CMT Field Notes: AMI Thin Wall Packaging 2017

Over 160 delegates recently gathered at the Westin North Shore hotel in Wheeling, IL to hear the latest developments in thin wall packaging trends. Coffee capsules continue to be a topic of particular interest to the consultants at AMI who host a dedicated conference (October 4-5 in Berlin, Germany) on the innovative but troubled little package. The world loves coffee, with Switzerland, Canada and the Benelux countries topping the tables of per capita consumption. 

The year 2012 marked an important milestone for coffee capsules: the patents on Nestle and Green Mountain products expired. After 5 years of continued growth since, the market has moved from a duopoly to something more fragmented, where a sub-industry of compatible capsules has emerged. Still, with approximately 50 billion capsules produced annually, there is double-digit growth in all geographic regions, including 20-25% in NAFTA and close to 100% in Latin America. The current material breakdown is 73% plastic and 27% aluminum.

Compostable & Biobased Material Developments

Dr. Jim Nangeroni of NatureWorks presented some new information on the company’s approach to performance and compostability in the coffee capsule market. NatureWorks’ starting premise is that PLA offers a lower carbon footprint and lower energy usage than fossil-based polymers. Additionally, there are no health concerns with BPA, phthalates or acrylonitrile in PLA which have created challenges, both scientific and PR-related, for other resin producers and converters in recent years. Given strong social and environmental pressures to address the end-of-life issues with coffee capsules, NatureWorks is in a unique position to offer a distinct solution to the consumer.

Another company active in the biopolymer space is Plantic™, an Australia-born company that is now a division of Kuraray. Several years ago at an Interpack exhibition in Germany, the company demonstrated how their starch-based thermoformed trays dissolved in water. The Plantic polymer is now positioned as a renewably-sourced barrier material that is created from “as much as 95% renewable content” and provides a 50% reduction in energy and greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional plastics.

Machinery Trends

Representatives from US and European OEMs delivered technical papers on recent changes in thermoforming, form/fill/seal and injection molding machinery. Roger Underwood of Thermoforming Systems Limited (TSL)presented macro-level data on large-format machinery in North America. With 8.5bn lbs of plastic thermoformed each year, the scale of production runs in the North American market essentially requires large-format equipment consisting of separate form and trim tools. Horizontal and vertical trim presses continue to get faster in order to maintain line operating speeds. 

In contrast to the North American model, European OEMs continue to refine smaller, faster equipment that typically operates on a trim-in-place model. Gabler Thermoform, of Lubeck, Germany, is making an attempt to bridge the divide in formats by offering a larger version of their M-Series tilt-mold machine. First unveiled at K2016, the M100 offers a 25-30% increase in output over the M98 generation without compromising on cycle speed which is maintained at +/- 40 cpm.

Food Safety & Sustainability

The UN-based Save Food Initiative states that 30% of unused food is disposed while one-third of all food loss occurs in the distribution phase. Klockner Pentaplastis a member of the Save Food program and they presented some current data and trends on food waste and packaging. Geographical expansion of large food supply chains coupled with local distribution needs result in high amounts of damage and product spoilage. The growth of prepared meals in all regions of the world is driving an increase in the amount of plastic packaging. The company reports that packaging is moving from function-driven to values- and emotion-based design. Klockner sees four main blocks for packaging innovation: “cost out” drivers including the use of natural fillers; “differentiation” such as new formats and miniaturization; “function” that includes a focus on polymer properties related to stability and increased shelf life; and “sustainability”, a true megatrend that includes the 3Rs (reduce/reuse/recycle). As a major supplier of PET, Klockner has introduced some material innovations of their own included “click-PET”, a substitute for PS dairy products and “Snapsil”, a one-handed opening format that “fulfils consumer demands for multiple applications in all life stages.”

The Humble Plug

CMT returned to the stage to present new data from recent trials where we sought to isolate the effect of plug material on polymer sheet distrubition. The foundational question we posed was, “How much is 0.001″ worth?” As our readers will know, material distribution is a favorite topic of ours, and the latest research (which included solid, industry-based economics) suggests that even a relatively large increase in plug material costs will result in superior project economics, primarily due to sheet gauge savings. 

Thin wall packaging continues to be dynamic sector that touches on multiple processes and materials while still delivering innovation at all levels of the supply chain from product design to machine technology. It is a fast-moving environment which appears to sustain the continued success of the AMI conference with 3 events per year now that cover the majority of the globe (North America, Europe and Southeast Asia).