Flexpack Crash Course

New Workers Network During Daylong Seminar

Flexpack Crash Course

Seminar participants sit in small groups examining examples of flexible packaging, studying candy wrappers, popcorn bags, snack packs, stand-up pouches, and other products to see if they can determine various features by sight and touch. In about eight teams of five or six people per team, their task includes trying to identify the package format, properties, structure, printing method, and the equipment needed to fill the package with the product.

“This is a matte finish,” one participant says to the other members of her group while flipping a popcorn bag.

“I haven’t seen much digital printing, but this seems like it,” says a young man in another group that is probing a different pouch. He then passes the package along.

“Hmmm, interesting,” says a participant in yet another group, as she sees how a snack pack rips open.

These aren’t everyday consumers volunteering to conduct market research in a focus group. Most of them work for companies that are members of the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) and have been in the packaging industry for about five years or less. They are attending a more than six-hour course—FlexPack Crash Course—on the last day of PACK EXPO International held in October in Chicago. Some of the more than 40 participants have been in the industry less than a year—one person says a company hired her only a few days before PACK EXPO, while another says she is a graduate student.

Paul Cucco, a product development engineer for C-P Flexible Packaging, organized the exercise as a member of FPA’s Emerging Leadership Council (ELC), which created the FlexPack Crash Course. Cucco says he had been a participant in a similar exercise at another event. He intends the small-group exercise to be a fun way to facilitate networking while weaving in lessons from about 12 presentations held throughout the day that covered virtually every step of the production process.

“A big goal of this event is to develop a network of individuals who are new to the industry,” says Cucco, a member of the ELC’s education committee, one of several that the ELC has formed. “We want to maintain the talent that we have but also try to grow the industry and attract more talent. A way to do this is to get everyone to collaborate and to get to know each other and create some connections.”

Learning While Connecting

Cucco planned the FlexPack Crash Course along with three of his ELC colleagues: Jaclyn Epstein, sales and marketing strategy manager at Mica Corporation; Amy Presher, sales manager at Profol; and Apurva Shah, director of strategic partnerships at Charter Next Generation.

“We want to maintain the talent that we have but also try to grow the industry and attract more talent. A way to do this is to get everyone to collaborate and to get to know each other and create some connections.”

—Paul Cucco, a product development engineer for C-P Flexible Packaging and a FlexPack Crash Course organizer

They organized the course into several parts that included a look at market trends and the various components along the flexible packaging value chain. One part—Materials and Substrates—includes 20-minute presentations each on resins; substrates; inks; and adhesives, primers, and coatings, with the presenters offering the basics about how each component is critical to creating a flexible package.

Another segment—Converting Basics and End Use—includes presentations on printing and echnologies, lamination technologies, end-use applications, and converting technologies and quality.

The final portion—Key Impactful Topics—reviews advocacy on regulations and legislation and gives an overview of sustainability products.

Epstein, who serves on the ELC’s advocacy committee, gives part of the presentation on adhesives, primers, and coatings. She has been in the industry for about seven years and has developed a deep knowledge about how it works. However, people new to the industry might still be learning how the various aspects are interrelated, especially if they have never attended a massive event like PACK EXPO International. PMMI, the expo’s organizer, spread the four-day gathering across four buildings at the McCormick Place convention center, with more than 44,000 people registering for the October event, according to PMMI’s website.

“There is an overload of equipment and materials, and it might be hard for new people attending to put it all together,” Epstein says. The crash course provided those links. “This helps to explain why each piece matters and at what stage it is in the production process.”

“Early in my career, it would have been helpful to have that overview of every component that goes into a package,” Epstein continues. She adds that there was information for everyone to learn, no matter where they are in their careers. “I always learn something new. The regulatory and the legislative side is always new and different.”

Overall, the day provided a platform for workers new to the industry to see the vast opportunities available, organizers say.

“We all want to see the industry grow—and from FPA’s perspective—get more companies and more people involved,” Epstein says.

The initial idea behind the course was to provide ways to bring together new workers at FPA member companies—whether they are just starting careers or are midcareer arrivals—and with less than five years of experience. Organizers started hearing about interest from CPGs and others who are not FPA members, Cucco says, which led them to open up the course to those companies, as well.

One goal was to simply create a forum where people could network and find resources that might help them along in their careers while bolstering a stronger future for the flexible packaging industry. The concept builds upon the success of the ELC, which has grown to more than 50 members. FPA formed the ELC more than three years ago to bolster recruitment and retention efforts in the industry.

“We want to start establishing a new-to-the-industry community,” says Shah, who also helps run a summer program that connects interns among FPA member companies. “We value our relationships within the ELC so much that we wanted that same opportunity for people who are newly entering into flexible packaging. That was our No. 1 motive.

“No. 2 is that our ELC members are experts in the industry, so we want to share and collaborate and lift the industry together. It is one of the key reasons we exist,” Shah continues. “And then No. 3, it has been a while since we had a PACK EXPO that brought the whole industry together like this, so we wanted to savor the moment a bit.”

Problem-Solving as a Team

The team exercise fosters that camaraderie. Each team receives the same scenario: “You work for a flexible packaging converter. A new business prospect is brought to you and your product development team. The customer provides you with their existing packaging and your team is assigned with onboarding this new customer and product.”

After about 20 minutes of working together in groups, team leaders report to the wider forum about what they were able to determine about the packages they had been given randomly. Part of the assignment is to discuss what quality testing should be performed throughout the manufacturing process and to prepare three questions to ask the customer that would help the team with the onboarding process.

Presher notes that the team exercise allows participants to map the life of a package in a real application. “Participants appreciated the sequential order of the course as they learned about upstream and downstream processes that surround where they contribute to the life cycle,” she says.

“Early in my career, it would have been helpful to have that overview of every component that goes into a package.”

—Jaclyn Epstein, sales and marketing strategy manager at Mica Corporation and a FlexPack Crash Course organizer

Those interactions also would help participants find allies they can lean on later if needed, Cucco and Shah say.

“It’s knowing who to reach out to when it gets complicated,” Shah says. “I think that is another key takeaway.”

The ELC intends to hold the crash course at least every other year, Shah adds. PACK EXPO International returns in November 2024 to Chicago, according to PMMI. Future FlexPack Crash Courses might involve different topics, depending upon feedback that the ELC will solicit through a survey of the October participants, Shah says. He adds that the venue at PACK EXPO International and the 20-minute presentations that he calls “quick dives” worked well. PMMI gave the organizers access to one of the larger meeting rooms within the convention center. Depending on the feedback, the ELC may sponsor another course at the PMMI expo planned for fall 2023 in Las Vegas.

“If it makes sense and we get feedback that we should have this in Las Vegas, we will consider that,” Shah says. “But the goal is to at least have it every other year. We want to keep it to one day and to six or seven hours. We know there are a lot of different crash course ideas that might be two or three days, but that is not our goal here.”

After the course ended in October, FPA and the ELC invited participants to meet socially at the Flight Club, a downtown Chicago bar and restaurant, where the networking continued.

“We had an incredible turnout with more than 30 attendees,” Shah says. “And it became an excellent launch pad for attendees to begin making new connections from around the industry.”

Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.