Thermoformed packaging is said to have benefitted from the Covid-19 pandemic with soaring demand globally, but why is that? Steven Pacitti talks to Brooke Maltun and Mark Strachan from OMV Technologies in the USA, Steffen Scheuermann from Illig in Germany, and Valentina Broggi from WM Thermoforming Machines in Switzerland to find out more
From left to right: Valentina Broggi, sales and marketing at WM Thermoforming, Brooke Maltun, president of OMV Technologies, Mark Strachan, co-owner and VP of R&D at OMV Technologies, and Steffen Scheuermann, director of marketing and communications at Illig Maschinenbau.
Ed: It has been suggested that the thermoformed packaging sector has boomed since the pandemic. Is that your experience too, and why is that?
Steffen Scheuermann (Illig): Many companies providing thermoformed packaging were rated during the lockdown period as ‘system relevant’. The supply of food was secured by single and family size portion packaging. Hygiene and high production output became vital issues in order to cover the demand. Restaurants were closed, which explains these high demands in small packaging, and converters had to run additional shifts assisted by administration staff to cope with the high demands.
Valentina Broggi (WM Thermoforming Machines): Packaging for take-away and deliveries was in high demand, and almost every restaurant and fast-food outlet was ready to meet customer demand, while cup requirement was very much less.
Brooke Maltun (OMV Technologies): In our experience, the domestic packaging sector increased during and since the pandemic. However, it continues to struggle in European countries due to high energy costs and water restrictions associated with the war in Russia, as well legislative initiatives banning the use of single-use plastics driving companies towards paper.
Ed: Are you having to build capacity to satisfy demand?
BM: With the new ownership, OMV is expanding and building capacity both to keep up with demand and to allow for more growth.
VB: Yes for several months our production floor was fully busy.
SS: There is a high demand in supporting customers and partners in developing more sustainable packaging. To satisfy this demand we have increased our capacities. Meanwhile, the Iillig Technology Centre has increased its floor space to 2,000sqm, hosting the packaging lab and many production-sized thermoforming machines. In general, we saw significant sales increase after Covid in all regions worldwide.
Mark Strachan (OMV Technologies): We are also adapting to the need for the extrusion and thermoforming of bio-based materials and energy efficient options
Ed: What material trends are you witnessing in the thermoforming sector?
SS: For the past five years we have witnessed a trend to more sustainable packaging, and the circular economy of plastics is the major topic of all development projects. We focus on thermal stable PET, PP from renewable resources, bioplastics, and mechanical and chemical recycling applications. And, of course, the implementation of mono-material packaging. Important for the circular economy of plastics is digitalisation, and we are also part of the RCycle-Community.
BM: The demand for ‘greener’ and more recyclable materials continues to be of more and more importance. OMV is at the forefront of converting thermoforming and extruding lines so that they’re capable of handling a variety of materials, including the addition of higher percentages of post-consumer recyclate.
VB: More and more PET, PP and green materials like PLA. Recently, foaming is coming up.
Ed: What developments are you working on in terms of drives, electronic parts, heaters and software?
VB: Black heaters to reduce power consumption, software developments to minimise downtime and rejection rate, Industry 4.0, and auto-setting.
SS: We are currently focusing on the rollout of the ‘Illig made easy’ concept. This includes a newly developed operating concept ‘Illig easy touch’, consisting of a touch display and a completely revised user interface. Both new hardware and software allow easier and intuitive navigation along the production process and reduce the training effort. It also provides various possibilities for integration and interface connectivity.
MS: We are optimising the energy efficiencies of our equipment with the move to more energyefficient components such as heater elements and software.
SS: The integration of a digital spare parts catalogue and a digital service platform named ‘Illig easy connect’ will also be offered to our customers in 2023. Together with our partners, we continue to further digitise all electronics.
Ed: How are you reducing energy consumption on your machines?
SS: Our latest generation is designed to be energy-efficient and save up to 15 per cent of energy compared with predecessor models. Compressed air generation and heating have the highest energy requirements in the overall thermoforming process. At the same time, they offer the greatest savings/optimisation potential in terms of energy consumption.
MS: The use of more energy-efficient drive systems and the elimination of hydraulics and pneumatics where possible. Also, the use of dynamic braking systems that allow the feedback of energy.
SS: Regarding the heating system, we are using energy-efficient HTSs radiators, which reduce the heating time by 50 per cent and enable energy savings of up to 30 per cent compared with common heating elements. A controlled heating phase, in which the cut heating and radiator heating are heated up with delay, in order to be ready for operation at the same time, saves additional energy. In addition, our thermoforming systems feature a start-up mode for tool changes and an energy-saving mode for stand-still or maintenance periods. We minimise the compressed air consumption for machine and mould by introducing compressed air at a higher speed. Thus, forming can be done with lower pressure/colder. Regenerative servo drives of the latest generation and the use of electric instead of pneumatic drives have been our standard for years.
