If there was ever a packaging material seen as the backbone of the packaging industry then corrugated has to be that product. Steve Thomas-Emberson reports

While plastic containers have certainly made in-roads into the transit packaging marketplace, particularly the returnable variety, it is still corrugated that is predominant.

True, the industry is not at its most buoyant – indeed a quick call around the industry found widespread pessimism – but the sector does have a lot to shout about, with advances being made in areas such as lightweighting and better surface printing, not to mention efficient CAD/CAM applications for both cutting and shaping.

Corrugated packaging also has the benefit of being one of the most environmentally benign materials. It is made from paper-based corrugated board, is non-toxic, easily recyclable and produced only from recycled paper and sustainable forestry resources.

From a market perspective there continues to be significant advances made in transferring corrugated packaging from the back of the store to the in-store environment. Its characteristics have enabled designers and product manufacturers to produce ingenious floor-standing, point of sale displays – historically the domain of wirework – to be erected by store staff or to arrive as transit packaging with the product ready inside.

Further innovation in corrugated pack production has meant the development of systems that aid fast shelf filling. The use and development of the ‘upside-down’ case is increasingly being seen in the retail environment. It works on the principle of the lid being at the bottom so that when the box element is removed the tidy tray both contains and displays the product on-shelf.

If constructed correctly it has the possibility of reducing secondary packaging cost to the product manufacturer, as well as lessening in-store handling.

Over the past 10 years or so, corrugated packaging has become 35% more cost-effective and more than 20% lighter with no reduction in its structural strength, and improvements in these areas are ongoing.

Commenting on the market, the Institute of Packaging’s John Webb-Jenkins says: “The use of corrugated in the UK is actually quite steady, but imports are rising so this is not good for the UK industry players. It has undoubtedly been damaged by plastic packaging, particularly shrink film, but conversely the improving print qualities are making corrugated more attractive again to some users.

“Die-cutting and shaping has been very important in maintaining markets especially for transit packaging where a tight fit is essential to minimise product damage as well as making loading more efficient.

“The DIY marketplace continues to be one of corrugated’s best opportunities, whether it is drill boxes, point of sale displays or transit. It fits this marketplace perfectly. I think at the end of the day it is like any other packaging material. It is how it is marketed that counts” – a very pertinent last comment.

What then of the industry players themselves. Are they all prophesying gloom? Rod Ainslie, managing director of Cepac, has invested his company’s money in what he terms performance packaging.

“In 2000 we established the most modern corrugated plant in the UK which is specifically geared to producing a product which is unrivalled in terms of service, quality and cost effectiveness”, he says.

“A modern plant, leading edge technology and sophisticated computer-based design equipment comprise the framework. As a result corrugated performance levels at Cepac are at least 20% above typical industry levels.

“This may be used either to reduce paper specifications, whilst achieving the same strength characteristics, or to guarantee performance in hand. Herein lies the solution to the apparently contradictory pressures to raise packaging performance whilst eradicating over packaging and all attendant costs.”

Ainslie’s overview of his own company’s advances highlights the ever-increasing need for technological advances. Like other forms of packaging, corrugated has to cope with today’s increasingly stringent health and hygiene requirements and only a few of the most modern plants can expect to obtain accreditation under the BRC Hygiene Technical Standard, Category B. This involves an all encompassing attitude to hygiene with employees expected to display due diligence.

Regulations, accreditation, laws and so on have always been seen to hit the packaging industry particularly hard and the EU packaging waste regulations are more than a little specific to the corrugated industry.

Faspak Containers’ Bob Waddell is quite forthright in his views on the subject. “Trust us in the UK to devise such a ludicrously complex system where I believe more money is spent on the recording and calculation of obligations as well as environment agency audits than the consequent contribution to recovery and recycling.

“The extra clerical cost is hidden in everyone’s fixed costs and does not concern the authorities. It is difficult enough to determine into which category an item or job should be allocated for us, a converter, let alone for our customers further up the chain.

“The system needs simplifying and the obligations/contribution buying PRNs to be based on broader, readily available financial figures categorised according to the company’s main operations. This would reduce the need for EA audits. Ironically for our industry it was actually unnecessary since recovery and re-cycling already exceeded the requirements anyway!”

