When it comes to starting a company, innovative technology can be a competitive advantage. On the other hand, when it comes to starting a company, innovative technology can be a competitive disadvantage. Just ask Eric Hatfield.
Hatfield is managing director of operations technology at FlexTech Packaging Ltd., a blown film processor in Cincinnati, OH, specializing in coextrusion. FlexTech’s capabilities include machine-direction orientation (MDO), a process that upgrades film properties and reduces materials use (Oct 02 MP, 42; MPI, 58). Though MDO has been around for decades, FlexTech is one of the few North American film producers with the capability.
“I believe it’s the biggest process technology change in film since coextrusion,” Hatfield says. The opportunity MDO offers was a reason for the creation of FlexTech five years ago by Hatfield and three partners. “In 10 to 15 years, no barrier line without MDO will be able to compete.”
Hatfield admits, however, that at first, while many potential customers were interested in the benefits of MDO, FlexTech’s youth and small size were weighed as heavily as its process technology. “The biggest problem we encountered,” he remarks, “was we brought new technology to the industry as a startup company.” Many packaging companies were interested in learning about MDO and running trials, but were reluctant to make a commitment with FlexTech. “We were small, and the concern was that we would create a new product and be the only ones that could make it.”
FlexTech has a 55,000-ft2 plant, and runs two blown film lines from Hosokawa Alpine American, Natick, MA – a 5-layer and a 7-layer. Nameplate capacity at the end of 2002 was 12 million to 14 million lb, depending on product mix. Sales were around $20 million. FlexTech has two MDO machines: one from Black Clawson Converting Machinery, Fulton, NY, and another which the company itself built.
Other suppliers of MDO units include Alpine; Battenfeld Gloucester, Gloucester, MA; Brückner Maschinenbau, Siegsdorf, Germany; Marshall and Williams Plastics, Woonsocket, RI; and SML Maschinengesellschaft, Lenzing, Austria.
After 18 months of touting MDO, FlexTech took a tried-and-true way of building business: sell products companies felt comfortable with from a startup. “What we did…was make ‘me-too’ barrier coex films to pay the bills,” Hatfield says. The tactic helped FlexTech build business and a viable customer base. Once the company got its “foot in the door” with a customer, it offered MDO.
The strategy worked well enough that Hatfield says 70% of output is now MDO film. The company usually runs 5- or 7-layer barrier structures incorporating nylon or EVOH, or both, as barrier layers. mdo not only improves the stiffness and strength of coex film, but can double moisture barrier and, in the case of evoh, provide a six-fold increase in oxygen barrier, Hatfield says. Coextruded MDO film with EVOH has the same barrier properties at 90% rh as a non-oriented structure at 30% rh, he claims.
One benefit from increased film properties and performance is downgaging. End-users can specify substantially greater properties and still reduce materials use over non-oriented structures, or can achieve similar properties with sizeable downgaging. Hatfield says that materials reductions of 15 to 25% are common. Since materials typically account for 70% of film costs, the savings can either go straight to a processor’s bottom line or be shared with the customer, giving the film maker a price advantage over competitors.
A significant market the company has targeted for MDO film is stand-up pouches. Here, products replace laminated structures, both plastics and paper. Stand-up pouches are well established in markets around the world, notably, in Europe and Canada, but they are in their infancy in the U.S. Hatfield concedes that lamination provides a reverse-printable layer that has better esthetics than printing on a coex structure. But he anticipates that continuing advances in printing technology will overcome this disadvantage, making mdo a stronger alternative to lamination.