A different kind of 'film'-making

While the Noida-headquartered Uflex is India's largest global flexible packaging solution company, what is more impressive is the fact that its packaging film manufacturing units are spread across the globe. On 4 May 2016, Rahul Kumar visited the company’s plant located in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, the USA, and has returned wiser about the manufacturing of packaging films., Business

20 Jun 2016 | By Rahul Kumar

Uflex understood the ever-swelling demand for packaging films in North America at an appropriate time. Commissioned in 2013, the Kentucky plant is the result of this very understanding. Currently, the USD 1 billion company has five overseas operations for manufacturing packaging films, in the US, Poland, Egypt, Mexico and UAE.
Flex Films (USA), the indirectly wholly owned subsidiary of Uflex Limited, houses an 8.7-metre Bi-axially Oriented Polyethylene Terephthalate (BOPET) film line that runs at 500 metres per minute, with a production capacity of 30,000 MT per annum. It is supplemented by a plasma-enhanced high-barrier vacuum metalliser that can produce around 11,000 MT of metallised film per year.
The BOPET film manufacturing facility is ranked among one of the most technologically advanced packaging film lines in the US, which by far is world’s largest and most sophisticated market for packaging films and products.
The thickness of the films produced at the plant ranges from eight to 50 microns. The jumbo rolls of films are either 72,000 metre or 10,000 kg in weight, or both. It takes about three hours to manufacture the jumbo roll. The quantity of the film depends on diameter of the rolls.

The process
The process of production is not very different from what is being done in India, equally impressive and sophisticated is the outlook. For raw material, the company purchases PET chips from three outlets – two are Indian and one American. Nearly 90% of the raw material (bright and speciality chips) comes from within the US and only the balance is imported.
The raw material is poured into big silos. Flex Films (USA) has silos of different capacities, ranging from 400 tonnes (three silos), 40 tonnes (two silos) and 20 tonnes (two silos). Small silos are used for speciality chips.
The drying
These silos are attached to automatic and programmable feeding machines that send the chips to the drying and crystallising unit, the ductless heat pump (DHP) to remove the moisture from the raw material and to crystallise it. The softening temperature of the chips is 69 degrees Celsius and the melting temperature is 240-250 degrees Celsius. The crystallisation helps make the raw material non-sticky during drying. Otherwise, it may stick and obstruct the flow.

A single winder’s capacity is 72,000 metres. It depends on the outer diameter of the roll. In weight, it can be a jumbo of 10,000 kg
Melting and casting
Thereafter, the dried chips are fed into the extruder that performs the function of mixing, melting, metering and pumping the material uniformly. Dried and crystallised material goes into melting chambers where electric heaters (with temperature of around 280 degrees Celsius) melt the chips to turn them viscous.
In the next step, the viscous material goes through two filters – the primary filter sieves impurities of 40 microns and above while the secondary filter stops impurities up to 25 microns. The layers of the melt (co-extruded and core) are combined into one single layer in the feed block and that uniform layer of melt emerges from the die and then on to the casting drum (chill roll). Chillers with cold water maintain temperature of around 12 degrees Celsius on the surface of the roll.
The co extruder works parallel to the main extruder on vacuum principle. The two co extruders are placed on either sides of the main extruder.
Flex Films (USA) uses high voltage pinning system to make casting system uniformly flat across the width avoiding any air entrapment. The pinning system bombards the film with electrons and charges it. This keeps the polymer flat. It also has a thickness controller to control the thickness of the film emerged after casting.
Thereafter, the film passes through the machine direction orientation (MDO) section. Here, the film is pre-heated above the glass transition temperature of BOPET (70 degree Celsius). After pre-heating, the film is stretched up to 3.5 times. Infrared rays are used in the stretching section for uniform heating.
From the MDO section, the film goes to the coating section where chemical is coated onto it as per the specifications of the customer. The coating is done through gravure roll process. From the MDO section, the film goes to the transverse direction orientation (TDO) section where it is stretched in transverse direction. To begin with, the film is pre-heated so that it can be stretched easily and uniformly. After preheating, the film is stretched up to 4.5 times in the transverse direction. During the process of stretching, the molecular orientation is disturbed and therefore the film is heated up to 230 degrees Celsius in the crystallisation chamber. Thereafter, to streamline the alignment of molecules the film is gradually cooled.

After TDO, the film goes to take up and transfer (TUT) unit. The film is conveyed towards the winder in this section. Here the film passes through the scanner that has a radioactive source emitting radioactive rays. As the film passes through this section, its thickness is measured.
Feedback in terms of the thickness is sent to the cast scanner, which in turn sends the feedback to the die where heating bolts are controlled to maintain the desired thickness of the film. As film inside the TDO section is conveyed by chain, its edges are thick. Therefore, they are cut, granulated and sent back to the extruder for reuse.
After cutting the edges, the film passes through the corona unit where the surface energy of the film is increased by bombarding electrons. The corona unit is deployed as per the end use application of the film.
Subsequently, the film goes to winder, where it is wound up on the core. These wound up rolls are called jumbos. Through tension and pressure parameters, the winding quality is adjusted. Operator changes the tension and pressure parameters depending upon the thickness of the film.

