Flexible packaging has become one of the fastest growing trends in the packaging industry, and when you look at the advantages it can offer, it’s no surprise. Flexible Packaging magazine suggests that some of the trends we can expect to see in the upcoming year include more advanced and “sophisticated” graphics and designs on flexible packaging as flexographic printing methods advance, as well as more and more innovations in re-closable packaging and unique shapes.
For Mission 4, we asked our Mission: Packaging students to do some research of their own on the trends in flexible packaging and how new innovations are impacting traditional methods of case sealing. Read on to learn what Caroline, Kari, and Tristen had to share:
Caroline: Flexible Packaging Defined
In all areas of the packaging industry, from food and beverage to medical, flexible packaging has supplemented and replaced rigid packaging. Substrates that provide moisture or oxygen barriers and have print capability come together to create lightweight packaging that provides protection, extended shelf life, and the ability to be resealed or heat treated. Not only have primary packages taken on the poly form but secondary and tertiary packages have become increasingly flexible. So, this leads to the question of what constitutes flexible packaging. Flexible packaging is any package or part of a package whose shape can be readily changed. Materials include paper, plastic, film, foil, metalized or coated paper, or any combination of these. Some examples of flexible packaging include roll stock, bags, pouches, liners, shrink sleeves, over-wrap, bulk shipping sacks, flexible lidding, and film wrap around labels.
Flexible packages provide advantages and disadvantage to both the consumer and the manufacturer. Flexible packaging combines the best qualities of each material to deliver a broad range of protective properties while employing minimal material. This results in superior barrier protection, extended shelf life and establishes food safety which ultimately benefits the consumer by providing safe, long lasting, and cheaper products. By using less material than traditional or rigid packaging, manufacturers save money in material sourcing and transportation due to a lightweight package. This is the case because less weight leads to decreased transportation-related energy expenditure, fossil fuel consumption, and consequently less environmental pollution. These factors illustrate how flexible packaging contributes to sustainability. Environmentally friendly products align with the lifestyle of a growing consumer category, which in turn benefits manufacturers that invest in flexible packaging by appealing to this market.
Despite the numerous advantages of flexible packaging, aspects such as sustainability can pose as disadvantages too. A glaring disadvantage of flexible packaging is lack of recyclability. Multi-layer packaging is in general not recyclable due to the layers themselves. Once packages contain plastic-metal and plastic-paper-metal layers, material separation makes substantially more difficult if not impossible. This is an area important to consumers and one where improvement is needed in the future. Another disadvantage that manufacturers should be aware of are flexible manufacturing systems and their implementation. These systems require extensive planning and resources due to their complexity and high price tag. Maintenance and repairs require highly skilled workers with costly compensation, and an inconvenience of trouble shooting problems through an outside source rather than in-house. It’s important for companies to understand the benefits of flexible packaging in their field to determine if those outweigh the costly drawbacks of purchasing and maintaining the machinery.
Finally, when discussing flexible packaging it’s important to consider its implications on other packaging operations like case sealing and secondary packaging. A large portion of flexible packaging is utilized in these operations, examples of such being shrink wrap, shrink sleeves, and bulk shipping sacks. Case sealing is an operation dependent on rigid secondary packaging, an example being taping a corrugated box, but alternatives such as bulk shipping sacks have challenged this notion. These sacks would still require sealing and handling, but would need new and different machinery. Another important addition to packaging, specifically secondary packaging, are shrink sleeves. A shrink sleeve is a plastic sleeve that’s wrapped flush with the secondary package, typically a bottle, and provides additional graphics and print capabilities. These wraps add shelf appeal by providing additional graphics as well as additional coatings and finishes applied to the plastic.
Undoubtedly, flexible packaging has greatly impacted the industry providing both advantages and disadvantages to the consumer and manufacturers. Despite the wide range of flexible packaging on shelves today there’s room for improvement and innovation.
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Kari: Innovations in Flexibility
Flexible packaging is just as its name suggests, easy to use and manipulate. This form of packaging is often composed of paper, plastic, film, and/or aluminum foil. Such materials make up packages in the form of bags, pouches, labels, liners, wraps, roll stock among others. Flexible packaging has risen in popularity due to its innovating effect on sustainability and functionality.
Flexible packaging consumes fewer natural resources. It has a higher product to packaging ratio, which also allows trucks to fit more of it per load, thus using less fuel and creating less emissions. The package usually has features that protect the product to extend the shelf life. It can also be microwavable or resealable. The flexible packaging tends to have more shelf appeal because of the printing options it has. Flat bottom design allows the products to stand on their own while remaining flexible. Since this packaging is so functional, consumers are impressed with the design improvements.
Case sealing has a slew of new innovations as well to keep up with the increases in flexible packaging. Many brands have created unique seals for their package designs that are being patented. One of the reasons these seals are so important is because they increase the shelf life of the product. When designing a seal the properties of the product and how it needs to be protected from outside contaminants should be the focus.
Flexible packaging uses less material and often takes up less space, therefore less secondary packaging is necessary. Secondary packaging is still very important though as the flexible packaging would be difficult to transport on its own. The structure and cohesiveness of the secondary packaging makes shipping and handling more efficient. Overall flexible packaging reduces the amount of material needed which makes it very sustainable.
Tristen: Exploring the Advantages and Challenges of the Flexible Packaging Industry
At its core, flexible packaging is defined as any container that, when filled and closed, can easily change its shape. Some of the most common materials include paper, plastic, film, and foils, and are often seen used as bags, pouches, and wraps.
Advantages in flexible packaging have led to its development as one of the fastest growing segments of the entire packaging industry. With flexible packages serving as lighter, more efficient, and more environmentally-friendly alternatives to rigid packages, it’s obvious why flexible packaging is being so widely adopted where possible. This can most clearly be seen in the food industry, as food products lend themselves well to being contained in flexible containers. Of course, many packaging situations require rigid packaging for structural protection, but flexible packaging offers a widespread solution in many other cases.
There are additional benefits when evaluating how flexible packaging integrates into secondary packages. Unfilled pouches take up much less space, improving initial shipping of packaging material, while the flexible nature of even filled packages can lead to more efficient packing, and higher product-to-package ratios.
One challenge flexible packaging has had to overcome is proper case sealing, especially considering it is most widely used in the food industry. The major solution to this has been creative package designs that allow for flexibility throughout the package, while incorporating a surface at the seal sight that allows for proper sealing, often implementing rigidity in at least one degree of freedom.
Based on its many advantages, and ability to minimize the disadvantages of many ridged counterparts, I believe it is likely investment in the flexible packaging industry will continue to see substantial growth.
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