By Tom Kerchiss
For fast turn over and for reasons of economy products sold such as chicken legs, chicken breasts and pizzas, etc., were packed primarily in heat sealed plastic bags with little in the way of exterior printed decoration, other than a logo, a bar code and basic content information. Product choice was limited but items considered basic family essentials were available in larger pack sizes than today. At that time most consumers cast envious glances at TV dinners and other ready to serve delights that were shown on American TV shows. Ready meals and the convenience that they provided was for most families in the UK and for Europe and elsewhere something for the far off future.
Fast forward to the present. Increasing affluence, demographic changes and a change in lifestyle and consumer preferences has fuelled the demand for products such as ready meals. According to business analysts, marketing gurus and social scientists, the global ready meal market prior to Covid-19 pandemic was thought to be worth around USD 160 billion in 2019 with a projected growth of close on 5 percent per annum, but the Covid-19 pandemic throws that figure somewhat in doubt.
Covid-19 has impacted on every aspect of our lives, forcing us to adapt our behaviour in order to cope with lock down and other restrictive measures to reduce the risk of contagion. The difficulties associated with shopping, such as distance measured queuing at supermarkets and shortage of delivery slots online has resulted in a greater demand for ready meals and other items that can be stored for a longer period of time and reduce the need for unwanted shopping trips.
Packaging for frozen and chilled foods including ready meals is not without its challenges. Packaging must work even harder than for most other product categories. Food items are sometimes buried away in uninviting coffin like frozen food cabinets or stacked in sentry box chilled units. If that wasn’t bad enough the physical storage elements associated with freezers and chiller cabinets is that shelf dividers, product separators, baskets, shelf lips and other paraphernalia can partially obscure product information and marketing and display content that the designer, product marketing department and the printer/converter have worked hard to get across.
Fortunately, technological improvements in freezers and alterations in store layouts is making a difference. Ready meals can now be found either in new temperature controlled chilled retail display cabinets or freezers that allow consumers to see items on display better. Stores are also siting them in areas of the supermarket subject to better lighting conditions, this encourages consumers to dwell more in a well-lit aisle and spend more.
Many of the packaged products marketed for the freezer and chilled cabinets are flexible in nature with either mono/co-ex films and laminates which are used for the packaging of vegetable, potato products, poultry and some ready meals. Laminated papers are sometimes combined with plastics, aluminium or other materials for ready-for-oven croissants, baguettes, etc.
Other materials, such as laminated papers and various grades of paperboard are often used in conjunction with plastic materials such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), amorphous PET (APET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) for ready meal trays. By and large these and other ready meal products incorporate slide-on-slide off decorative sleeves that incorporate photo-realistic images.
Although some ready meals are packaging in flexible pillow pouches and bags such as mixed ready to heat and serve paella, most ready meals are packed in pre-formed compartmentalised plastic containers or are supplied in aluminium foil containers. In the last few years and in response to pressure from environmental groups, the media, retailers and consumers containers made from composite materials derived from plant and other fibrous materials are coming on the scene. Efforts to find materials that are acceptable alternatives to plastics has been ramped up by notice given by leading supermarket groups that they will shortly no longer accept plastic materials such as coloured PET for their own branded ready meals.
There is little in the way of objection though to the paper and paperboard slide on sleeves that showcases food on-pack and which are then removed by the consumer prior to cooking to obtain product information and cooking instructions. Paper and paperboard and consumable components, the associated inks and coatings typically have a ‘greener’ profile; though it is worth remembering that papers and paperboard are subject to coating and other processes to ensure they are sufficiently wet proof, durable, greaseproof and that seals can be glued and of course they can be printed and varnished, etc.
High press speeds, low waste, ability to print on a broad range of substrates, colour stability and ability to turn out photo-realistic imagery makes gravure printing a worthy contender for the printing of ready meal sleeves. Gravure can achieve quality levels that are unmatched by other processes, particularly on low cost papers. In an energy conscious environment, gravure does not require the same high levels of energy output as some other processes. However, incremental and step change technological advancements in flexography means that flexography is no longer a Cinderella process and both print processes have their strengths and weaknesses.
Flexo produces higher line screens and newer flexographic presses can run at higher speeds than a few years ago. Developments in laser technology for engraving cylinders have speeded up cell production, shortening gravure down time. This has gone some way to address the criticism that origination costs and make-ready made the gravure suitable for only very large runs.
For added value work, inline cold seal, PvdC, varnishing, laminating and sheeting can be done on many gravure machines. Equally flexography is a highly versatile process, able to print on a wide range of materials using water based and other inks. The introduction of gearless technology gave flexo a boost. Besides an obvious reduction in capital costs by substantially reducing plate cylinder associated equipment, gearless technology provided for more flexibility. From a strategic basis, infinitely variable repeats levelled the playing field enabling converters to better compete on a print quality basis with gravure.
Choosing whether to opt for gravure or flexo is dependent on markets, costs and numerous other requirements and quantifiers. Some flexible packaging converters that can justify it run both flexo and gravure operations, but regardless of whether products are being run on flexo or gravure machines there is the same need to bring process variables under control, of which colour and ink performance related issues dominate is equally important.
A proofing or colour communication device that can be used by converters, consumable providers, etc to aspire, achieve and maintain colour control, colour consistency is the K Printing Proofer. This compact device enables users to obtain high quality proofs using gravure, gravure-offset or flexographic inks. It can proof from any flexible substrate including papers, films, foils, etc. Two or more inks may be printed simultaneously for comparison purposes and registration is included for overprinting.
With its flexo head fitted ink is transferred from a printing plate to a plain or patterned stereo roller and then onto the substrate. Plain or step wedge plates can be supplied that corresponds to the various densities required. Printing gravure is achieved by switching to the gravure head. In this instance ink is transferred from the electronically engraved printing plate directly onto the substrate, which is attached to the rubber covered impression roller. Doctor blade and roller adjustment is made via micrometres allowing for repeatable settings for future tests.
For gravure-offset, the flexo head is employed, fitted with a plain rubber covered offset roller to transfer ink from the plate to the substrate.
Another feature of this proofing device is that its possible to engage in laminating tasks. Both wet and dry laminating samples can be obtained using the gravure head in conjunction with RK Print Coat Instruments K Lam laminating accessories, which include a rubber covered bed and wired K-Lam bars that are fitted in place of the doctor blade assembly to control adhesive coat weight.
Consumer markets are more highly fragmented and are increasingly commoditised, making a brand and its products ability to stand out and be noticed even more of a challenge than in the past. Colour can define the brand and make an item such as ready meals stand out. Colour and photorealism for ready meal sleeves must be accurate and consistent; the imagery serves as an aid for memory encoding and decoding purposes. If colour or imagery doesn’t work the chances of the consumer purchasing the ready meal will be reduced.