Smooth surface of sector belies ongoing innovation

By Jo Francis, Monday 29 September 2014

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Upon learning that two well-known packaging boards have a combined age of almost a century, one might imagine that innovation in packaging substrates is in short supply.

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Just totting up the ages of Metsä Board’s Simcote and Stora Enso’s Ensocoat wouldn’t be a fair representation of the actuality, though. Because in fact innovation in substrates manufacturing is a continual process. And at the moment there’s a lot going on. 

Indeed, one university here in the UK is playing a central role in a four-year €3.2m (£2.5m) European project involving high-level research into sustainable packaging.

The NewGenPak project started work in 2012 and encompasses top-level multi-disciplinary research activities focused on three core areas: next-generation packaging composites, cellulose fibre-based active packaging, and sustainable packaging production. 

The project leader is Professor Chris Breen, head of polymers and nanocomposites at Sheffield Hallam University’s Materials & Engineering Research Institute, who is an expert in clay-based polymer nanocomposites. 

The project is funded by the European Union’s Marie Curie Actions fund, which supports research and training focused on innovation skills. NewGenPak incorporates seven other European universities, three research institutes and six businesses. The companies involved include packaging print giant Multi Packaging Solutions (formerly Chesapeake) and minerals specialist Imerys. 

This project could, literally, change the face of packaging materials believes Carol Hammond, research director at Multi Packaging Solutions. Speaking at NewGenPak’s inception, she said: “Cardboard products are made from a very sustainable material. If it is enhanced with greater functionality, such as barrier properties to prevent moisture loss or has increased shape flexibility, its use can be extended to a greater number of market applications.”

If successful, NewGenPak’s work will result in a new generation of packaging materials, for example cardboard packaging where petroleum-based additives are replaced by sustainable alternatives, such as mineral-based coatings. 

It’s highly technical stuff, and it’s no surprise to learn that nanotechnology forms a key part of the activities. One element of the work underway involves working on “hybrid nanocomposite films containing cellulose whiskers and nanoclays”. 

And in the work project involving active packaging, such as packaging that has antimicrobial properties, the researchers have carried out tests with ‘active nanocapsules’ that can be delivered by industrial inkjet printing systems. 

Progress sounds entirely positive thus far. Breen says: “I am delighted with the enthusiasm and professionalism shown by the NewGenPak researchers, their supervisory teams and the scientific progress made – as were the European Commission’s evaluators in NewGenPak’s mid-term review.”

While the final results are a way off yet, the project is indicative of the huge potential market for sustainable packaging materials. Market research specialist Research & Markets believes it’s an area of the market set to surge. It estimates that the market for biodegradable packaging materials, including paper and bio-plastics, will have a compound annual growth rate of more than 10% between 2013-2018. 

Ordinary yet extraordinary

Away from high-tech packaging of the future, there is an immense amount of know-how and technology behind even the seemingly ‘ordinary’ packaging boards used in huge volumes to package everyday items. In this area, one of the most significant innovations has involved something that isn’t apparent to the naked eye – lightweighting. 

Ari Kiviranta, head of the cartonboard business at Metsä Board, says even though much has already been achieved in this area, it remains a key and ongoing trend. “We’ve been doing this for the past decade, reducing grammage while keeping the same functional qualities, and I believe this trend will continue,” he says. 

“Quite a lot has already been done, but I am sure we will find something new, some new technologies, that will help that trend – more things will be possible.”

Metsä Board’s three newest board products all have lightweight properties. Carta Allura and Carta Dedica are targeted at luxury packaging and formable food service products respectively; while Modo Northern Light is a fully bleached linerboard that can also be used as fluting. “Modo Northern Light has been the most popular and volumes have grown really fast. Very simply there was a market need for it,” says Kiviranta.

These new product launches don’t mean that innovation has stopped on existing products, though. An example is Metsä Board’s Simcote fully coated folding box board, which has been on the market for 30 years, and has been used by tea importer and blender Taylors of Harrogate for the past 20 as the substrate of choice for the packaging of its iconic Yorkshire Tea brand. The volumes involved are pretty huge, with nearly 30m boxes of tea shipped out in Simcote packs every year. 

