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Competition nurtures flexible packaging innovation

Like many movie, television and music awards programs, packaging competitions tend to be judged by "experts" who try to assess how well entries meet a given set of criteria.
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Unlike the entertainment awards however winning a packaging prize isn't likely to do a thing for your product's sales. Because they don't have any cash register cache packaging awards come in for a lot of criticism from cynics and those who don't win prizes. In defense of competitions I believe the best provide an unparalleled measure of packaging's technological progress. If the contest winners don't always go on to be winners in the marketplace they almost always spawn new waves of innovative variations. As such packaging competition winners can be thought of not only as the mothers of invention but the fathers of commercial success. That should be more than ample justification to silence the cynics and keep conducting packaging competitions. Not all of the innovations taking place in packaging are recorded in competitions (or here) of course. Often a packaging company's best work--and its most innovative developments--is covered by confidentiality agreements that prevent it from crowing. Four companies whose packaging developments could be future award winners are: Cypress Packaging Inc. (Rochester NY): Recent projects (see photo) include eight-color process flexo printed pouches for Dole's Lunch for One a first in the fresh-cut produce industry. The pouch (as well as the one for Dole's Caesar salad) is made of a patented blend of metallocene polyethylene and K-resin laminated to a proprietary PE sealant web. Zippered stand-up pouches for U.S. Sugar are also an industry first. The metallized polyester for Xerox copy cartridges is a downgauged alternative to metallized polypropylene while the Kodak cameras are pouched in a clear proprietary three-ply film with a moisture vapor transmission rate of .04 cc/sq". The Salad-Time stand-up pouches are the first for a nationally distributed salad mix. Multisorb Technologies Inc. (Buffalo NY): The company that used to call itself Multiform Desiccants has formed a half-dozen strategic alliances aimed at commercializing oxygen-scavenging flexible films. The films are being developed as low-cost alternatives to oxygen-absorbing sachets and labels. Multisorb calls its development FreshMax SLF (Sorbent-Loaded Films). Multisorb doesn't plan to enter the film business. Rather its partners will market SLFs. Commercial use in the states is expected later this year. Processed meats cheese fresh pasta and low-fat baked snacks will be among the first products in the states to use SLFs. Toyo Seikan Kaisha (Tokyo Japan): Since oxygen absorbers were developed in Japan it's not surprising that Toyo Seikan is already reporting two commercial applications for its oxygen-absorbing "Oxyguard" films one for cooked rice the other for a tube of cardiac medication. Nanocor Inc. (Arlington Heights IL): This is a newly formed subsidiary of Amcol International Corp. a specialty chemical and minerals company. The start-up is working in the still experimental arena of nanocomposite polymer films. The films incorporate suspensions of organoclays no larger than a nanometer (one billionth of a meter) in diameter. In the lab the suspensions dramatically improve barrier properties without dramatically increasing costs. Nanocor will win markets and competitions with its nanocomposite films if it can transform lab results into commercial reality. A rebirth of innovation? Julian W. Hill died at the Cokesbury Village retirement home in Hockessin DE on January 28th. He was 91. Hopefully Dr. Hill will not be overlooked later this year when the Packaging Education Forum holds its awards banquet. Sixty-six years ago Hill and a team of research chemists at DuPont Co. (Wilmington DE) formulated the first batch of nylon and played with it in the hallway outside their lab. The New York Times in a February 1 obituary notes that in 1930 Dr. Hill and the DuPont team of chemists "were engaged in pure research though finding a substitute for silk was in the back of their minds." What Hill and his cohorts had created of course was a remarkable polymer which did replace silk in--and became synonymous with--stockings. And the material that Hill first noticed in his beaker continues to find applications in a wide range of applications including packaging. "Pure research" of the type Hill and his colleagues were engaged in used to be common in the packaging field. In the late '60s and '70s you could count on any number of packaging giants--at least once or twice a year--to develop innovative constructions or material formulations before any practical packaging applications had been identified. Admittedly the money spent on those pure research projects is one reason some venerable packaging companies of that era have either disappeared or undergone dramatic changes. These days pure research in the packaging field is pretty much dead. Today's research budgets aren't spent trying to invent new things but to come up with ways to make the old things better more efficiently and less expensively. That's part of the normal 20-year cycle of technological innovation according to DuPont's Joseph A. Miller senior vice president-research. In the last 70 years he says we've gone through four discovery periods during which innovations are created and expanded. Nylon came in the first period. The discovery periods says Miller have been followed by periods of consolidation when businesses are restructured to achieve efficiencies. That's certainly a good description of the period packaging's going through right now. Miller during a presentation at King's College University of London goes on to suggest that a new period of innovation may be upon us. "We face a renewed challenge to bring forward major new ideas that can create new billion-dollar businesses and entire new industries in 8 to 10 years." If he's right a rebirth of packaging innovations as important as Julian Hill's nylon could greet the new century. Elastic coatings as hard as diamonds elastomers as strong as steel coatings that change color on command--these are just some of the concepts that may await packagers in the coming years. c

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