Flexible Packaging Materials Lose Weight
Cost-cutting device makers are turning to packaging suppliers, who are creating space-age materials that cost less and are thinner and stronger than their predecessors.
by Greg Erickson, Contributing Editor
It sounds like something out of science fiction—transparent aluminum. But you won't have to go to the movies to hear about a material that has the strength of aluminum yet the clarity of glass. Packaging materials such as this are already being used by manufacturers of medical devices.
Beacon Converter's flexible die-cut card used inside a pouch can take the place of a tray.
Transparent aluminum, per se, does not exist, and probably won't ever, but flexible materials that offer the toughness and transparency of plastic film with the high-barrier characteristics of aluminum do. That in itself is not news. What is news is that these plastics are getting thinner all the time without a decrease in performance—all in the name of lowering cost.
The flexible packaging industry as a whole grew by only about 3.2% in 1997, reports the Flexible Packaging Association. However, 65% of converters and 57% of suppliers increased their production of flexible materials last year. This significant growth has been spurred in part by medical device manufacturers' continuing move out of rigid trays and into pouches and bags. This has been one way to reduce expenses, because, generally speaking, a flexible package is less costly than a rigid one of similar size and function. Now, users of bags and pouches are asking suppliers of flexible materials to downgauge those materials and cut costs even further.
At Tolas Healthcare Packaging (Feasterville, PA), "Cost is always a factor;" says Carl Marotta, president. "That never leaves the scene. Increased functionality is a growing trend where people are marketing a new product or in some cases changing from a tray and lidding to flexible."
Rigid packaging costs more than flexible in three ways, says Kathleen Mascolo, vice president and director of sales and marketing at Beacon Converters (Saddle Brook, NJ). "It costs more in original purchase price, in storage at the customer's warehouse, and in the cost of disposing of used packages. Everyone is being squeezed by managed healthcare to cut costs, so we are being asked to produce plastic films that protect as well as rigid packages do. We've been asked for plastic bags and pouches that can take the weight of the devices better and resist being punctured by sharp corners." Beacon is now providing flexible custom die-cut insert cards that hold various components in place within the outer pouch or header bag, eliminating the need for a rigid tray.
Craig Livingston, director of sales at Rollprint (Addison, IL), says: "The overriding demand from our customers is lower pricing." With advances in resin as well as in film and converting equipment technology, Rollprint has been able to meet its customers' challenges for improved pricing without compromising package performance. In many cases, performance has even been enhanced. To that end, Livingston says, Rollprint recently purchased a multimillion-dollar extrusion line. "The primary influence in making such a large financial commitment was so that we could continue to provide our customers with unique and technologically advanced packaging materials, while also being able to manufacture existing products at more cost-effective pricing."
Perfecseal's header bag, made of PerfecFlex ShieLLD puncture-resistant film, can hold large, bulky devices or heavy trays.
Materials supplier Perfecseal (Philadelphia) is also being urged by customers to downgauge films. Bruce Hergert, vice president, R&D, says, "Our customers want to buy thinner films. This ties into the whole effort in source reduction. The biggest trend in the market is toward downgauging." In response, the company came up with PerfecFlex ShieLLD film. Hergert says, "Customers can use our 3-mil film instead of 4-mil conventional film. The 3-mil film provides 150% more impact strength than a conventional 4-mil." Key to the film's strength is a new linear low-density polyethylene resin manufactured under new catalyst technology. "The end product after extruding results in a film that appeals to the customer's need for downgauging," says Hergert.
Even venerable Tyvek brand spunbonded olefin is going through downgauging. Jeff Greenlief, business director at Rexam Medical Packaging (Mundelein, IL), says, "There are some products that should never move away from Tyvek because it works so well. And to DuPont's credit, they are working on introducing a new lower-basis-weight Tyvek to complement their existing 1.9-oz and 2.2-oz Tyvek medical styles and to present a more economical alternative."