Quality control
The factory tests every film in its internal lab, after which it goes for slitting. Slitting depends on customers’ orders. The jumbo is moved to slitter machine where smaller rolls are cut using blades as per the order placed by the customers. Once again, by adjusting the tension and pressure parameters, the winding quality of individual roll is maintained. These rolls are finally packed and dispatched to customers.
Zero inventories
Flex Films (USA) manufactures films on demand and follows a zero inventory model. Presently, the company runs on a five-day advance order. In peak times, this goes from 15 days to one month. Films from the US plant are supplied to the North American, Mexican and Canada markets.
Special products
In the factory, Flex Film (USA) has invented two new products. The easy tear-able pet film is used for food packaging, where temperature of the TDO section is brought down to 180 degrees, which reduces the strength of the film to 60%. The company sells the product under another name – thermo-formable film. The silicon coated film uses special silicon formulation for easy release.

The plant houses an 8.7-metre BOPET film line that runs at 500 metres per minute

Solution provider
We are a flexible packaging company and provide complete solution for the various packaging products. We start with basic polymers and convert those polymers into all types of packaging films. Giving different treatments to the polymer films, such as printing and lamination, and finally producing packages in different forms – rolls, pouches, big bags, flexi-tubes, etc. depending upon customers’ needs is both an art and science.
At Uflex, we also manufacture converting, filling and sealing machines for packaging products. As a solution provider, we are better equipped to handle customer demands, since at times a product developers cannot think about right filling and sealing machine for the product. Such options are rarely available in India.
We also manufacture anti-counterfeiting and brand protection solutions to keep look-alikes from eroding the brand equity of our customers. Additionally, our product portfolio includes printing solutions like flexo-plates, elastomer sleeves and rotogravure cylinders. Thus, our solutions are etched across the entire spectrum of flexible packaging requirements. Inks, adhesives and polyols required for the process of converting is also an integral element of our product offering. Thus, there are different business verticals within the organisation, all working towards a common aim of innovating to create value-added differentiation for the customers.

The factory tests every film in its internal lab, after which it is slit

Films and packaging
Uflex’s packaging films business is very large, particularly after having expanded to five overseas locations. The packaging business, which is located in India caters to the entire globe.
Currently, the packaging films market is volatile. Around five years ago, the flexible packaging market experienced a sudden boom. Consequently, the supply went up outpacing the demand and slighting the margins. It will take some time for the market to settle.

The packaging business is performing quite satisfactorily. If you offer customised, value-added and service-oriented products, you for sure have a scope to excel.
Four pillars of business
Our business rests on four strategic pillars – innovation to create value-added differentiation, proximity to customers, ability to offer a complete range of flexible packaging solutions and speed–to-market-reach.
Speed-to-market-reach plays an important role on the innovation curve. If you do not handle your innovations with care, they run the risk of being leaked in the market. Therefore, we ensure shortest time possible to launch the product in the market as soon as we engineer it.
Developing a new product or technology is a complicated and lengthy process. In this, you will have to invariably place the focal point on your customers. Delay in customer acceptance could result in shortening the period of the commercial benefit arising during products’ life cycle.
It takes around six months for a new customer to come onboard, or an existing customer to accept a new product. For multinationals, it may take even more and the process may be yet difficult. Clients validate several parameters before taking a decision and placing the order. This takes time. Vendor selection is a serious issue, so is customer selection.
Talking about customers, as we are in B2B space, stakeholders are all well informed about quality and technology advancement. Everybody keeps a track of raw material prices. Client acquisition is a rather rigorous exercise. We hold discussions on different levels – technology, applications, machines, end use of packaging and several others.
The focus
Sometimes the focus is on functionality; sometimes cost-effectiveness takes the front seat. There is a growing concern among brands about counterfeiting that erodes their hard-earned equity. Anti-counterfeiting solutions are a must today. Eco-friendliness of packaging solutions has also caught on in the recent years. We have to focus on anything and everything that our client could demand. If innovation does not cover anti-counterfeiting and eco-friendliness, one cannot sustain.

Holography has come of age in offering anti-counterfeiting solutions. When we launched holograms in 1993, the acceptance level in the market was low because the proposition seemed to be expensive. With time, brands realised the real importance of the brand protection solutions and the safeguard that they offer to their image. Now we have gone into much advanced solutions like unigrams, latentograms, fresnel lens, hot and cold stamping foils and several others. I am happy to say that the anti-counterfeiting solutions from Uflex are counted amongst the best in class. We have customers across the globe.
Wide range
We have a wide range in terms of package size – from 5 gm to 40 kg for solids/ semi-solids/ granular material, etc. We can package semi-liquid/ viscous/gel-based products within the volumetric range of 10 ml to 200 ml. In terms of category, we are equipped to offer packaging solution for solids, semi-solids, powders, granular materials, pastes, gels and viscous fluids. We are bracing up for liquid packaging. The aseptic packaging plant at Sanand, Gujarat is expected to be commissioned by November 2016 and the plant shall be commercially operational by March 2017. As soon as we complete setting up the liquid packaging plant, our product portfolio will be complete is all respects.
Value of innovation
Patents are more of recognition rather than a business proposition. Innovation does give you an edge over your competition. Take the example of our waterproof WPP building material packaging bag. It looks simple from the exterior, but only we know how difficult it was to engineer it. The efforts may not be visible when you see the product, but the hard work that went into making it make all the difference. It takes time, sincere efforts and resources to achieve superior innovation. Otherwise, anyone would do it!
Look at the pet food market. The pet owners love their pets and care about their food, among other things. Since a pet food packet is big and the material cannot be consumed in a day, it has to be preserved. Earlier, the consumers would just fold the mouth of the pack or perhaps clip it. Then we started offering bags with re-closable zippers to obviate this problem. The zippers you see in the snack packs of Haldiram’s are patented by us.
To sum up, I will say that unrelenting innovation with a focused approach to add value to the business of your clients will eventually do the trick.