As mentioned, corrugated has lost market share to plastics particularly in the beverage and short life sectors such as dairy products, fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish. However, corrugated remains the most commonly used form of transit packaging in frozen and chilled processed and convenience foods, sweets and confectionery, and soft drinks, wines and spirits.

Within these sectors corrugated provides a tailor made solution from the packaging line to the supermarket shelf which performs an important identification and display function. There are also other market sectors where corrugated is highly suitable, such as pharmaceuticals, glass and ceramics, detergents, household care and cleaning products, to name just a few.

The protective qualities are outstanding and with display characteristics improving all the time with the introduction of new printing developments for lightweight corrugated, has the industry really got grounds to be pessimistic?

Coraweb is a flagship product from Cepac and has obviously been part of their heavy investment programme, Rod Ainslie explains.

“From a performance point of view, savings of between 10% and 25% have been generated at major customers by adopting functional specification, hence avoiding over packaging. To enable potential customers to select the appropriate grade of Coraweb, all that needs to be known is the Box Compression Test (BCT) requirement and the size of the case. It then becomes a simple proposition to determine the most appropriate specification.

“The value to the customer service cannot be underestimated, especially technical support to the customer. In several of these instances the material savings have been overshadowed by the improvements in packing line performance due to the upgraded strength and consistency of the new cases.”

The whole matter of providing a service for the customer is hypercritical in the packaging industry. Clients themselves may only know the vaguest requirements for their products so it is up to industry to educate, provide solutions and be competitive in the marketplace.

This is never more important than for a small specialist corrugated packaging company. Again Waddell of Faspak Corrugated is absolutely on the button with his summary.

“We are a small company compared with the likes of Smurfit and others so we have to be particularly client focused. For us and for other small packaging companies it is important to stick to what you know best and not to get hooked on volume. At the top of the tree is customer communications and supporting IT. We continually have our creative technical representatives visiting and listening to our clients.

“Relationships are important. I also think a flat management structure is another bonus so that our clients can call anybody and receive real answers immediately.”

Waddell raises the importance of the supply chain ethos. For small corrugated players this means the ability to answer demands for small quantities fast. Larger companies have other scenarios to work into their structure as Ainslie comments.

“There are major initiatives underway regarding the optimisation of the customers supply chain management. The underlying principle is to analyse and eliminate all unnecessary costs at every stage of the supply chain. Some of the most adventurous developments involve the development of digital printing on line and the delivery of cases to machine side on our customers packaging lines.”

Corrugated packing also has to rely on a whole raft of bolt on or applied service products and printing is but one. For example, where would corrugated transit packaging be if it were not securely strapped or bundled? This is often an afterthought, something that comes at the end often to be applied in the simplest manner by hand with the resultant inadequacies, says Peter Foster, managing director of strapping specialists Mosca Direct.

“As the corrugated industry continues to develop, there is a corresponding diversity of corrugated products on the market. Each has its own requirements in terms of strapping and bundling and the corrugated producer must determine what its key priority is. Whilst for some companies foot throughput is the priority, for others speed is less important than the effective strapping of complicated products or layouts. Both small sheet plants and large producers require the flexibility to facilitate regular changeovers between a variety of products.

“On the technical side the tensile strength of polyester straps delivers enormous benefits against the traditional polypropylene straps when strapping under compression. A 9mm friction welded polyester strap maintains excellent tension, allowing greater loads to be stored or transported.

“A major benefit as far as binding is concerned is the trend is towards automatic in-line strapping which maximises space and efficiency. Similarly, the majority of corrugated manufacturers prefer to strap in the flute direction, to ensure maximum material protection.”

Mosca Direct’s involvement with the independent corrugated pack supplier Charapak of Alfreton is an excellent example of professional strapping. Charapak had previously used a labour-intensive and time consuming system of manual strapping. In a drive to increase efficiency, the company required an integrated solution that would provide automated four-way strapping with improved throughput and presentation.

Mosca was responsible for the design and installation of the line, which comprised a scissor lift, power conveyor, Mosca KCK 121 pallet press and gravity out-feed. Speed, efficiency and excellent presentation were guaranteed. Mosca has also carried out similar strategic improvements at Smurfit West Auckland.