Thirty-five years ago, most engine oils came in perfectly round quart cans, made of foil-lined composite fiberboard with metal lids and bottoms. They were cheap to make and fast to fill. Auto mechanics could use a bayonet-style metal spout to puncture the can and pour out the contents; do-it-yourselfers could make do with a kitchen can-opener.
That changed almost overnight in the mid-1980s, when lubricant marketers shifted en masse to rigid plastic bottles and jugs, typically made of high-density polyethylene. With a protruding neck for easy pouring and a reclosable, screw-off plastic cap, these were slower and trickier to fill than cans, but they were an instant hit with convenience-loving customers.
The next revolution in engine oil packaging, believes David Vogelgesang of Polymer Packaging Inc., will be the flexible, stand-up pouch that consumers already love. This popular package began with fruit juices and baby foods, moved into other consumer goods like detergents, lotions, oils, syrups and wine, and now is colonizing the lubricants business.
Early adopters were Universal Lubricants in Kansas and its Eco Ultra engine oils; Arctic Cats snowmobile oil, made and packaged by Minnesota-based Lube-Tech; Mexicos Comercial Roshfrans for its top-tier products; Hindustan Petroleum and Gulf Oil in India, and others. Castrol uses pouches for lubricating grease, Neste for windshield cleaner and Husqvarna for oils for power tools.
Stand-up pouches offer lightness and portability, and a much higher liquid-to-package ratio than HDPE bottles. They also present a host of challenges for novices, Vogelgesang cautioned, so expert help is needed to navigate the learning curve. Done right, though, users will find they can reduce their consumption of plastic, save on shipping costs, have a lower environmental footprint and achieve greater visibility for their brand, he added.
Last year, rigid polyethylene had the largest share of the global container market, but its share is waning, said Vogelgesang, who is national sales manager for the packaging design and supply firm. The tide of demand now is flowing towards flexible types, including stand-up pouches. Some 165 billion stand-up pouches were shipped in 2014, versus 310 billion beverage cans, 520 billion PET containers and 380 billion other types of liquid containers.
Speaking last October to the annual meeting of the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association, Vogelgesang said the global flexible packaging market is growing at a rate of about 25 percent a year. Plastics are about two-thirds of this market now, he added, versus metal and paper. Citing data from U.K.-based consultants Smithers Pira, he pegged the global packaging market at $797 billion in 2013, and said it is forecast to exceed $1 trillion by 2019. Smithers Pira also singled out flexible packaging as one of the fastest-rising sectors in this marketplace.
Industrial packaging had been the larger part of the global flexible packaging market, with 56 percent in 2015, but the consumer market is overtaking it now. The impetus for these shifts varies by region, Vogelgesang explained. In Asia-Pacific, the driver is disposal, because many regions dont have landfill space for empty containers. In South America, its different; they have a need for smaller, lighter packaging because people shop less often and appreciate the higher product-to-container ratio.
Pouches offer versatility in production and shape, and have a wide variety of formats. Labeling can be simplified by printing directly on the flexible film, so packagers can skip the usual label printing and application steps.
Technical trends are moving very quickly for pouches. The opening, dispensing and closure technologies have expanded, and barrier materials are changing too. Most pouches are made of multiple layers of materials, laminated together. Unfortunately, foil layers-which are excellent barriers-dont work well in stand-up pouches because foil can get crimped and develop pinholes during the pouch-forming process. So suppliers are replacing foils with new materials, like copolymers, Vogelgesang noted.
You can achieve the same basic properties as a rigid container, like moisture, UV and oxidation barriers, he continued. Take a compressor oil for example, where you cannot have any air penetrating the container wall that could lead to oxidation. You can burp the pouch to exclude air, put the closure on, and then its OK to store.
Familiarity, he continued, is another consideration. Pouches are like second nature to younger generations, who are accustomed to eating baby food from pouches and other food for kindergartners and first-graders. A baby food jar sells at retail for much less, just 59 cents, but the same food in a pouch sells for $1.50. So you can see the convenience factor has an impact on price.
