Thermoformed blister packaging is growing, particularly for midlevel retail security needs.
Anti-theft, child proofing and see-the-product capabilities are among some market drivers, and packaging oily nuts and bolts, machine tools and peanuts are among the applications. The rigid blister niche competes, in some cases, against the larger shrink-film segment.
Blister packaging is ``definitely a growing market'' and ``makes economical sense,'' said Bill McConnell, president of consulting firm McConnell Co. Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas. From March 1-5 in Dallas, McConnell will lead a Society of Plastics Engineers thermoforming division-sponsored symposium that includes blister packaging.
A multiclient industry report from Plastics Custom Research Services said the value of blister packs was about $1 billion or 14 percent of the 2001 North American output of thermoformed packaging. ``By 2006, blister packs could represent $1.25 billion,'' projected Peter Mooney, president of the Advance N.C., business.
James Throne, president of thermoforming consulting firm Sherwood Technologies Inc. of Dunedin, Fla., said blister packaging sales are growing at about the same rate as those for point-of-purchase and do-it-yourself packages.
However, change is occurring often under the influence of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other packaging trendsetters.
``We are seeing a shift from U.S. packaging operations to overseas because it is a package for products now being made in mainland China,'' said Throne.
Unit-dose medical packaging appears to be the ``only area sacrosanct'' and avoiding the shift, thanks largely to Food and Drug Administration regulations, he said.
Shepherd Thermoforming and Packaging Inc. has experienced a change.
``We used to be a lot heavier into blister packaging,'' said Barry Shepherd, owner and president of the thermoformer in Brampton, Ontario. Major discount clubs and hardware stores appear to prefer unwelded clamshells that show all sides of a product and avoid the need for blister sealing equipment, he said.
It is ``easier for the manufacturer of a product to be flexible in terms of production lines if not doing blister sealing,'' Shepherd said.
Equipment maker Brown Machine LLC of Beaverton, Mich., perceives a trend toward larger thermoformed packaging, said Bill Kent, vice president of sales and business development.
``To a degree, we are seeing more bi-fold and tri-fold blisters, and they keep getting larger and larger,'' Kent said.
A year ago, a Brown customer was running a 25-inch-by-25-inch nominal mold size and went into a 30-by-36 machine, Kent said. ``Now he could use more equipment. In the client base, word got around'' about the larger sizes.
Multivac Inc. and Alloyd Co. have added to their equipment offerings.
Multivac, based in Kansas City, Mos., introduced a contoured packaging system with an updated technology for blister-card placement.
The company is working on three domestic equipment projects, said Patrick Ditchfield, market development manager with Multivac's medical, consumer and industrial division.
The automated thermoform fill-and-seal-rollstock R240 system can create made-to-order packaging with strong hanger holes and sturdy corners. The machines use roll-fed plastic to make the blister and sheet-fed cardstock to make the backing. As needed, the system can incorporate inline electronic tags to prevent shoplifting.
In January, DeKalb, Ill.-based Alloyd introduced its Aergo line of blister sealing machines featuring extensive ergonomic enhancements, a high-definition touch screen interface and material flexibility.
The first model, the Aergo 8 Duo, offers an automated way to seal plastic-to-plastic clamshells or provide blister-to-card sealing - with a change in tooling, according to Ken Sullivan, marketing director. Previously, nonautomatic equipment was needed for ultrasonic or radio frequency sealing of plastic-to-plastic packaging. Including options, the machine that Alloyd exhibited at the WestPack show in Anaheim, Calif., has a list price of $77,500.
Alloyd plans to introduce the Aergo 2 sealing machine, a two-station shuttle, at EastPack in June in New York. In November, Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget of Stockholm, Sweden, acquired Alloyd from investment firm Wind Point Partners of Chicago for $97 million.
Tamper-resistant materials are making gains.
``Blister packaging is a growing area,'' said Steve Speyer, sales and marketing manager for the performance packaging segment of Illinois Tool Works Inc.'s Valeron business. ``Government regulations are becoming more stringent, and retailers and consumers are becoming more demanding.''
Valeron film is used in packaging that needs both barrier protection and child resistance. Uses include security packaging, such as Colbert Packaging Corp.'s BlisterGuard, and raw blister board, such as International Paper Co.'s Safe-Pak.
``In the long term, different resins need to be found for the blister side,'' Speyer said. ITW Valeron is headquartered in Houston.
The loss-prevention thermoformed packaging is suitable for tools, blades, drill bits and electronic accessories costing more than $10, said Glenn Grosskopf, vice president of product development with Lake Forest, Ill.-based printer and converter Colbert.
Grosskopf said manufacturing BlisterGuard requires an equipment investment or modification, but the package still should cost 20-30 percent less than a comparable radio-frequency-sealed clamshell.
Other materials are emerging.
In May, ExxonMobil Chemical Co. of Houston introduced a nucleated polypropylene to provide clarity and stiffness for thermoforming applications such as cups, containers and protective food packaging and, potentially, blister packaging.
Separately, while not ready for disclosure, a strongly backed North American resin maker is testing extrusion of a proprietary acrylic-polystyrene blend for economical use in packaging applications including blisters.
KlÃ¶ckner Pentaplast of America Inc. of Gordonsville, Va., has extended its lamination product line to include three-layer Pentapharm Aclar G03. The product includes ethylene vinyl alcohol copolymer for blister packaging applications requiring medium to ultrahigh moisture and oxygen barrier properties. With G03, rigid vinyl film is the product contact layer. Honeywell International Inc.'s fluoropolymer Aclar often is laminated to PVC in making blister-packaging films.
Developers are seeking a fully tamper-evident blister package. Some firms, including Glad Products Co. and Johnson & Johnson, have tested tamper-evident chemical-reaction strips that would act as a litmus test to indicate a package has been opened, said Sherwood Technologies' Throne, but development challenges remain.
And then there is the problem of opening a securely made plastic package. ``If you do not have the right tools, you can't get the package open, and a lot of them are blisters,'' Throne said.