that we can not only run [equipment] faster and more efficiently, but we can also get ahead of any potential issues that might come down?”
To answer these questions, Arnold explains, companies will need to keep an eye on their equipment across “across a bunch” of different functions. “If we start seeing trends of our machines, we know we need to get in and update them to keep them running at the highest quality possible with the highest efficiency possible.” An exciting possibility, and one those Bohemian craftsmen back in the 1300s could scarcely have imagined.