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Packages for industrial goods: high tech under difficult conditions

Electricity and resources are becoming more expensive, and the shortage of freight capacity is pushing up the cost of transport. So how can high-grade packages be marketed under these difficult conditions without appreciable price rises? The manufacturers of industrial packages are showing that this is possible – by using low-cost recycled materials, participating in the development of logistics strategies and generating their own renewable energy.

Industry is in a predicament. Because newly industrialised countries like China are growing rapidly and business is booming in industrialised nations like Germany, resources are becoming scarcer and more expensive. In its current report on the state of resource supplies in Germany, the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources is already issuing a warning about serious supply bottlenecks. In many European countries, energy prices are on the up because of increasingly expensive imports of oil, gas and coal. In Germany, industrial enterprises are now paying an average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity, roughly 25 per cent more than only five years ago.

The manufacturers of industrial packages are being hit particularly hard by the price rises. Their containers, pallets, technical components and workpiece carriers are usually made of plastics. Although they are light and robust, a lot of energy is required for the injection-moulding of plastics packages. Furthermore, the manufacturers need granulate for this, which is in big demand and no longer available in limitless quantities. “In the long term, this not only means increases in the price of all load carriers, but availability will also become a crucial factor sooner or later,” says Udo Schwabe, Marketing Manager of the German branch of the Swiss Utz Group, a container specialist. Rising transport costs are exacerbating the situation. The problem is that large industrial packages on their way to the customer by trucks and train take up a good deal of space. “In this situation, cost savings are pretty much out of the question,” Schwabe claims.

If large Intermediate Bulk Containers are to be filled with foods, high standards of hygiene apply in production. (Image: Schütz)
If large Intermediate Bulk Containers are to be filled with foods, high standards of hygiene apply in production. (Image: Schütz)

Customers are becoming more demanding
While the financial leeway for customers is declining, customers are becoming more demanding. Whatever the sector – the wholesale trade, food industry or pharmaceuticals industry – they all want to shrink their carbon footprint and are insisting on sustainable packages produced with minimum resource input but without compromising on strength. Companies are also resorting to highly automated conveying technologies to ensure trouble-free materials flow. And this raises the bar significantly for packaging. “Like other packages, industrial packages also have to protect the product while using less material. Less material also means less space taken up by the packaged product,” explains Vera Fritsche, specialist of the Food Processing and Packaging Machinery Association in the German Engineering Federation.

In addition, the containers have to become identifiable so that they can be controlled by different logistics systems. “Coding plays a very important part here, particularly as regards the traceability of the product over the entire distribution chain as well as the entire in-plant logistics,” Fritsche explains. Novel in-mould labelling technology is making rapid inroads, as it produces durable and easy-to-clean labels, although it is more elaborate and more expensive than the currently widespread barcodes. These are simply stuck onto the packages in a downstream cycle, while in-mould labelling is integrated in container production. Pre-printed labels are inserted in the injection mould and fuse with the plastic melt on its injection into the mould.

Packaging suppliers are also expected to offer space-saving containers. “Freight and storage space is becoming not only scarcer, but also costlier,” Fritsche continues. Companies pass on the pressure to the packaging industry in the form of demands for volume-reduced containers, be they folding, conical or stackable/nesting.

The biggest challenge facing packaging manufacturers is to deliver the required innovations without loss of quality and at as little extra cost as possible. At interpack 2014 in Düsseldorf from 8 to 14 May 2013, visitors can find out for themselves the strategies and products that suppliers of industrial packages are adopting in order to meet the needs of the market. interpack promises a multitude of inspirational ideas, as packaging specialists are working flat out to innovate and cut costs.

Cologne-based drum specialist Greif, for example, aims to tap further cost and efficiency potential right across the company in the short term, says its Managing Director Dirk Heidmeyer. “This way we are pursuing two major goals on behalf of our customers. Firstly, we want to do all we can to keep package costs as low as possible for our customers in the long term. And, secondly, we want the improvement in the earnings situation to contribute to long-term security in terms of what we call ‘The Safe Choice’.” The Safe Choice is Greif’s pledge to always offer high-grade packages with maximum product safety and delivery reliability.

