Having mastered downgauging in a virtually endless spectrum of performance films, Next Generation Films continues to redefine what ‘next generation’ means.

In recent years, the buzzword “next generation” has met resistance for being overused, misused or deserving of outright banishment from the English language. After all, how do you define what is next generation?

You visit the blown film manufacturer of the same name in Lexington, Ohio.

Whether source reduction, nanotechnology, constant equipment upgrades or an internal, net-zero recycling initiative, the methods and technologies that will shape the future of flexible packaging currently drive the innovations and success at Next Generation Films.

“If you think back 15 years ago, you didn’t hear much about ‘What’s the next generation?’” says Dan Niss, president. “For the last 15 years, we’ve been selling our technology and it’s been a good thing for us, helping us to be very successful in 2009.”

Dave Niss, plant manager for Next Generation, double checks the stringent parameters on a Hosokawa Alpine American line. The company actively uses real-time controls and quality checks with each of its more than two dozen lines to guarantee quality and remain competitive.

Next Generation is born

It’s been said that every generation leaves its mark on the next generation, a statement that couldn’t ring truer with the creation of Next Generation Films. In 1985, Next Generation founder and current chief executive officer Dave Frecka created Ultra-tech Plastics, a company dedicated to creating high molecular weight coextrusions for general applications.

“In my years of selling high molecular weight, I found unique ways to market downgauging and how to do it in a systematic way that made sense to customers,” explains Frecka. However, bringing that concept to linear low density applications simply wasn’t in the cards at the time because then-available equipment couldn’t generate the results neither Frecka nor his prospective markets were seeking. Frecka then patiently played the waiting game, watching the business gradually mature over ten years and waiting for his cue.

“Dave thought, ‘with metallocene resins and the sophistication of linear low density equipment, I can take my downgauge philosophy and revolutionize the flexible packaging market,’” says Niss. “And that was how Next Generation Films was started.”

Frecka sold Ultra-tech in 1994 and shortly thereafter created Next Generation Films, a company that would center on downgauging and producing thinner films without sacrificing performance-a mindset that defines the company even today. All of the resins Next Generation uses are FDA-compliant for direct and indirect food contact, and for that reason, food packaging generates a sizable portion of its approximately $98 million annual sales.

“We’re also very interested in high-speed applications, those applications that require very sophisticated processing,” says Niss. Today’s form, fill and seal equipment requires films with very specific seal and barrier properties, explains Niss, in addition to increasingly stringent flatness and coefficient of friction (COF) properties.

“The sophisticated customer today has identified the bottleneck in his process and he’s often focused on the plastic,” says Niss. “Most of our customers have spent a lot of money upstream and now they’re looking downstream-that’s where our packaging and our knowledge come in.”

Next Generation line operator Josh Smith straps the Badger Plug end boards of a multi-roll package into place, guaranteeing this roll's safe transit to Cleveland, California or anywhere in between.

Doing more with less (and just the right amount)

Next Generation Films currently has a patent pending on a nanocomposite film intended to replace 5- and 7-layer films.

“With this product, we’re trying to achieve barrier and get lower [oxygen transmission rates] with a thinner gauge,” says Frecka. “This is a source reduction item for us and is what our company is primarily all about: Take an existing product, reengineer it and incorporate sustainability factors with it, either less material or recyclable material.”

Next Generation entered the nanotechnology arena four years ago with the specific intent of offering better, more consistent barrier while reducing the amount of raw material used.

“There have been a lot of products that were up to four mils that are now down to two mils thick,” says Niss. “With that, we’ve been able to take away from laminations and still achieve those breathable numbers that a particular customer needs for his product. It’s not new to us, but it’s still new to the industry.”

While Next Generation aggressively pursues the most current resin technology and ancillaries for its more than two dozen film lines, don’t expect the film manufacturer to follow the 5- and 7-layer trends that other converters currently pride themselves on.

“We’ve made 3-layer films a mindset for the company,” explains Frecka. “We’ve been able to reengineer 3-layer films to take the place of 5-layer films.” Besides enjoying the more attractive price points associated with producing 3-layer films, Frecka explains that running 5- and 7-layer films would mean being tied up with less than desirable output restrictions per linear inch of die circumference. “But if we stick with 3-layer, we’re able to get much better output and instead use leading edge equipment for better output.”

Conversely, Frecka also points out that his company is purely a coextrusion house, with nary a mono line in sight.

“Some of our competitors have monolayer, but there are restrictions on what you can do with that,” says Frecka. “We do our own structure modifications with 3-layer films to get to where we want to get, to get the returns that we need.”

At first glance, it may seem that there’s a limit to the number of films Next Generation can create. After all, how many possible resin combinations can there be when you’re working with three layers? Next Generation, a company that prides itself on the lack of a catalog and price list for standard films, believes the number truly is unlimited, especially when you’re focused on innovating a solution for every job that comes through the door.

“The way we go to market is a lot different than other film companies,” says Frecka. “Many companies have a list of formulations and send their salespeople out who try to steer customers to one formulation on the list.

“But we tend to start from scratch and we design with a grass roots mentality,” says Frecka.

“And we don’t have a large sales force: It’s just Dave, one other guy and me selling all these pounds,” adds Niss. “That’s because we want the knowledge of our customers.

“We’re a true custom house,” continues Niss. “We understand what our customers’ needs are and we know how to design a formulation toward that customer.” To this end, Niss explains that Next Generation has a polymer scientist and a full technical staff charged with developing or reverse engineering films to understand the film the company is being asked to develop and what specifically the film must accomplish.