Stand-up pouches offer scope for personalization and creativity, too, allowing the shape of the pouch to signal whats inside. It might be a kitten-shaped pouch for cat food, or a droplet-shaped pouch for engine oil. Packed into cartons for shipping, they stand straight on their gusseted bottoms, and get noticed on the store shelf.
The argument that pouches are sustainable, though, requires careful scrutiny, Vogelgesang said. These pouches are not particularly recyclable, especially the multi-layer ones. So you have to look at the potential impact to the environment, like needing less space in landfills for disposal, the lower carbon footprint, the much lower transportation costs, and so on.
The savings in plastic resin are also impressive. He pointed to motor oil from small-engine builder Briggs & Stratton: The companys old 15-oz. rigid bottle required 50.9 grams of HDPE, while its new pouches need only 12.7 grams of plastic to hold the same volume. The process of converting plastic film to pouches also produces less scrap than molding bottles, while consuming less energy overall. Another argument for pouches is the reduced space they need in landfills, versus bottles.
Pouches do require capital investment in new filling equipment, which unfortunately runs much slower than the bottle- or jug-filling lines that most engine oil packagers use. There have been advances, said Vogelgesang encouragingly, and filling speeds are improving all the time. When the industry first moved to plastic bottles, those were hard to fill, too, but speeds now are 400-500-600 units per minute. Likewise, pouches used to get filled at 60 per minute, but now its more like 200 to 250 per minute.
While the rigid bottle still wins out in a straight-on contest of cost per unit, the scales tip the other way if packagers look at their total delivered cost for each filled container. In one case study, Polymer Packaging found that a single truckload could carry 364,000 flattened, quart-size stand-up pouches to the motor oil blenders location, on just 26 wood pallets. Delivering that many empty, rigid quart bottles required nine truckloads, and 234 wooden pallets. Plus, all those bottles took nine times the man-hours and forklift trips to unload than the pouches; occupied nine times the warehouse space; and still had to have their labels applied. Packagers need to focus on their actual, total cost, Vogelgesang urged.
Another issue-leaks and punctures-is faced by all packages, rigid and flexible alike. Pouches will never be as strong as a bottle if you drop it onto a nail, he told the ILMA audience, but leaks due to flaws in his companys preformed pouches are rare indeed: In 2015 we produced 46.8 million cocktail pouches for Ambev-and only two leaked.
Shelf appeal is another strong argument in favor of pouches, for marketers who want to differentiate their brand and products in retail outlets. If you look at the shelves of products now, its very hard to choose. Pouches have a big printable surface to give you a huge billboard for product recognition, Vogelgesang said.
Can you add handles? A glug-free spout? A fitment that works like a funnel? All these conveniences are possible, said Vogelgesang, and can help packagers make their products more attractive and easier to handle for consumers. Motor oil is a mature market, and pouches can give your product a fresh look in a mature market.
Form, Fit, Fill Options
Motor oil packagers have three principal options for getting flexible with stand-up pouches, according to David Vogelgesang of Polymer Packaging Inc. in Massillon, Ohio.
Option 1: Do everything on site yourself. Form pouches from spools of multi-layered plastic film, a process called converting. Then install a dispensing spout or closure (fitment) in each container, and finally fill them. Such form-fill-seal systems have the lowest unit cost where large volumes are involved, but also demand the highest level of expertise and capital investment from the packager.
Option 2: Buy premade pouches from a supplier. These typically come in rolls. The packager then can insert the fitment and proceed to fill the pouches. This is a good solution for small-to-medium volumes, but the fitment step can be an issue due to slow production speeds and complexity.
Option 3: Use premade pouches with the fitment already in place. Then only the filling step has to be completed in the packaging plant. While this is the easy way to jump into pouches and takes the least capital investment, it also results in overall higher pouch costs.
An experienced designer can help marketers evaluate all the alternatives for materials, fitments, printing, forming and filling, Vogelgesang said. And a custom pouch container can take only 60 days from design to prototype to production.