No package like any other
Using extra-safe packages to keep the customer coming back is the approach also pursued by the Schütz packaging company in Germany. Its innovations include Foodcert packages for the food industry, which are based on the latest industrial standard FSSC 22000 (Food Safety System Certification). This standard calls among other things for high cleanness precautions during production to minimise the risk of contamination. Schütz also manufactures its Foodcert packages exclusively just in time, i.e. to meet actual demand in response to individual customer orders. Long storage and contamination are thus avoided. “Schütz is the first manufacturer of intermediate bulk containers and drums worldwide to subject all of its production plants to this audit,” the company claims. Intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) are among the most widely used large packages. These cubic plastic containers are used in industry mainly as collection and transport containers.

Another Schütz strategy to attract customers in the long term is sustainable package solutions. The company’s latest developments in this area include a plastics IBC pallet that is made by reprocessing used IBCs. Schütz is thus killing two birds with one stone. It is firstly satisfying growing demand for carbon-footprint-reduced and ecologically produced, recyclable products. And, secondly, by reprocessing scrapped IBCs, Schütz is making itself less dependent on expensive supplies of raw materials. And without loss of quality, the company insists. For the recycled material is highly resistant to chemicals, deformation and damage, Schütz claims.

VDMA expert Fritsche cites another example of a resource-conserving, reusable package: the so-called Xfach Folding Coil from DS Smith Packaging for the transport of rubber seals, hoses, cord and the like. “It takes just two manipulations to set it up and collapse it. When the coil is collapsed, all the parts remain connected, and losing parts during the return trip is prevented. Thanks to its construction with robust corrugated board, the folding coil is designed for multiple use,” says Fritsche.

One of the focuses of Utz is also on the sustainable, cost-effective production of its plastics load carriers. At the company’s own recycling centre, boxes and pallets are processed into granulate. Alongside this, the company is developing new packaging materials like wood-plastic composite as well. To supply itself with eco-friendly electricity, Utz has also invested in its own photovoltaic installation and a combined heat and power plant. “These are initially large investments, but they will make us more independent of electricity exchanges and government price interventions in the long term,” Marketing Manager Schwabe explains.

What’s the best way to move as many containers as possible with minimum effort? Special stackable transport dollies are the answer. (Image: Utz Group)
What’s the best way to move as many containers as possible with minimum effort? Special stackable transport dollies are the answer. (Image: Utz Group)

In addition to sustainability and cost reduction, Utz accords a key role to flexibility in production and to delivery readiness. “One thing is certain: the search is on not for the universal solution for multi-way packages, as was perhaps on the agenda a few years ago, but for solutions geared to specific industries and customers,” says Schwabe. In cooperation with meat processers and the global standards organisation GS1, it has thus developed a new, e-performance meat container whose enhanced base geometry and corner design makes it extra-strong. It also bears an in-mould label on all four sides for easier identification within the supply chain.

For a chain of chemist’s stores, Utz has also developed a transport dolly that can be moved on casters without great effort to its in-plant destination. The basis of this dispatch tower is a dolly that has four recesses on its upper surface to accommodate the casters of the next dolly. The dollies can thus be stacked one on top of the other to save space in the warehouse. Utz also serves large industrial enterprises. For an international technology corporation, the Swiss Group’s headquarters has designed a large package composed of a folding box pallet, various interior divisions and deep-drawn intermediate panels. The package unit is used worldwide for transporting turbine blades for gas and hydroelectric power plants when these undergo inspection.

So that it can supply industry with its many packaging solutions, Utz is constantly investing in the extension of its machine park. The Swiss production plant in Bremgarten alone now has 29 injection moulding machines. “We don’t have any products that would warrant a mono-product system,” the company claims. There is plenty afoot in the packaging sector.