Transitioning to Flexibles

New Guide Outlines Best Practices

Transitioning to Flexibles

The flexible packaging industry is entering an era of rapid transformation.

Brands, particularly in the realm of consumer products, are eyeing a range of new materials to meet ambitious goals for creating more sustainable packaging. The effort is leading brands toward post-consumer recycled materials, as well as compostables and packaging that is easier to recycle or reuse.

Behind the goals, however, lies a complex dance among brands, packaging companies, material suppliers, and equipment manufacturers. They are grappling with the practical steps needed to convert those goals into reality while dealing at the same time with rising costs and glitchy supply chains.

To ease the process, the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) partnered with PMMI, the association for packaging and processing technologies, to create a  comprehensive guide outlining best practices for transitioning between different types of flexible materials, one of the fastest-growing segments of plastic packaging.

“The main objective of the report was to identify the key challenges faced by consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies when transitioning to a new material,” says Dani Diehlmann, vice president of communications for FPA.

The report titled, “Best Practices: Transitioning Flexible Materials,” also offers an important message for the consumer packaging ecosystem as a whole: Flexible packaging companies should be included at the beginning of conversations about new materials, says Abbey Phillips, a technical product manager at American Packaging Corporation based in Rochester, New York.

“The sooner suppliers can be involved, the more beneficial it is to everybody,” Phillips says. “Don’t wait until the last minute to ask. Pull your supply team in. Let us help you. We have very possibly taken this path before with another brand.”

The changes in packaging contemplated by many brands today, she adds, represent a significant change from the value-engineering tweaks they might have made in the past. “Approaching that with a controlled process will be very valuable,” she says.

Why Change?

Numerous factors are driving changes to flexible materials. The push for sustainability is a major one as brands aim to live up to their public commitments to using recycled and recyclable materials. For many brands, deadlines for adopting sustainable packaging start in 2025—just over a year away. But sustainability is not the only driver.

Cost reduction is another motive for change, especially at a time of higher costs for labor and materials. Companies also may be interested in materials that offer greater product protection and greater convenience for consumers, which can mean packages that are easier to open or reseal.

Supply chain disruptions are yet another factor, says Jorge Izquierdo, vice president of market development for PMMI. In recent years, brands often had to seek out alternative materials and suppliers out of necessity. “Many companies weren’t able to find exactly the same formulation for resins,” he says. “Sometimes, it was supposed to be the same, but it was from a different supplier, so it wasn’t exactly the same.”

Most packaging lines are designed with some flexibility in mind, particularly in terms of packaging sizes. But they also are designed to run at full speed with a specific material, Izquierdo says. As a result, transitions to new materials, however slight the difference, can pose numerous challenges. The machines might run more slowly, for example, or the new material may tear more easily. “We are finding that a lot of [CPG] companies are facing this problem,” he says.

Tweak or Buy

One of the key questions for companies changing mate-rials has to do with the packaging equipment itself: Do they need to invest in entirely new packaging lines, or can they adjust what they have to accommodate something new? “That’s the first big hurdle,” Izquierdo says.

“There are many different conversations that you need to have. You need to start a very fluid dialogue with the supplier of the material, with the converter of the material, and then make sure that the OEMs are involved, too.”

—Jorge Izquierdo, vice president of market development for PMMI

But given the ramifications of any packaging change, there are other hurdles in store. The guide from FPA and PMMI seeks to capture them all. They range from defining the parameters of a package and the products it contains to working with equipment manufacturers to ensure they understand how their equipment will be used.

Other factors in the guide include questions about how a new material impacts a product’s quality and shelf life. “Overall, transitioning flexible materials in CPG operations requires careful planning, testing, and evaluation,” says the guide, which incorporates input from CPG companies, converters, materials suppliers, and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

Used properly, the guide can help companies figure out how long it could and should take to transition between materials, adapt the equipment, and then get it back to full capacity. Poorly planned transitions could lead to drops in productivity or even production delays, Izquierdo says.

The transitions themselves are likely to become increasingly common, Izquierdo says. “You’re doing it today on this line and very likely you’re going to do it again in six months or 12 months down the road on the same line.”

According to a survey in the guide, more than a third of CPG companies, or 35%, are transitioning materials more often now than they were five years ago. Only 11% are seeing a decrease. Three in 10 have transitioned materials once or twice in the past 12 months, while nearly 1 in 5, or 18%, have changed materials more than three times.

Among those surveyed, flexible films were the most common primary packaging, used by 33% of CPG companies. Rigid plastics came in second at 24%, followed by paper at 19% and multi-material at 16%. At the bottom were glass (6%) and metal (3%).

Getting in on the Ground Floor

By including packaging companies in the initial planning, brands can avoid trying to fit the proverbial square peg in a round hole, says Phillips. “Packaging deserves a seat at the table.”

Inclusion can mean more than just better design. Packaging companies often have their fingers on the latest developments in materials, particularly when it comes to sustainable options. As a result, the companies can provide valuable insights to their clients.

“Things are evolving so quickly that when it comes to what we talked about six months ago, there might be a new version of it that’s come out since then. We are learning and iterating,” she says.

Equipment manufacturers also can make valuable contributions early in the planning process, Izquierdo says. “In many cases, an OEM has already worked with a specific material or a specific converter,” he adds.

Thus, the manufacturer might already know which parts of its equipment should be modified or replaced to handle a new material, as well as whether other changes are needed in production. A given material may require higher temperatures when being sealed, for example. “This kind of communication is going to make your life much easier,” Izquierdo says.

A Flexible Guide

The guide is designed to be widely applicable and relevant to all the players in the process, Izquierdo says. That includes CPG companies, material suppliers, converters, and OEMs.

“There are many different conversations that you need to have,” he says, adding that the guide can help CPG companies keep track of them all. “You need to start a very fluid dialogue with the supplier of the material, with the converter of the material, and then make sure that the OEMs are involved, too.”

The guide’s sections start with design and proceed to pilot testing. From there, the guide walks users through the evaluation of existing equipment, the choice of new materials, and the commissioning of new lines. The final steps focus on scaling up the supply chain and evaluating the transition as a whole.

“The way I envision it being used is really to set a best practice, a standard way of working,” Phillips says. “The ideal would be if the industry approached challenges the same way.”

The guide may be particularly useful for smaller brands, Phillips says. “A lot of the large companies/CPGs have their own processes, stage gates, and preset risk matrices. But smaller, growing companies may not have that yet. This guide may help them develop it.”

Phillips also sees the guide as helping the industry as a whole tackle its environmental goals. “Sustainability is driving change at an unprecedented speed and impacting all steps in the value chain. This guide will help ensure we are as effective as possible with changes.”

While the guide offers extensive detail, it allows enough flexibility so companies can match the advice to their unique internal processes, Izquierdo adds. “There are always exceptions. You might look at it and say, ‘You know, in my company, things are a little different. We might need to go to quality control first, or maybe there is one team doing the factory acceptance test, and a different team doing the on-site test.’”

And as packaging evolves, equipment is upgraded, and consumer preferences change in the years ahead, the guide is likely to be updated, notes Diehlmann. “Every day there’s a new innovation that’s coming forth.”

Joel Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in York, Pennsylvania.