Flexible packaging’s ability to respond to key trends like convenience and waste management makes it as a key packaging format for the future. Arjun Ramachandran reports for Packaging magazine
The vocabulary of the packaging industry owes much to flexible packaging.
For those that were tiring of long-standing packaging terms like “bottle”, “box” and “can”, the advent of flexible packaging has seen the introduction of a range of curiously named formats such as blister packs, overwraps, and pouches.
While this discussion of the etymology of packaging forms may seem trivial, it does reveal the growing role of flexible packaging in the modern packaging market.
In particular, this role is growing due to the ability of flexible packaging to address key trends and issues facing manufacturers.
“One of the key roles flexible packaging has played in recent years that of brand positioning on the supermarket shelf,” Huhtamaki national sales and marketing manager Stewart Gunn said.
“Flexible packaging is able to do this more so than many other packaging types because of the many different formats it can come in, for example form-fill-seal, stand-up pouches, and bags.
As manufacturers / brand owners strive for a point of difference at shelf level, one of the key advantages flexible packaging can offer is a variety of shapes and sizes.
“As obvious as it sounds, flexible packaging is much more flexible in what can be achieved,” Phil Rigby of FlexPack said.
“It is possible to tailor specific solutions for specific products or applications.”
According to Huhtamaki’s Gunn, key factor in the versatility of flexible packaging is the introduction of several new substrates in recent years, with different characteristics.
In combination with these new materials, improved printing technology helps manufactures achieve strong brand presence through flexible packaging.
“The incorporation of printing technologies like flexography and gravure in flexible packaging has been significant,” Gunn said.
“There has been a significant lift in prepress technologies as a result of the digital revolution that has occurred in Graphic Arts.”
“Work is ongoing in achieving stronger whites, better colour density, and a better overall print,” FlexPack’s Rigby adds.
However, flexible packaging is not only satisfying the aesthetic desires of marketers.
The fast-paced lifestyles of the modern consumer means increasing demand for convenience.
“Manufacturers are being pushed towards providing single-serve, portion-pack, ready-to-eat solutions,” Rigby said.
According to Gunn, this trend is evident across most of the FMCG segments.
“We have seen products in the segments of sauces, snacks, soft dairy, dry goods etc move to new presntation options utilising flexible formats,” he said.
“The reason is it’s much easier to create single servings in a pouch than a can or folding carton.”
“The ability to now do single serves also gives manufacturers greater flexibility in their product offerings. With flexible packaging they can present products in a pouch, a pillow pack, and many other different formats that may not be possible in more rigid forms of packaging.”
This variety in shapes is also being matched by innovation in functional additions to flexible packaging.
“The introduction of tamper-proof flexible packs is addressing security and safety demands, while user friendly features like re-sealability continue to deal with the need for convenience,” FlexPack’s Rigby said.
Options such as re-sealable zippers have seen flexible packaging become particularly popular in the packaging of both food and household goods products.
Equally important to the consumer trend of convenience is the ability of packaging to preserve the freshness of products. In this regards, flexible packaging’s range of specialist barrier films offer manufacturers products with increasingly extended shelf-lives.
“Barrier packaging is increasingly important to today’s fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturer,” Gunn said.
“The use of barrier films in flexible packaging gives longer shelf life and stronger characteristics.”
Some of the major innovations in flexible packaging are in this area of films.
“One of the biggest developments, and advantages, of flexibles engineered clever films,” FlexPack’s Rigby said.
“They are engineered films for specific uses, so depending on what product a manufacturer has, the properties of a film can be tailored to be breathable, high barrier, keep out UV rays, and so on.”
According to Gunn, flexibles can also work with other packaging forms to deliver solutions in line with consumer trends.
“Flexibles have a strong relationship with rigid plastic packaging in delivering products such as shelf-ready meats,” he said.
“The most common form is preformed or thermo formed cups combined with a peel-off film.”
In a market that is continually pressed in by rising raw material prices and strong global competition, the need to cut costs remains an enduring fact of life.
These pressures are magnified for manufacturers by the need to also become more environmentally responsible in their packaging ventures.
Flexible packaging may offer a solution.
“Firstly, the chemistry of putting together the raw materials to make flexible packaging is much better understood today,” Huhtamaki’s Gunn said.
“As a result, it’s possible to use a lot less film to make a product than five years ago while still maintaining product integrity.
“The industry has also been very successful not just in producing films that are degradable and biodegradable, but also in reducing overall weight of films.”
FlexPack’s Rigby says the adoption of flexible packaging also offers an opportunity to consolidate the number of packaging components used for a product,” he said.
“Where a product may traditionally incorporate both a a tray and a carton, flexible packaging allows the reduction in the amount of packaging used.
“This reduction in the different forms of packaging involved results in reduced landfill costs and a cheaper packaging solution.”
Of the existing forms of flexible packaging, Huhtamaki’s Gunn predicts the pouch as a key format that will continue to be successful.
“The pouch market has grown significantly in many formats and for many industries,” he said.
“I have no doubt it will be an area of consistent growth for flexible packaging in the next three to five years. We will also see the advent of newer forms of pouches that will replace other more expensive formats of packaging such as metal can and folding cartons.”
A key mitigator for cost in any industry is persistent innovation, and as a newer packaging form the flexible packaging industry is expected to continue along this vein.
Gunn predicts that this reputation will help flexible packaging grow in the future.
“Other formats of packaging will continuously have their worthiness questioned by FMCG manufacturers because of the cost and inflexibility compared with flexibles.”