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'Thermoforming has nearly limitless possibilities'

By: David Hutton

April 18, 2014

Julie McAlindon first joined PolyOne Corp. in 2010 and was appointed senior vice president, president of designed structures and solutions following the acquisition of Spartech Corp.

Prior to joining PolyOne, McAlindon spent 20 years with Dow Chemical Co. and held various commercial, operational and managerial assignments.

She talked with David Hutton, Plastics News research analyst, for a report on the thermoforming market.

Q: PolyOne purchased Spartech  in March 2013. How has the integration of Spartech been going since the acquisition?

McAlindon: Integration efforts are well underway at PolyOne Designed Structures and Solutions (DDS), and we are providing increased value to our customers. They have seen improvements in quality, delivery and responsiveness to their needs, all of which have been driven in large part by ongoing implementation of commercial and operational excellence best practices and establishment of a Lean Six Sigma program.

Q: How will you measure the success of the acquisition of Spartech going forward?

McAlindon: We measure success in the value that Designed Structures and Solutions will ultimately provide to customers as part of PolyOne, a total solutions provider with a track record of innovation. As a PolyOne business, DSS now has access to the broadest portfolio of material solutions in the industry to bring to thermoforming techniques. By implementing an established process for new product development and portfolio improvements, we believe our value to customers will expand significantly. In addition, we will leverage our marketing and international resources to help globalize DSS to serve multinational OEM and brand owner customers in the same way as do other PolyOne specialty businesses for their customers.

Q: What are some of the current trends in thermoformed packaging, from resins to automation?

McAlindon: We are seeing three main trends in this area. First, there is a rise in the conversion of injection-molded packaging to thermoformed components, which reduce lead times and tooling costs so that customers can get to market faster with less risk and investment. Second, we see an increase in demand for barrier properties in thin wall packaging as producers continue to seek light weighting solutions. Finally, thermoformed in-mold labeling is now on the rise in the U.S. as a cost-effective alternative to other decorative techniques.

Q: What are some of the challenges facing the segment in 2014?

McAlindon: One major challenge is finding environmentally friendly barrier materials. Gaining increased clarity in those barrier materials is another related challenge.

Q: Where are the areas of opportunity for thermoformed packaging?

McAlindon: Opportunities for thermoformed packaging arise from the way they can bring value to customers. Thermoforming offers more choices and design freedom when developing next-generation package shapes and sizes. In addition, new performance-enhanced formulations for thermoformed sheet can increase customer throughput per unit time. Thermoformed packaging also provides a lighter weight alternative that can help meet sustainability and transportation cost reduction goals. Because thermoforming offers enhanced barrier solutions, food and beverage producers can now market their goods in the center of the grocery store rather than limiting them to refrigerated aisles, enhancing consumer awareness and likelihood of purchase.

Q: The packaging industry has weathered the recession of 2008-2009, and companies are now looking to the future. Dusting off the crystal ball, what do you see in the future for the thermoformed packaging industry in 2014-2015?

McAlindon: In addition to the trends mentioned earlier, there are indications that significant growth in medical applications is underway. Customers in this industry are beginning to appreciate the design freedom, barrier performance, and greater throughput that can be achieved via thermoforming versus injection molding. Healthcare-grade sheet materials are also helping to meet compliance standards in these applications for shorter time to market.

Q: Many companies are instituting a clean machine design — thermoforming systems that have been configured to meet the special requirements of the medical sector and pharmaceutical industry. How is clean machine design helping to drive OEM growth and meet new regulations?

McAlindon: Clean room manufacturing is being considered in response to the rise in healthcare-associated infections, which are those acquired in a healthcare facility. While safety is the primary concern for the healthcare industry, packaging production in a clean room is not currently required by regulation. Nonetheless, some medical device manufacturers have made a business decision to incorporate clean room manufacturing. We believe that clean room packaging production will increase as part of the overall value it brings to the healthcare industry.

Q: Sustainability is a key issue for thermoformers today, as customers seek green products. What can companies do to improve sustainability?

McAlindon: Unlike other plastic processes, thermoforming has nearly limitless possibilities in the area of material formulation science to improve sustainability. Thermoformed packaging producers can use these formulations to remove weight from their current packaging with no additional investment in new tooling. Additional actions that thermoformed packaging producers and OEMs are taking include:

• Use of recycling and waste recovery in manufacturing;

• Increased use of recycled content;

• Increased use of renewably sourced materials;

• Improvements in packaging and logistical efficiency.

Q: How are companies tackling sustainable packaging and waste-to-value propositions?

McAlindon: Currently, we see a lot of customer movement in areas of light weighting and foaming as a means of reducing energy consumption and conserving resources. There are also global consumer products OEMs who are targeting 100 percent renewable or recycled materials, waste-to-energy initiatives, and zero consumer waste in landfills.

Q: Looking ahead, will innovations continue in the area of design and engineering? Where do you see opportunity for the greatest innovation?

McAlindon: Yes, these innovations will continue. The opportunities for the greatest innovation in design and engineering of thermoformed containers stem from the value they can create throughout the entire packaging life cycle. Designing a sustainable package for maximum appeal and utility in the retail space, while keeping in mind the needs of filling and distribution systems as well as consumer use, calls for creativity and knowledge of the entire system. A few examples in this area, where innovation will be required to meet the changing demands of the industry include:

• Feedstocks: As the dynamics of the petrochemical industry continue to evolve with changes to global supply and emerging feedstock sources such as shale gas, new materials engineering and recycling approaches for extruded sheet will take place.

• Shelf life: Using creative design and engineering to allow brand owners to extend shelf life or allow access to a larger sales area will continue to bring value to thermoformed goods.

• Rapid technologies: Growth in rapid prototyping and manufacturing techniques such as 3-D printing and “quick” tooling along with improved manufacturing technologies are allowing for greater speed, precision and quality throughout the new product development process.

• Material substitution: Brand owners and retailers are looking to provide visually appealing, lightweight alternatives to aluminum and glass packages with thermoformed containers. Innovations that consider the total lifecycle — from filling to disposal — in the design and engineering of these packages will be key to enabling this trend.

• Design: Shapes, expanded color options and extensive industrial design capabilities can help to create a process that reduces risk while improving consumer appeal and sustainability from concept to manufacturing implementation.

Q: Automation continues to have an impact on the thermoforming industry, increasing production and reducing costs. How is automation helping thermoformers gain a competitive edge in today’s business climate?

McAlindon: Thermoforming process technology development is moving at greater speeds than ever before. Advancements in the area of robotics and trim technology are helping to change the game.