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An industry at the crossroads?

Nick Coombes looks at the trends in coating and laminating

With demand in the developed markets showing little sign of picking up, manufacturers of coating and laminating technology and the substrates produced are casting their eyes towards the emerging markets of Asia and India to keep the order books going.

For many companies, the global recession that began in 2008 marked the end of an era. Most had survived previous downturns in the market, but the severity and speed with which this one struck meant it was life changing. The aftermath sees a market that has to deal with the rapid growth in demand from new geographical regions, where product requirements are different, partly as a result of local climatic conditions. There has also been a steep hike in the price of raw materials, which has put the squeeze on profi t margins, and forced suppliers to realign their businesses.

Cost control and investment

Fraser Kinnaird, of Exopack Advanced Coatings (EAC), which has manufacturing sites in North Carolina and the UK, explained that the company has been fortunate because it is more involved with the medical and security markets than with the automotive and electronics sectors, which have been worst hit.

Tight cost control and investment in new technology has been the route to its survival, and this includes cameras for web inspection and enhancements to cleanliness, which have allowed EAC to raise the quality of its products so that customers enjoy maximum utilisation of the material.

EAC’s plants have coating lines ranging from 600-1,600mm width and with solvent and UV capability. New developments are thin foam products and pattern stripe coating which, according to Kinnaird, offers customers greater fl exibility in designing products to fulfil market requirements.

Despite the predictions of economic gloom for 2012, there are markets seeing a growth in demand for product.

Among these are: medical (polyurethane films and foams that are used as the outer cover for wound dressings in hospitals); optical (clear polyester materials that are used to prevent scratching); and security (highly functional coatings for anticounterfeiting in high end applications) – all areas where the fall of consumer demand in High Streets and supermarkets has had little effect.

Andrew Brunt, of NDC Infrared Engineering, a leading manufacturer of process control and measuring systems, says that the nature of the product has applications across a wide variety of industries and markets, and it is unlikely that all will be booming or in recession at the same time – the trick is to be adaptable to change and add value. He also stressed the need for accuracy and high quality production, and that it is too easy to waste costly materials and erode the profi t margin.

The medical market continues to grow as people live longer and expect better health. However, this coincides with governments worldwide diverting funds away from health care.

The growth in demand from the optical and electronics markets is largely coming from Asia, and it will be interesting to see how this changes with the wider use of printed electronics.

The key element, according to a number of suppliers, is specialisation. ‘Know your customers’ products and markets and adapt your offering to suit’ is the message coming from those enjoying success.

There are various ways of competing in what all describe as a difficult market. Some companies have gone down the ‘low price’ route, using wide coaters and fast running speeds to match high capacity. Others have focused elsewhere: digital printing, vinyl coating, and toll coating, for example.

Quality is paramount

What is universally agreed is that quality is paramount, with all the companies contacted for this article confirming that today’s standards are far higher than even three years ago.

Fraser Kinnaird at EAC explained that as requirements become more specific, it is essential to work closely with customers, and to that end confidentiality is vital.

One of the ongoing questions affecting the industry is environmental impact. Typically, the liquid coatings applied to the substrate, whether it is paper, polymeric or foil, are solvent based.

There is a move towards aqueous-based chemistry, or 100% solids systems, and this pressure is coming largely from the commodity sector; but there are many areas where the only functional chemistry is solvent based, and this is unlikely to change in the short term.

Clean manufacturing

What most manufacturers are doing is minimising their solvent use, and this dovetails with the improvements in ‘clean manufacturing’ techniques, which many are adopting.

The solvent question is one that particularly affects the petfood market, whose high volume and relatively low value require high speed production. The problem is, the higher the speed, the less time there is for solvent dispersion – and pets with sensitive noses will say ‘no thank you’ to food with taint!

Much of this is 3-ply work, where the sandwich is a thin metal foil. Ideally, the adhesive should be applied to the foil, because it dries well, but normally it is applied to the printed web, where it is partially absorbed – hence the taint.

According to a number of suppliers, the major growth is coming in 2 and 3-ply work, largely from India and Asia, where climatic conditions of heat and humidity require increased shelf life capability. Demand for high barrier laminates continues to grow strongly with, typically, India seeing a 15% year on year rise for flexible packaging.

What is evident is that the market for coating and laminating is both diverse and global. This is part of its strength, as the variety of markets it serves sustain ongoing demand. The skill of the manufacturers is detecting and exploiting niche markets and having the flexibility to adapt quickly to change. In this, it differs little from most of the industry.

Two clear trends to watch are: how demand will be affected by changing technology, especially in the electronics field; and the burgeoning campaign for environmental protection.

News from around the industry

TS Converting Equipment

According to Tim Self, director of TS Converting Equipment, hotmelt coating has become very popular due to the rapid development of adhesives designed to replace solvent-based products.

TS continues to expand its Elite Cameron range of hotmelt coaters. There are now four models, all available with a wide variety of coating heads and melt tanks, plus inline slitting and rewinding, dual lamination locations and progressive chilling zones.