According to Michael Scholla, segment leader, DuPont Nonwovens (Wilmington, DE), "This new, lower-basis-weight Tyvek style is designed specifically for form-fill-seal (FFS) applications and has unique properties that will enhance FFS manufacturing while reducing costs. This new style will be available in July."
STRENGTH OF FLEXIBLES
Advanced barrier technology is also in demand. Marotta says Tolas has been asked to produce some specialty high-barrier pouches. "One market in particular is orthopedics—hip stems and so on. Some of these are made with a type of plastic that is sensitive to oxygen for a certain period after it has been molded. The package must be flushed with nitrogen gas and is required to hold that in while keeping oxygen out for an extended period." Also, Beacon's Mascolo says she has seen increased interest in foil, which can be an excellent moisture barrier. "Such things as burn dressings come in packages that are foil based, simply because the foil is needed to maintain moisture." Until an enhanced moisture-barrier film at a reasonable cost comes along, she says, aluminum foil will continue to play a big role in medical packaging.
But clear foil might not be that far off. Rollprint has developed a high-barrier-material laminate in the ClearFoil family using ClearFoil SiOX-F sandwiched between a 2.5-mil sealant layer and a 75-gauge oriented polypropylene outer layer. The laminate features very low oxygen and water vapor permeability and is clear, allowing users to view the contents of the package.
Film impregnated with an ultraviolet-light absorber is another type of flexible packaging material that is in demand. "If the customer has devices that are sensitive to UV light," Marotta says, "this transparent packaging can block it."
Rexam's Greenlief says sealing technology has become a major concern for some of his customers. FDA requires device manufacturers to state on packages whether the device inside has any parts made of natural-rubber latex or dry-rubber latex, because these materials have been linked to allergic reactions in a small percentage of patients. "But packages containing latex-free products can't be labeled 'latex-free' if the package sealant used contains latex, and cohesives used for cold-seal package converting contain it." For that reason, Greenlief says, "We have seen some people move out of cold-sealing and into heat-sealing. We realized years ago that people would be asking for solutions to this, and we've invested heavily in research and development to reinvent both our heat-seal and cold-seal lines."
Phoenix Health Care Products LLC (Milwaukee) may have another solution to the problem concerning latex. "Companies that are currently using a cold-seal material don't always have the ability to switch to a heat-seal material without making a major investment in new sealing equipment," explains Ron Tabat, vice president of marketing, planning, and development. "To help those using a cold-seal material, we are developing a product that doesn't use natural latex. This should allow companies a choice in meeting FDA's September 30 deadline for the new labeling requirements."
Rollprint's Livingston says another factor—corporate restructuring—is challenging suppliers of flexible packaging materials to change the way they do business. "With the tremendous amount of corporate downsizing over the past few years," he says, "many customers are looking to suppliers like Rollprint to provide complete packaging services from input into package design and the initial selection of packaging materials to material and machine validations."
In many cases, Rollprint is performing complete analytical testing on materials to determine if or to what degree barrier capability, chemical resistance, or other properties are required. "These are areas that we rarely were involved in years ago," says Livingston. "In the past, the customer would have four or five on-staff packaging professionals to perform material specifications and validations. Today, we go to the customer and have our technical people run the material validation tests on the customer's equipment."
Bill Daly, chairman of the Sterilization Packaging Manufacturers Council (SPMC) of the Flexible Packaging Association and president of Beacon Converters, says that to further assist packagers, SPMC is working on standard specifications for dimensional tolerances of sterilizable pouches as well as for other common products such as lid stock and rollstock. These will be particularly helpful to engineers who may have significant product knowledge but a limited packaging background.
As medical device manufacturers continue to reduce their costs, will they keep the pressure on packaging suppliers? Says Greenlief, "Even though we're still being asked to help reduce our customers' costs, many clients are beginning to look internally again to find cost-cutting measures, whether they be with the device itself or in their internal manufacturing processes. In the meantime, we'll go back to the drawing board to prepare for the next wave of cost cutting we expect to see in the years to come." So, it would seem, some of the heat is off packaging. Nevertheless, the quest to take flexible materials where no package has gone before will undoubtedly continue.