When brand owners or brand managers at small, growing companies are considering a custom manufactured flexible packaging solution for their product, one of the first questions frequently asked is, “What are your minimums?”
The converter’s answer typically includes the phrase “it depends.”
So what does it depend on?
There are many factors that determine what the number is and why it can vary by individual project. Understanding the basic production processes required to produce a bag or stand up pouch made with flexible packaging, and some of the key variables impacting each discrete step in the process, is a helpful first step in determining if your flexible packaging project makes economic sense.
Here are some “Flexible Packaging 101” basic, and not so basic, considerations:
Converting, in the flexible packaging industry, is the process of utilizing multilayer structures made from films, foil and/or paper in the lamination process and forming them into a bag or a pouch.
Each layer and type of material provides specific performance characteristics, such as:
- Oxygen, moisture or light resistance
- Chemical resistance
- Puncture resistance
- Tear resistance
- Glossy or matte appearance
- Opacity or translucency
- Heat sealability
- Print receptivity
Converting is the last step in the manufacturing process, the step that results in your package being produced. In order to get to this point, the raw material has to be printed, laminated on master rolls and then those master rolls slit into narrower widths to fit on the converting equipment. The following briefly describes what occurs in each of those steps.
THE LAMINATING PROCESS
Laminating is the process of joining together two or more flexible materials (film, foil and paper) using a combination of pressure and a bonding agent. There are multiple types of adhesive options, including solventless, solvent-based and water-based. An alternative production option is to produce some multi-layer structures using an extrusion process.
Laminated material used in flexible packaging typically performs three main functions: (1) providing physical characteristics such as stiffness, resistance to tearing or bursting, especially during packaging, distribution and storage; (2) providing barrier properties to maintain optimal conditions within the package and to protect the product from outside deteriorating agents (e.g,. light, oxygen, moisture) and; (3) providing a secure, hermetic seal once the package is filled and closed.
IDEAL LAMINATING APPLICATIONS
Virtually all applications where a product must be protected, and its shelf life extended, are suitable candidates for use of laminated materials. This applies to a wide variety of consumer and pet food products as well as non-food products, such as medical tests and devices, which also require functional and highly technical film structures. In the food category, it ranges from the packaging of ready-to-eat products such as snacks, biscuits, drinks or products such as coffee and frozen food, to applications such as freezer-to-microwave products.
SUSTAINABLE PACKAGING AND CONVERTING
There’s been an increased focus placed on sustainability as it relates to the front end of a package’s life cycle. The carbon footprint associated with the use of flexible vs. rigid packaging is but one of the many important advantages to consider. In addition, pouches themselves offer tremendous energy savings in their production and transport. Compared to rigid containers, a truckload of pouches has the equivalent product-holding capacity of 15 to 25 truckloads of empty rigid containers. A pouch also delivers a very high ratio of product weight to total package weight after filling which translates to a lower shipping cost per pound of actual product packaged in flexible packaging.
PRINTING FLEXIBLE PACKAGING MATERIAL
The introduction of multiple layers of different materials into a flexible packaging structure is an important factor when printing a layer of the laminated structure and one that can have significant impact on the practicality of small run conversion. Whether a laminate is film-to-film, film-to-foil, paper-to-foil or paper-to-film influences the printing decision both technically and economically. Flexography, sometimes referred to as “flexo”, is commonly used for printing on packaging and other uneven surfaces. The plates used in this printing process are often made of rubber or flexible plastic, allowing the inked surface to conform to many kinds of substrates. The inks themselves, unlike those used in lithography, generally have low viscosity. This quality makes the process quick air-drying, which in turn results in relatively high speeds of production. Recent technological advances in flexo printing equipment, plate making and supporting software can now produce graphics that are virtually indistinguishable from a gravure process.
FACTORING IN THE FIXED COSTS
In every job, large or small, a number of operational requirements occur that take time to perform and therefore create a cost. These include the set-up for each piece of equipment required for a particular job, e.g., the laminator, printing press, slitter and converting equipment as well as producing the printing plates (one per color) and performing test runs to adjust colors. On the back end, the equipment requires cleaning, with special attention to the printing press. These costs are allocated across the number of units the machine produces.
FACTORING IN THE VARIABLE COSTS
The list of variables that influences the “tipping point” number encompasses time, personnel and materials. First is the time and equipment that’s required to produce the job. Second, the number and pay rate of machine operators needed to run the manufacturing equipment recognizing that “hurry up” orders require overtime. Finally, the type and amount of material required for the job. Material thickness and composition also impacts potential minimum requirements. Because manufacturers don’t keep a wide range of raw materials in stock since each job is a custom product, raw materials typically need to be obtained at the time the order is placed. The number of pouches and their dimensions, along with any minimums imposed by the raw material supplier, will determine the total required number of square inches of raw material, which in turn will lock down the variables.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Congratulations! You’ve successfully navigated the introduction to flexible packaging minimum order considerations. We hope we’ve been able to demonstrate why the answer to every request may differ by reviewing the considerations that significantly impact each situation.
Admittedly, this is a complex process that by necessity must incorporate a large number of variables. However, based on your specific requirements including regulatory, cost and aesthetic considerations, performance characteristics, graphics and your desired package design features, among others, LPS Industries is ready to help you to identify and understand your options and to custom engineer the appropriate flexible packaging structures for your products.