Companies in the plastics packaging industry which use their expertise to develop user-friendly new products for the market will enjoy a strategic advantage over their rivals. If they also concentrate on market niches, their long-term commercial potential will be even better.
The plastics packaging industry in Western Europe is using its extensive expertise for opening new markets, both in the packaging sector and in similar areas. This means that skill in medical packaging or chemical applications can be used to develop products that go beyond simple packaging, for example, for the computing, aviation and automotive industries.
Packages can even be produced in shapes to relate to the product and assist marketing. A current pet food industry, pack, for example, is a plastic bag for cat food, shaped like a cat. Another is a chocolate pack shaped like a rabbit. Both have dramatic point-of-sale impact and have boosted sales of the product.
There is great scope also for technical innovation. Salad goods when unpackaged have only a very short life in the supermarket. But, when they are packed in a foil bag with a protective atmosphere, their shelf life can be increased by up to ten days. A film for meat packaging, for which a new barrier layer has been developed, now allows steaks to be kept in a special controlled atmosphere for over a month.
In addition to traditional packaging, the coffee industry is now demanding packaging without an aluminium layer. Packaging manufacturers have been asked to develop a film with the same barrier properties as films that contain aluminium, which preserve the aroma of coffee for over a year. Another example is beer in flexible plastic bottles sold in football stadiums. Cold-resistant films that remain flexible and impact-resistant in a deep freeze at a temperature of minus 30¡C also provide excellent opportunities. Such solutions to problems provide the basis for market-success. In development of new products, those companies offering ever-lighter and easier to recycle packaging will have a competitive edge. The reason is the growing demand from consumers and legislators for less waste, greater material savings and more environmental protection. At the same time, less material helps to preserve valuable resources and reduce transport costs. Consequently the industry is reducing packaging weight by using thinner and thinner films and thin-walled plastics containers.
There are many ways to create new applications for flexible and rigid packaging, and solve technical problems. Apart from new and modified polymers, one method is composite films, combining the benefits of individual layers to tailor-make the properties for the application. There are several processes:
Co-extrusion - three, five or even seven layers of different polymers are combined in a molten state and extruded by the cast or the blown film process;
Adhesive lamination - the adhesive, which may be solvent-based, water-based or solvent-free, is applied to the surface of one film;
Extrusion coating - molten polymer is cast-coated onto the surface of another film with a higher melting point;
Water- or solvent-based coating - the coating is applied to a film and the solvent or water is removed using heat;
Vacuum coating - the latest technology is to apply a very thin layer of an inorganic material such as aluminium to a film in a vacuum chamber.
Nano-composite technology is also being applied to the production of films with barrier properties. By incorporation of mineral particles in nano size (less than the wavelength of light), it is possible to create a form of ``labyrinth`` within the structure of the film, which physically retards the passage of molecules of (for example) gas. Already, nylon films have been commercialised with improved gas barrier properties by nano-scale additives, reducing the volume of material in the package and also simplifying recycling.
Barrier properties in other package forms are achieved by co-injection and co-extrusion of blow mouldings. To improve the gas barrier of PET bottles for the vast beer packaging market, coatings of PVDC have been used, but the latest developments use plasma technology to deposit a barrier inside the bottle, integrated with the bottle production line.
Protecting the environment is also becoming increasingly established for printing the films - in addition to solvent-based printing inks, water-based ones are now becoming more common.
Packaging - A ``Service`` Industry
If a packaging manufacturer offers complete solutions, the customer can transfer entire responsibility for the production process to the supplier. This outsourcing opportunity is increasingly used by customers.
It also includes innovative advice on packaging problems and reliable, fast deliveries, up to ``Just-In-Time`` supply. The packaging industry is looking to cooperate more closely with suppliers of raw materials and machinery.
The packaging industry, raw material suppliers and machinery manufacturers are already cooperating globally in Europe, USA and in Japan. Fast methods of communication by e-mail and computerised design ensure that this cooperation is even more effective.
For example, the food industry needs re-sealable peelable packaging allowing products such as vegetables and meat to be removed, resealed and removed again later.
Laminates are another example of inter-sector cooperation, and here the packaging industry is working with manufacturers of adhesives and machinery to develop eco-friendly solvent-free laminates with a shorter curing time.
In other sectors, the potential of PET for high-quality clear rigid containers is still only at its beginnings: wide-mouth, hot-fill, high barrier solutions are moving from laboratories to production lines.
The 20th Century has correctly been described as the Century of Plastics.