The black flower pot has a new party dress.
With the advent of new graphics and color, the simple days of plain plant containers are waning. Pots have become marketing tools themselves, with Technicolor graphics replacing duller shades of yore.
``Ten or 20 years ago, [plants] were packaged in supermarket brown bags or brown boxes,'' said Gary Vollers, general manager of nursery-container maker Productivity California Inc. of South Gate, Calif. ``Now, you have to have beautiful-looking containers to compete. The horticultural business is moving into more modern methods of marketing, and pots are helping lead that direction.''
Pro Cal, as the company is known, can reproduce actual photographic prints onto a container or add artwork-quality visuals. The pots can duplicate the blossoms of a tulip or show off the red of a tomato.
While making pots has been the traditional province of thermoformers, Pro Cal uses what essentially is a custom paperboard-container machine. The result: plastic containers with sharp graphics at less cost than thermoformed or injection molded containers, said Gerald Meier, vice president of Paper Machinery Corp.
Milwaukee-based PMC worked with Pro Cal to develop the process. Holes are punched into the side walls and bottom of the polypropylene sheets to help with drainage, then the die-cut sheets are sent through the redesigned paperboard press.
No forming ovens or four-color, post-production printing are required. PMC is offering four new press models custom-designed for plastics applications.
PMC is testing materials for markets other than garden and nursery, Meier said. For example, the company is testing gas-barrier materials that could propel the process into the snack and pet-food markets, he said.
``We're starting to see plastics [molders and thermoformers] calling us,'' he said. ``For a long period of time, it was difficult to get the barrier capabilities of paper with plastics. Now, you can get to that barrier level in a very economical way.''
Other thermoformers are keeping an eye on progress, even though Pro Cal has an exclusive agreement with PMC to use the machines for horticultural products. Akron, Ohio-based Landmark Plastic Corp., a maker of thermoformed plant-packaging products, is aware of Pro Cal's work and is taking a wait-and-see attitude, said Dan Collins, vice president of sales and marketing.
Collins said the Pro Cal pots look more like popcorn buckets than conventional containers.
``It's just a different spin on printing technology,'' Collins said. ``We don't know for a fact that it does anything better than what we can do with four-color printing. It might be affordable for making a million pots, but I don't know if the equipment is affordable for everyone else.''
Pro Cal is providing the pre-printed pots for a program rolling out this spring at Home Depot stores in the United States, said Karen Haggerty, spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Home Depot Inc. The pots, sold under Home Depot's Viva! brand, include four-color pictures of the flowers, vegetables or herbs inside.
Meier said he needed some convincing when Pro Cal first came to him with the idea for the colorful pots.
``I wasn't a believer at first,'' he said. ``But market research shows that more flowers can be sold when high-quality graphics are used.''
Other thermoformed pots use offset printing to add an image after the pot is made. But Pro Cal wanted better-looking visuals.
PMC had no experience in the plastics industry, and Pro Cal had none in paper. Pro Cal picked PMC's name from the Thomas Register while looking for an equipment supplier.
Pro Cal enlisted sheet extruder Spartech Corp. of Clayton, Mo., to help develop a modified PP blend that would work well with the pre-printed sheet. PMC's forming presses were tweaked for temperature and timing, as plastic runs at different rates than paper, Meier said.
Finding the right formula to run the sheet was an exacting process, Pro Cal's Vollers said.
``You can't imagine the trial and error when you have something new,'' he said.
In February 2004, the first machines were shipped to Pro Cal. The presses can make 200 containers a minute.