While the company clearly believes downgauging and 3-layer films satisfy the industry-wide trend that less is more, that doesn’t mean Next Generation believes in minimizing all aspects of its production. In fact, the company announced in February that it was adding its fifth Windmoeller & Hoelscher blown film line, an impressive high-output 134-inch Varex line featuring grooved feed extruders and a 35-inch die. Scheduled to come online in July, Next Generation expects the line will crank out nearly 20 million pounds of film annually.

“With us, it’s never an arrival,” asserts Frecka. “We focus on constantly adding to our base through more technology, new resins, new ways to get more output, new ways to get better, flatter films at a lower cost.”

Nearly every machine in the Next Generation stable is componentized, ensuring the film manufacturer stands ready to upgrade to the best technology and reap the benefits of optimized efficiency.

Oscar Mascarenhas, polymer scientist at Next Generation Films, tests film in the company's lab. Mascarenhas and the technical staff at the company constantly test resins and films to guarantee quality and ensure continuous improvement at all times.

Going with the wind

Downgauging, source reduction and maximizing resin’s potential across all its filmstock are but a few strategies in Next Generation’s playbook that give substance to its environmental commitment. Recently, the company took its largest steps yet toward becoming a “greener” company.

In March, Next Generation opened the 100,000-square foot Distribution and Sustainability Building, its fifth building at its Lexington, Ohio, campus. Inside, the company operates two Erema repelletizer lines, which take production scrap and generate recycled resin. The regenerated pellets are then used in the middle layer of recycled content film used by Next Generation’s onsite bag-making division. The new Sustainability Building will one day hold as many as five Erema repelletizer lines, says Frecka.

“With the Erema recycling lines, we have zero-net scrap in our operations-no waste at all,” says Frecka.

Repelletizing and recycling film scrap aren't processes that are foreign to flexible packaging companies today, so what’s so novel about the new building anyway? Perhaps one of the most iconic images of sustainability, Next Generation will soon add a 150 kilowatt (kW) wind turbine just east of its main headquarters, installed specifically to provide power to the Sustainability Building.

“We’re in the infancy of windmills, with what they can do and the kind of power they can generate,” says Frecka. “But with this, we’re being a leader and also reducing the carbon footprint of our operation.”

Next employee Patrick Yeager feeds scraps large and small into an Erema repelletizer line. With the addition of its new Distribution and Sustainability Building, Next Generation will initially double its repelletizing efforts as it maintains its net zero waste philosophy.

The Next steps

Over the next four years, Frecka and Niss anticipate doubling the size of their business. Ambitious? You bet. Impossible? Not at all, especially considering Next Generation Films has already done it once in the last five years. As Frecka makes clear, the keys to such explosive success have been in place for years.

“We’re constantly looking to upscale our mix, come out with new products, and we’re always chasing new customers,” says Frecka. “We’re always going to upscale our manufacturing to the next level because that’s how this plant got built.”

With such large-scale growth on the radar screen, Next Generation Films will require-and has planned for-increased capacity to handle all that future business. As two-thirds of the independent company’s sales force, Frecka and Niss have their fingers directly on the pulse of the industry. This unique perspective, in addition to their leadership roles at the privately held firm, give Frecka and Niss the knowledge on what to buy as well as the authority to make those capital investments when the time is right.

“We meet with the customer, first of all, and find out if the demand is there,” says Niss. “Right now, for instance, we know that there are businesses out there, potential customers, who we can bring value to and be profitable doing it. So the answer in that case is, ‘Yes, it’s time to grow.’ We don’t have to report to somebody when we make a decision-we look ourselves in the mirror.”

“We’re film guys first and we’re not financial people trying to run a company,” echoes Frecka. “Sometimes you can’t look at your company through a financial set of lenses and you have to invest in equipment just to protect your customers. And when we have capital expenditures, we’re able to meet customer needs better.”

Badger Plug

Hosokawa Alpine American

Windmoeller & Hoelscher

Sidebar: Next Generation's sure-fire supply base

Next Generation Films has found a niche in delivering unique, customized solutions to its customers in myriad markets. While much of this work has been done by developing innovations in its own labs, the company has likewise fostered strong partnerships with its suppliers, relying on world-class equipment, raw materials and other consumables to deliver top-notch products.

“The new equipment that we buy isn't ‘off-the-shelf’ stuff,” says Dave Frecka, founder and chief executive officer. Frecka explains his company constantly adds leading edge technology to its more than two dozen Windmoeller & Hoelscher and Hosokawa Alpine American blown film lines in order to maximize output and quality while minimizing costs. “On a competitive level, no one company is going to have a better mouse trap than we will.”

“We’re taking advantage of more consistent raw materials, using better resins,” says Dan Niss, president. “Dave’s relationship with our resin suppliers has catapulted our growth.”

“We ask the resin companies to develop resins for specific needs,” echoes Frecka. “We are very unique in that we can talk that language with resin companies.”

All the innovation crammed into every roll wouldn’t matter if it didn’t arrive at its destination safely. For this reason, Next Generation relies on Badger Plug’s innovative roll protection systems to securely suspend larger rolls above the floor or stack smaller finished rolls in tidy, unitized bundles.

Between this unique roll protection, specialized resin blends and the latest ancillaries, the pursuit of the best technology simply adds up to Frecka.

“We have stayed focused as a company on a certain thing: taking someone’s film, reengineering it, and making the product work for the customer,” asserts Frecka.