The lightweighting developments made by Metsä Board in recent years have resulted in the Simcote used by Taylors being more than 10gsm lighter, yet at the same time it has actually become more robust. This adds up to a considerable benefit for the brand owner, and Taylors packaging supply chain manager Conrad Hart-Brooke praises the “excellent” co-operation between Taylors, Metsä Board, and printer Harrison Packaging. 

Elsewhere, another venerable pack-aging board, Stora Enso’s Ensocoat, will celebrate its 50th anniversary next month. The sustainability theme that is an over-arching feature of the NewGenPak study is also very much in evidence with this particular product, which recently became the first solid bleached sulphate board in the world to be awarded the EU Ecolabel accreditation. 

And while a board could be lightweight, and could have impeccable environmental credentials, there are other essential factors for purchasers of some specific types of packaging substrate, states Metsä Board’s Kiviranta, and these are provenance and traceability. 

Metsä Board only uses fresh fibres in the manufacturing of its boards, making them safe for food packaging, and so avoids any potential issues with migration of undesirable chemicals from recycled fibres. “One of our really strong points is that we can trace 100% of the raw materials, we really do know where the wood comes from. That means we can give guarantees regarding purity as well as odour and taint properties.

“I believe there will be more legislation when it comes to packaging. In many countries the governments are becoming more interested in this,” he warns. “There are some cases of customers switching boards to fresh fibre grades because of the migration issue.” 

Successful substrate partnerships 

The type of teamwork demonstrated by Taylors of Harrogate and its suppliers clearly yields dividends for all parties, and it’s something that Peter Aldous, creative services director at brand design consultancy Elmwood, would like to see more of. 

Elmwood has worked on packaging design for a wide range of brand owners and product types, from vitamin firm Seven Seas to Asda’s own-brand ranges, and premium sausage brand Heck, which has achieved supermarket shelf stand-out via Elmwood’s design married with a subtle pearlescent substrate. 

“The amount clients spend on substrates is significant, so it’s vital that this is part of a well-planned process,” Aldous notes. “From a value engineering point of view that involves looking at the whole package, including transportation. Or in the case of special finishes there could be gold foil on a side panel that’s not actually needed.”

Aldous describes metallic substrates as “all the rage” along with peach/soft touch materials – just as long as they retain the all-important quality of printability. 

“Anything grained or textured is hard to print, so best avoided unless you emboss it afterwards,” he adds. 

Aldous cites the Fresnel lens as one of the most impactful treatments to come to the market of late, and some of the recent applications of this technique make it easy to see why he’s so impressed. 

The Fresnel lens was developed by French physicist Augustin Jean Fresnel in the 19th century, originally for lighthouses. Working with its modern iteration in thin film form is effectively a variant on the theme of metallised board, explains Dino Kiriakopoulos, managing director at API Laminates.

Metallic foil, incorporating the embossed lens effect, is applied to the packaging board, and then overprinted. The paper or board laminated at API can be from 120gsm-450gsm in weight. While technically it is not a hologram, the Fresnel lens does give a holographic effect in terms of the impression of depth. The lens on the material can be left plain, or overprinted to create further effects.

It is crucial, says Kiriakopoulos, that there is effective communication between the brand owner, the laminator and the printer to make the most of this particular substrate’s possibilities.

“The brand owner can specify whatever board they require, we will then work with the printer and designer to figure out where the lens needs to fall. It’s all about measurement and control, we are working to very fine tolerances,” he explains.

“The magic is in understanding how that material will behave at the printer. You need a very skilled laminator and a very skilled printer to make sure it works in the right way.”

API has been working on a wide variety of applications for the effect, including tobacco, drinks, FMCG products and cosmetics. 

One of the most high-profile implementations thus far is by champagne brand Taittinger, which has created packaging featuring multiple ‘bubble’ effect Fresnel lenses to create the impression of dimensional spheres.

“The shelf appeal is remarkable – people can’t help but stroke the boxes,” says Kiriakopoulos. 

“It is definitely a good option for luxury products and people who want to make an impact. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s a phenomenal product – the key is understanding it. Anything that’s been done with metallised board can be done with this effect.”

So be it a luxury product, or an everyday item such as a box of tea that’s produced in the many millions, the right substrate choice will have a beneficial impact. Be that on the bottom line or on brand image. Or indeed, both.  

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