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Thinking outside the box

Carton manufacturers might be feeling the squeeze but adopting a far more pro-active approach to both margins and markets can relieve the pressure within the supply chain reports Des King

As Woody Allen once famously remarked, “life’s a bitch and then you die”. Beleaguered carton producers under the cosh of fixed price contracts, reverse e.auctions, lower labour cost overseas competition and the everyday reality of suicidal pricing to secure orders, might justifiably be excused for taking an even more cynically resigned view of their future prospects.

However, as several less easily downcast packaging manufacturers are demonstrating, the carton sector need not necessarily be commodity hell. A box can be so much more than just a box, given some imaginative usage of substrates and inks, and a healthy injection of design flair and ingenuity.

Field’s innovative carton produced for Elizabeth Shaw’s ‘The Collection’ was recently acclaimed as “best European confectionery carton” at the 2004 Pro Carton/ECMA European Carton Competition on the strength of the surprise effect achieved by the pack’s constructional design. It houses two trays of chocolates and when a tab is pulled on one tray, both trays slide out in opposite directions simultaneously. Printed in three colours with a flexo-applied pearlised varnish and foil blocked, the carton provides good product protection and can be over-wrapped, packed and easily stacked.

Major cartonboard supplier Stora Enso is actively exploring digitally printed applications – initially in the DVD/CD market – through its joint-venture with Belgian-based partner Xeikon, Stora Enso Digital Solutions (SEDS).

According to SEDS business development manager Angelo Baert, the digital solution is the first of many that are being planned to meet the demand for an expanding range of digitally driven packaging applications. “Within Stora Enso there is a consumer board division, which covers various segments including food, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, luxury products, etc”, says Baert.”The joint-venture will be looking at each of these segments to determine openings for an integrated solution based upon the digital press. One strong possibility could be in drinking cups.”

A recent introduction in the chilled category is the addition of a carton bottle to the very successful Tetra Top family. This design bridges the gap between a carton and plastic bottle, offering the best of both options – carton features combined with the functionality of a plastic bottle. An integral element in the carton bottle’s success to date in other parts of the world is its injection moulded plastic lid which is elevated to create a bottle top with screw cap for easy pouring and reclosing. The bottle neck also has a safety membrane and, as an added design benefit, there is a range of colour coded options for lids and caps to enhance pack design.

The pack was recently introduced onto the UK market through Robert Wiseman Dairies and provides excellent handling and pouring properties. “Basically, it came out of a consumer need for more functionality from a bottle. This format has resealability and a wider opening so it combines the best of both worlds,” says Tetra Pak beverages category manager Dina Soliman. “There are benefits that a carton can give: from a manufacturing capital investment perspective it’s a much more cost-effective system.”

Meanwhile Elopak has launched its Diamond Pure-Pak Curve carton, which combines the technical and ergonomic design features of the award-winning Mini Diamond and Pure-Pak Curve carton, to create a totally original shaped pack.

According to communications director Werner Basler: “The carton doesn’t need any major filling machine changes, which is naturally important for the producer and is being welcomed by marketeers as a good format extension, mainly for premium products like yoghurts and yoghurt drinks.”

The Diamond Pure-Pak Curve carton’s pouring spout diameter is increased by 38% to give improved pouring properties. The first application has been carried out in partnership with Swedish dairy Milko, to provide a new competitive edge and stronger premium profile for its high quality and healthy yoghurt products.

Also making its presence felt in the carton bottle application market is SIG Combibloc’s aseptic combifit pack which is curved outwards at the front and inwards at the back, making it easy to hold. The combiTwist screw cap complements the design and enables the carton to be securely reclosed after opening.

The combifit product range comprises four different format series – combifitPremium (available in 500, 750 and 1,000ml), combifitMagnum (1,500ml), combifitSmall (250, 300, 330 and 350ml) and the latest size, the combifitMidi in 500, 750 and 1,000ml formats. The company says that thanks to the combifitMidi’s larger base area (70 x 72mm), the carton is “very steady”.

Alpenmilch Salzburg, one of the leading dairies in Austria, was the first to launch the new carton format. With 158M kg of milk from some 3,500 farmers in the Salzburg area, around 5% of the Austrian milk volume is processed at Alpenmilch Salzburg. “The new carton design combines the traditional and the modern,” says Martin Schmedes, project manager for combifit at SIG Combibloc. “Together with the aesthetic and yet compact carton shape, it supports brand development and the positioning of Alpenmilch.”

