Sustainability, automation, in-mold labeling and improved technology are some of the drivers of change in the thermoforming sector, according to a new report from the Plastics News research department, North American Thermoformed Packaging Market Review & Outlook 2015.
Here's a peek at one section of the report, on emerging trends in thermoforming:
Automation and technology making an impact
Evolving trends in the thermoformed packaging industry include robotics integration, inventory control optimization, extrusion, thermoforming and assembly equipment upgrades, improved tools in packaging design and graphics, lightweight packaging and sustainability issues.
Jeff Mengel is Plante & Moran's national practice leader for plastics and the food processing/packaging industries. When it comes to current trends facing processors serving the thermoformed packaging market, he points to automation. “I know it sounds like a broken record, but advances in automation remains a primary trend,” he said.
Machinery and tooling continue to evolve with new control systems and automation in the form of robotic stacking systems. These developments have allowed thermoformers to be more efficient while improving the repeatability of the process.
Daniel Slavin, president and CEO of Woodstock, Ill.-based Dordan Manufacturing Co. Inc., noted that thermoforming has evolved tremendously over the last 30 years.
“From small job shops using hand-made modeled prototypes by pattern makers, to sand/pressure castings, to solid aluminum machined prototypes machined off the same engineering files that create the production tooling, it has been quite the evolution of skill, technology and machinery,” he said. “This history of evolution demonstrates the thermoforming industry's ability to adapt and innovate … its ability to stay relevant.”
The thermoforming process may replace injection molding in many applications in packaging due to speed of production and lower tooling costs. According to Julie McAlindon, senior vice president, DSS for PolyOne Corp., 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.
Further, in-mold labeling (T-IML) has evolved over the past decade and is now becoming more common for the higher end of the thermoforming spectrum. The technology has improved and standards are being developed so that systems integration is easier.
Light weighting and sustainability gaining ground
As more consumers are seeking “green “products, sustainability is a key issue for processors serving the thermoformed packaging market.
In addition, lightweighting and downgauging are growing trends as weight reduction has impacts beyond the part itself (e.g., transportation and logistics).
There is an increased focus on sustainability via thin-walling and the use of recycled and/or bio-based materials. “We see an increase in demand for barrier properties in thin-wall packaging as producers continue to seek lightweighting solutions, McAlindon said.
Companies today are addressing sustainable packaging and waste-to-value propositions in different ways. Some are proactively playing a positive role at the heart of recycling initiatives (e.g. Dordan and PET clamshell recycling). Others are investing in recycling technologies and effectively closing the loop themselves (e.g. Placon & Ecostar facility, Octal's new investments in U.S. PET flake recycling).
In the food service segment, current packaging trends are focused on both the environmental attributes as well as the “look” of containers. Demand for products that can be recycled or composted continues, with perhaps a greater interest in 2015 in compostable products.
This could be the result of a growing number of food waste diversion initiatives throughout the foodservice industry.
Thanks to David Hutton and Kelley Trost for letting me share this portion of the report with Plastics Blog readers. For the full report, go to the Plastics News Data Store.