“We have seen a dramatic increase in hotmelt coater orders”, says Self. “The coating process is very simple and does not require expensive ovens and evaporation systems. 100% of the adhesive is contained within the system to prevent contamination then extruded at full width or in stripes directly onto the web without waste.”

The precision Elite Cameron slot die coating heads are always mounted between two substantial side frames for rigidity and accuracy required for high tolerance coating. The wider models are dual side frame construction for stability and high running speeds.

Precise web tension control and accurate, streak-free coating onto film, paper and foil ensure high quality, layflat laminates that are demanded by the industry today.

“Our inline slitting and rewinding system effectively provides two machines in one,” claims Self. “The customer can manufacture a wide range of self-adhesive tapes and laminates slit to finished size or ready for secondary processing.”

Michelman

The US-based company has introduced Michem Coat 40Y, a versatile new barrier coating for paper and corrugated materials. By using advanced raw materials and new proprietary formulations, the coating is water, oil, and grease resistant, while retaining good release properties. Michem Coat 40Y is hotmelt and coldest glueable, and is repulpable and recyclable.

The new coating can be applied smoothly on rod, blade, or roll, either offline or online, and is said to be completely stable. FDA compliant, it can be used in a wide variety of applications including food contact, with perishables, as well as general industrial and retail use.

Universal Converting Equipment

Universal has had a successful year selling its HMCS 420 machines. These modular devices allow hotmelt adhesive coating capability to be added to printing presses and other web-fed applications, allowing users to offer customers precision coating without installing a dedicated line.

Coating control offers continuous, striped, or patched in register with print. A full range of coatings is possible, including pressure-sensitive, heatseal, dry peel, and UV cured. End uses include liner-less labels, security labels, promo labels, and foldout labels.

According to Universal’s Alan Jones, the secret of high quality coating is the precision with which the die is positioned. By fitting motorised controls that allow on-the-run adjustment, Universal claims to have taken the black art out of inline coating. The new system can be customised to suit individual company requirements.

TSE Troller

The growth of new products and applications in the electronics field has brought with it a need for highly accurate coating – equating to very thin layers in the dry thickness range of 50-200nm. The problem is how to transfer this technique accurately from the laboratory to full scale mass production in the factory.

Because only a few samples are required to be produced to test for functionality and efficiency, the costs are high, as the lab set-up must mirror the production facility. So, TSE has developed its TableCoater, a modular system that coats individual sheets with a slot die. It has a wide substrate capability, from glass to plastics, paper and metal foil, and can be customised to suit specific coating widths and various materials. It is capable of working with water and solvent base coatings and will coat dry thicknesses from 20nm-100 micron at speeds from 0.1-10m/min.

Dolci Extrusion

Multi-stage extrusion lamination is not a new technique, but Dolci Extrusion used a recent Open House to show its latest triple-stage extrusion lamination line, which produces complex webs that are converted into aseptic UHT packaging for milk and fruit juice. The new line is called Excol-12/35 Tripl-O-Matic.

The web structure is a 250g/m² paperboard laminated by co-extrusion to a 7 micron alufoil and coated on both sides with co-extruded layers of polyolefins to give a total thickness of 20-50 micron. The final complex web is a barrier structure of 350-450g/m², run off at speeds of 350-500m/min.

Automation is the by-word for the line, from the two unwinders to the final rewinder, the three dies and the gauge control, which are all controlled on touchscreen panels

3 Sigma

This American company is installing a wide format speciality coater, and will begin production trials early in 2012. The new machine will accommodate 1,930mm width materials and can apply multiple coatings and/or adhesives on both the front and back of the web. A laminating station will allow the production of pressure-sensitive constructions with liner or multi-layered product designs.

The new coater will allow 3 Sigma to produce more complex applications and constructions for the niche markets it serves. When installation is complete, the company will operate 14 coating lines, and has expertise in solvent, emulsion, and hotmelt technologies for any label need.

Interface

Italian manufacturer Interface has launched its Lux SLM machine. Designed to coat or laminate film or foil to paper and board from 30-550g/m², it has a working width of up to 2,000mm. Interface says its design engineers have focused on the need for a heavy duty machine with solid sideframes and shaftless winders, capable of handling reels up to 1,800mm in diameter. The reels are loaded and unloaded using an automatic centring device, and the customised drying section has two independent horizontal hoods.

According to the company, the Lux SLM is designed to satisfy the more complex needs of customers, and is capable of using solvent-based or solventless adhesive, or applying a special primer.

Reifenhäuser

Last year the company celebrated its centenary by reporting good business. Sales increased by 12% with new order intake even higher. Barrier lines, and demand for blown film production are major growth areas and the company was successful in securing contracts from India’s two leading producers of barrier films. Use of cast film is also on the increase in India, with lines for PP film in demand, and lamination and metallising for the food packaging industry.


Coating action at Exopack (EAC) Exopack (EAC) Universal has had a successful year selling its HMCS 420 machines Universal Converting Equipment Dolci Extrusion used a recent Open House to show its latest
triple-stage extrusion lamination line Dolci

External weblinks
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TS Converting
EAC Exopack Advanced Coatings
NDC Infrared
Michelman
Reifenhauser
Interface
3Sigma
Dolci
TSE
Universal Converting Equipment