The Six F’s in Flexible Packaging

By Danny Beard, President of Packaging Specialists

At the risk of sounding obvious, the best attribute of flexible packaging is its, well, flexibility. I don’t mean flexibility only in the classic definition – soft or malleable – although that is one of the features of flexible packaging. The flexibility of flexible packaging is much more than that. I mean flexibility is practical every sense of the word, especially for flexible pouches, and particularly for fitmented flexible pouches. The growth of pouches has been nothing short of astounding, with recent growth of more than 8 percent per annum and no real slowing in sight. The installation of pouch-making, pouch filling and form-fill-seal equipment to support this growth has transformed this package format from a peripheral packaging option to a mainstream package format. In addition, and despite media reports lamenting the growth of lightweight flexible packaging, pouches truly shine as a sustainable choice for many products. The reality is, nothing comes close, when the full picture is considered:

Package Format for Laundry Pods Fossil Fuel Consumption

(MJ-equiv.)

GHG Emissions (KG-CO2 equiv.) Water Consumption

(Liters)

Product-to-Package Ratio (%) Packages Landfilled

(G/1000 KG of pods)

Flexible SUP 76.73 3.10 5.00 47.2 : 1 21,209
Rigid PET 463.68

(+504%)

25.60

(+726%)

37.98

(+660%)

8.5 : 1

 

82,604

(+289%)

Source: 2019 FPA Life Cycle Assessment Case Study

Fitmented pouches have commanded a strong presence as a replacement package for many different types of rigid packaging, and not just because of its traditional flexibility. The flexible pouch used for laundry pods highlights both the sustainable aspects of this format and the functionality that can easily be built into this package. Outer packaging for laundry pods must be designed with child-resistant closures, which is a feature readily incorporated into the pouch. However, there are many other reasons for the growth in the use of pouches, and I will highlight both the reasons and the processes used to develop a successful replacement fitmented pouch integration.

The term I use to describe the process for developing a new fitmented pouch is the “Six F’s” as a means to stress the critical steps that must be followed for a successful package launch.

The Six F’s:

  • Functionality – how will it be used?;
  • Films – print, opaque, clear, barrier, stiffness;
  • Fitments – zippers, closures, caps, valves, etc.;
  • Forming – pouch making;
  • Filling – product and processing; and
  • Freight – maintaining package integrity through transportation and end use.

When all of these processes are thoughtfully considered and properly implemented, a successful product and package launch can be expected. However, typically package adaptation and implementation is not thoughtfully executed and dramatic challenges can result. Let’s consider each of the Six F’s individually and what approach should be followed.

Functionality

The flexibility of flexible packaging is primarily in its functionality. Determining the appropriate functionality sets the tone for the rest of the implementation and product launch. Very often the approach is “match the competition” or even “close enough,” when even a minor amount of up-front work will pay dramatic dividends as the process continues.

Functional features of pouches include barriers (oxygen, moisture, light, aroma, etc.), graphics (print, clarity, opacity, gloss, etc.), rigidity/flexibility, toughness/durability, recloseability (zippers, sliders, caps, press-to-close, etc.), food processing (hot-fill, retort, aseptic, HPP, etc.), reuse/recycle, cost. Most pouches may not need all of these features, but the reality is flexible packaging remains the only package format flexible enough to offer all of these features if required. Said another way, functionality does not have to be compromised when a pouch is chosen as the package of choice.

FILMS

The flexibility of flexible packaging means that films can be manufactured to provide the most basic of dust-cover protection and printing to extremely high barrier/long shelf-life pouches with photographic quality print. Technological improvements in film-making, along with enhancements in the plastics resins used, have dramatically altered the depth and breadth of flexible packaging offerings. Plastic films can be extruded, co-extruded, biaxially oriented, coated, laminated, printed and embossed in any number of ways to provide a balance of properties unique in packaging. Recent advances in digital print offer even more flexibility to the film manufacturing process.

FITMENTS

Flexible packaging’s flexibility is also manifested in the wide varieties of methods by which a consumer can dispense products from the package. More than just a flexible bottle, a stand-up pouch with a fitment also can provide connectivity for pumping, gassing/degassing valves for vapor transfer, zipper or slider functionality for dry or large particle products, or very simple press-to-close for a huge range of products. Additionally, fitments on pouches can be designed to withstand the harshest of conditions, including radiation, steam, retort, high-pressure pasteurization, chemicals and reagents.

FORMING

One of the truest indications of the flexibility of flexible packaging is the unlimited number of forms a pouch can take on. Flexible packaging can be used on packages of less than 5-ml, and in liners for ocean containers of greater than 20,000-L, and even larger if necessary. Pouches can be made on very simple form/fill/seal machines for ketchup sachets, or on highly sophisticated premade pouch machines to incorporate multiple films, fitments, valves and even frangible seals to provide even more functionality for products to be mixed at the point of use. The growth in pouch-making technology and manufacturing capacity has been one of the keys to the overall growth of the flexible packaging market. Newer technologies for better web control for lightweight films, fitment sealing improvements and ultrasonic sealing will continue to revolutionize the sophistication of pouches. Expect to see flexible pouches in the very near future that resemble bottles in every respect except in the weight, barrier and print quality, for those applications where bottles are still being used.

FILLING

As with pouch-making, the flexibility for filling flexible packaging has expanded rapidly in recent years. The sophistication of servo-controlled guides, drives, rollers, fill valves and sealing mechanisms has dramatically improved the quality, speed and efficiency of pouch filling machines. Whether these machines are filling extremely fragile and lightweight tortilla chips, hazardous battery acid, or liquid aseptic pharmaceuticals, the technology provides numerous options for filling under highly controlled conditions. The range of products being filled, and size and configurations of packaging types is truly matchless.

FREIGHT

The flexibility of flexible packaging does not signify, however, this package format is fool-proof. Appropriate steps must be undertaken to design and implement suitable secondary packaging to properly support pouches after filling. This step is usually an afterthought, which is always a mistake. Properly supported, flexible packaging holds up extremely well through transportation, distribution and consumer use. Counterintuitively, for liquid flexible packaging, the secondary packaging, when correctly designed, works best as strictly a support for the flexible package and the liquid inside. The error often made with pouches for liquids is to “cushion” the pouches instead of firmly confining them inside the rigid outer container.

Future columns will highlight individual examples of unique applications of the Six F’s and how different end users have fully embraced the true flexibility of flexible packaging.

About the Author

Danny Beard is the president of Packaging Specialists. He holds more than 30 years of experience in the packaging sector, and is a frequent presenter at industry events including the Global Pouch Forum, Aseptipak, FISPAL, PMMI and more.