Flexible Packaging Industry Insights: Learning from the Rigid Side
The flexible packaging industry is looking a lot more like the folding carton one, and the improvement paths are similar.
In the 1980s and earlier, the makers of high-quality offset printed paperboard cereal cartons, toothpaste cartons, over-the-counter or prescription drug cartons (i.e. Tylenol), and other food or pharmaceutical carton providers were happy in their plants living like this:
- Raw material (paperboard) delivered from the outside or sheeted inside onto inexpensive wood pallets from unknown sources.
- Workers arrived daily and worked in street clothes.
- Hair and grooming typical of any plant workers with a wide acceptance range of personal hygiene choices.
- Plant doors open when hot and closed when cold.
- Housekeeping was sweeping and picking up scrap daily.
- Customer plant visits and press approvals were informal and not really enjoyed by many.
- Packaging products were distributed on wood pallets from unknown sources (with a slip sheet on the deck) and stretch wrap outside.
- Products were beautiful and it was all considered food-grade clean.
Thirty years later, what does it look like in the top paper-based packaging plants around the world? (The significant differences are italicized.)
- Raw material (paperboard) delivered from the outside or sheeted inside onto food-grade plastic pallets designed for direct feed into presses.
- Workers arrive daily to work in street clothes and then change into uniforms in a clean room.
- All top hair is net covered, beards encased in mask-type covers or nets, hands washed, jewelry removed, shoes changed to inside only shoes.
- Plants have positive internal air pressure with constant ventilation of both heating and cooling to maintain constant temperatures and prevent dust and other contaminants from entering the building.
- Housekeeping is managing vacuum systems attached to all machines and sweeping epoxy-coated floors with microfiber dusters.
- Customer plant visits and press approvals are now events to be encouraged as part of the “wow factor” also generated by the plant shine, beautiful plastic pallets, cleaned air, controlled temperature, and state-of-the-art automation.
- Packaging products are distributed on leased painted wood pallets from pallet pooling companies or plastic pallets in closed-loop shipping systems (with a slip sheet on the deck) and stretch wrap outside.
- Products are beautiful and it is all considered food-grade clean.
The only thing that hasn’t changed is No. 8.
The flexible packaging industry is looking a lot more like the folding carton one, and the improvement paths are similar because a lot of carton business is being converted to flexible. A road to increased and more rapid profitability is paved by the lessons learned from folding cartons in the past 30 years. Adoption of new standards will benefit the adopters and the non-adopters will feel the pinch. Why?
Because the changes were driven by the folding carton customers wanting to see and experience the same food-grade clean that is in their food processing plants in the folding carton plant. The biggest winners from the 1980s to today decided to make it happen and set off to model their plants like their customer’s plants from a hygiene and safety perspective.
How do you catch the wave and be a leader in capturing and retaining customers who are committed to continuous improvement?
Think like your customers. Food and pharmaceutical producers want to see and feel a packaging production environment that matches their food production environment. Zero contamination, attention to detail, a meticulous approach to communication, and excessive planning will impress them. Here are some steps to take now that we’ve learned from the paper packaging world over the past 30-plus years:
- Suit up both visitors and workers in tight fitting smocks, coveralls or gowns with hair nets, handwashing stations, shoe covers, and jewelry removed.
- Don’t roll raw material on the floor, get special in-house only plastic cradle-style roll pallets for roll movement from extrusion to storage and then converting, always feed and deliver to plastic food-grade pallets.
- Pay attention to airflow, humidity and dust. Make the air go out when the doors are open so outside dust and moisture is not coming in.
- Create designated and closed/partitioned zones in the plant for progressively cleaner areas until you get to the heart of the operation where it is most clean. Keep inbound raw material pallets away from processing pallets and work in process.
- Suggest customer partnership in creating closed-loop shipping with designated clean plastic pallets for finished goods transportation.
- Sweep, vacuum, pickup, and encourage everyone to see something and pick it up to make the place look spotless and food-grade clean to the best of you current ability.
- Advertise what you are doing to your sales department — they always need new things to talk about, improvements and new initiatives are impressive.
- Make a big deal about customer press approvals. Serve snacks and make the customer feel welcome to attend the event.
- Never miss a chance to call attention to the new things you are doing to follow the way of greater hygiene and safety.
- Differentiate yourself by being an early adopter.
Stratis Pallets & Bonar Plastics