Alpenmilch Salzburg is also using combifitMidi with success in the UHT milk segment of the Austrian market, filling three premium products in this segment for brand-owner Maresi.

The new carton is also now being used by Fresh & Co of Serbia, which introduced orange juice in a combifitMidi with combiTwist screw cap in December 2004 for its premium “Next classic” brand. SIG says a number of wine growers have also picked up on the benefits of the carton and Caldirola has been selling the red, white and rosé wines of the “La Vignetta” brand in a 1-litre combifitMidi on the Italian market since last September.

Looking at the market itself, it is clear that some categories – pharmaceuticals, for example, and more notably the luxury goods market – clearly offer higher potential for adding value than the bulk of the groceries and household goods trade. Enhanced levels of customer service –to the extent of plant relocation if need be – is yet a further option open to the carton supplier prepared to take on rather than accommodate prevailing market trends.

Becoming more industry savvy, for example by specialising in a particular niche, is something of a no-brainer, says industry consultant Jim Clancy of Packaging Focus. “There’s no question that the grocery and household products sector is becoming end-user application driven. They have got to get themselves away from the morass of competition. It is a highly commoditised market. However, there are specialist areas within that sector that would offer individual companies a better chance of longer-term survivability.

“Food is about 60% of the total carton market. It’s very fragmented in terms of the range of products that are offered, and indeed in terms of the number of companies that are manufacturing those products. Where I’m talking about focus is in the context where each individual carton maker selects those customers that best fit its manufacturing profile in the end-use areas.”

It is a route that the leading carton suppliers have long adhered to. “That is what we have always done,” says Bob Houghton of the Field Group. “Most of our sites are dedicated to specific sectors. A lot of the work we do at Bradford, for example, is geared towards confectionery and drinks. At Nottingham it’s virtually all pharmaceuticals work.”

Houghton admits that while developing sites dedicated to specific categories might be an easier strategy for the multi-nationals to implement, it doesn’t preclude smaller companies from following suit. “It is got to be about fitting into a niche; developing something that’s more difficult for the average supplier to offer; excelling in quality or some design skill; something that sets them slightly apart.”

There is nothing more niche or focused than an existing supplier/customer relationship. Fixed-contract pricing issues aside, the most serious difficulty arises when the customer decides to up sticks through relocation to a more commercially viable manufacturing base, invariably somewhere within Eastern Europe or the Asia Pacific rim.

For an organisation such as Field, the likely consequence is an inter-group reshuffling of the pack, says Bob Houghton. “Kraft has announced the closure of Terry’s of York. All Gold will be moved to Sweden. Terry’s Chocolate Orange will now be produced in Poland. I think that Twilight is going to be produced in Slovenia.

“Field do some of that packaging. We have plants throughout Germany, so we will be reasonably local to re-supply a proportion of it. We are an international group so that’s a feasible option; others would really struggle. It is maybe easier for us to adjust but we have still got to feed our UK plants.”

For the Northampton-based Boxes Group, the transfer of Avon Cosmetics’ manufacturing operation to Poland could have resulted in dire consequences had not the carton producer decided to set up a plant to ensure continuity of what is a long supply agreement. “It was an enormous investment on our part and it certainly wasn’t easy,” says group sales and marketing director Phil Spencer. “We initially explored the market in terms of joint ventures but we did not find a suitable partner so we decided we would go it alone. The whole process took between 6-9 months. Avon was delighted.

“It has also given the Boxes Group a toe-hold in the marketplace from which we can establish the business. Since then we have built other new clients on the back of that, so much so that the Polish plant has gone from one full production line in terms of print, cut & crease and gluing, to having its second wave of investment via a brand new Roland offset press. The plant has even got foil-blocking facilities and also UV, which I think makes it the first carton printer offering this into the Polish market.

“It can be bureaucratic and it can be quite difficult to set up there in the first place but I’ve been surprised that nobody else has followed us on this strategy. If all you’ve got is a single source and a single site in the UK and that is it you really have to ask yourself the question where is that going to take you in the long-term?”