SALISBURY, MD. (Sept. 3, 11:30 a.m. EDT) — The library at VPI Mirrex Corp. LLC's film and converting division isn't packed with books and magazines. The collection is substantially weightier.
The library, tucked in a side room at division headquarters in Salisbury, contains stacks and stacks of steel rolls. The print cylinders are each 66 inches long, or about the size of a thick chunk of underground pipe.
The cylinders, which are engraved with patterns like wood grain or marble, are the go-to source as VPI Mirrex, like other companies in the competitive film industry, tries to tap into new markets for laminated films.
“We're trying to duplicate the wood products that are out there in the market,” said Dennis Golonka, manager of design and styling for the VPI division and one of the keepers of the wood-grain library. “Our [film] business had become more design-oriented. We're definitely more of a show-and-tell business.”
VPI's efforts to duplicate the realistic appearance of quality wood products, and its recent investment in upgrading a print line, could translate to market growth. The division wants to gain a leadership position in the use of paper, PVC and acrylic film for a variety of household applications that consumers traditionally have favored in wood.
The company's printing proc-ess has developed to the point where use of large print cylinders easily can duplicate the look of wood.
“There's definitely an upside for us in films that can be mass-produced in high volumes,” said Barry Seldomridge, commercial development manager for the VPI Mirrex film and converting division. “We think we can get to the market aggressively by offering film with the right pattern and realistic look to replace wood.”
The film producer's push into wood replacement is part of an attempt by the industry to move away from plain-Jane commodity products. VPI, based in Sheboygan, Wis., entered that arena when it bought American Mirrex Corp. in 1997 and inherited the 140,000-square-foot calendering and converting plant in Maryland.
That facility has searched for new uses for film. Besides the film laminates, the Salisbury site has developed new pressure-sensitive film for labels and decals, and acrylic film for point-of-purchase displays.
“We're targeting growth markets for many of our products in the United States,” said James Bucks, director of sales and marketing for the division.
Those markets have attracted some other growth-oriented companies in the film industry, including Minneapolis-based Bemis Co. Inc.
Bemis, like others, has found ways to increase profit in the highly competitive, fragmented film business, said Lehman Bros. analyst Ghansham Panjabi. Moving to commodity products has helped the company succeed where others fight slim margins, he said.
Bemis is attempting to find new decorative uses for its film. On its Oshkosh, Wis., campus, Bemis is using a special ink that has a glow-in-the-dark additive. The ink is used to print film for the new Gogurt yogurt drink from General Mills Inc.
Those drinks, targeted at children and preteens, tie into the latest Star Wars film. The packages can be swung like the light sabers used in the fantasy film, said Jeff Hopp, market manager for liquid packaging with Bemis' Curwood Group high-barrier film division in Oshkosh.
The tear-off tubes, rolled out in February, are made of a coextruded, laminated film from Curwood in 48-gauge polyester, Hopp said. The film is reverse-printed with the special ink before being applied to the Gogurt containers.
The Gogurt business, which Hopp said was one of the first using the special ink, is a temporary product that will go away once the Star Wars appeal fades. But the use of graphic film will not disappear, he said.
“It's been a well-received new market for us,” Hopp said. “We have a host of different development projects to enhance graphic appeal. Besides the product that General Mills settled on, we've looked at holographic film and other types of inks.”
In addition, the company is pursuing other glow-in-the-dark film opportunities at its large campus, with more than 750,000 square feet of manufacturing space for its high-barrier products.
The challenge is for customers to be willing to buy decorative-film products at a slight price premium, he said.
“At least for food packaging, the Gogurt film was the first of its kind,” he said. “If consumers are hooked on the product, buying the film is money well-spent.”
In VPI's case, the use of laminated decorative film is a less-expensive alternative to typical wood laminates, Seldomridge said. The film, while offering the appearance of real wood, is lightweight and provides coatings that make the film more scratch resistant and durable than other wood alternatives, he added.
The company has made film for several new products, including floor tiles, shelves, decorative wall moldings, window profiles, and cabinets, plus paneling in recreational vehicles, burial vaults and bathroom tub liners.
The company is talking to extruders and thermoformers about the possibilities for acrylic film, Seldomridge said. The lighter-weight acrylic film can be easily shifted from store aisles or to different locations.
VPI also is interested in discussing the use of wood-grain prints on acrylic films for the vinyl fencing market. It has worked with several companies, including thermoformer Allied Plastics Inc. of Coon Rapids, Minn.
Thermoformed products with a wood-grain film are a challenge to set up and process, said William Brand, vice president of operations for Allied Plastics. But the market is growing, and the products offer advantages, he said. The company specializes in thermoformed point-of-purchase displays.
VPI's challenge has been to convince retailers to try a wood alternative, Seldomridge said.
“It's difficult to call up Home Depot or Liz Claiborne and send them out to look at our design shop,” he said. “To get to the end markets, we're finding partners to help us.”
Meanwhile, VPI has invested in its cylinders, which cost $50,000-$60,000 for a set of three, Golonka said. The company has about 70 sets of wood-grain and marble cylinders in its library, he said.
Golonka has visited furniture makers and wood veneer manufacturers to find the grain used in VPI's product mix. VPI also can engrave marble patterns that the company buys from quarries, Golonka said.
Golonka has become an expert in wood and the intricate patterns and colors that can be matched by PVC film.
“We have to keep up with the latest in wood-grain patterns, whether it be maple, oak or chestnut wood grains,” Golonka said.
The company's calendered and printed film can take on characteristics of maple, ash or walnut. Each piece of wood has at least three different grain patterns, called a key, a tick and a tone, Golonka said.
The company also is producing printed rolls of different colored film for labels, decals and banners and acrylic film for retail displays at mass-merchandise stores, Bucks said. The labels and decals can be die-cut and put on a sheet of acrylic for back-lit signage.
Earlier this year VPI launched its second calendering line in Salisbury, a high-speed unit that includes state-of-the-art automation controls. VPI Mirrex wants to fill capacity on the new line with film for the graphics market, Seldomridge said.