VB: Vedi sopra black heaters.
Ed: Have lead times doubled or more (for parts), and how are you handling it? What parts in particular have become challenging to get hold of?
BM: Lead times for many items has increased since the pandemic. However, with a warehouse in Italy and in the US, we strive to keep critical spare parts available for our customers. We also closely manage inventory and work with our suppliers to ensure lead times are as efficient as possible.
VB: Yes, we have been facing problems mainly on electronic parts, drive/inverter/e-cards having extremely long delivery time. We try to collect them from sub-suppliers and distributors.
SS: The supply of some electronic components remains tight. In the meantime, we have adjusted to this situation. There are still short-term bottlenecks, but not on the scale we experienced during the pandemic. We significantly increased our inventory for our customers to compensate for supply bottlenecks.
Ed: How quick are mould changes, and can they be improved any more?
VB: It depends how skilled the operator in charge is, but the average is 40-45 minutes on a steel rules machine and two hours on a tilting machine.
SS: We supply quite a number of different thermoforming systems, and most of them are designed to allow fast changeovers. Over the years, developments have led to faster changeover times. For tilting machines, we have introduced the mould-block-change-over, which decreased changeover time significantly. During the last K show, we changed the complete format set of a RDM 73K-line including end packing automation within 60 minutes every day. We were able to produce round cups one day and the next rectangular cups. Our steel rule machines (RDK/RDKP) require high flexibility due to fast tool changes. A tool change can be realised in 30 minutes.
MS: Mould changes, thanks to developments in quick change components, are allowing for substantial mould change time savings.
Ed: Any development/trend in automation use within thermoforming? Are you seeing the increased demand for it?
SS: Demand for automation is high. All our customers have to deal with a decreasing labour force, which is not a matter of eliminating jobs, but simply the fact that these days not enough
personnel can be found. Most of the automation has to be format flexible and has to allow fast changeovers. As a main supplier, we enable automation throughout the entire process, and among other things, we offer bag packers and cartoners as end-of-line solutions.
VB: Yes, definitely automation is coming more and more.
Ed: Beyond machinery, what products/services are you building to provide a better package for customers?
MS: OMV offers online, theory, and hands on in-house training for designers, engineers and operators, as well as a comprehensive inline extrusion and thermoforming laboratory for prototyping, material testing, and training in Verona, Italy.
VB: Improving after-sales service remotely as well as by training local engineers, supporting customers during machine start-up and afterwards, providing spare parts locally.
SS: For many decades Illig has supported customers in developing packaging, but ever since we centralised packaging development in the Technology Centre, faster development cycles can be achieved, so time-to-market is reduced. The technology centre also provides ideal conditions for training machine operators. We also offer in-house toolmaking and a comprehensive range of services, such as retrofit solutions.
Ed: Geographically, where are your targets?
VB: North, Central and South America, South East Asia and the Middle East.
BM: OMV has a strong presence in the US and Europe. We’re working to build on that while also bringing in additional sales partners across Asia and South America.
SS: With our newly developed systems for sustainable packaging solutions, such as the HSU 650 for blister packaging and the XLU 40 for pulp and cardboard lamination, we are focusing primarily on the markets in Europe, North America, China, and India. With our thermoforming portfolio, we supply more than 100 countries worldwide.
Ed: On the material side, I’ve seen an emerging interest in expanded PP, in addition to rPET of course. Have you witnessed growth in EPP?
VB: Yes, as mentioned above, we see growth in foam materials, both chemical and physical.
MS: Not only EPP, but also foamed HDPE and foamed PET. Most are done within a sandwiched core to lightweight the product and offer superior top-load strength. OMV is in the process of working with Promix to jointly showcase the foaming capabilities and present customers with production-ready sampling.
SS: There are some applications with expanded materials. PP, PET and still PS is represented. In Asia, we also see PLA foam.
Ed: A study in 2020 identified adequate volumes of PET thermoform material in the US market to make it a viable target stream for increased recycling. Given that circularity is gaining momentum, is the thermoforming market moving fast enough when it comes to collection and recycling globally? If not, why not?
SS: Big efforts are being done to close the loop in the circular economy of plastics. Digitalisation will be the key. We are part of the R-Cycle-Community to create a common standard with a digital product passport, so that collecting and sorting will be more efficient.
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