From the very beginning, the Cascades Sonoco joint venture was about opportunity.
Started in 1992, the JV brought together two of the leading roll packaging providers at that time to benefit from complementary strengths. Both companies had customers that were seeking to standardize roll packaging across larger mill networks; but neither could offer quite everything for every customer. Company leaders saw an opportunity to partner and provide the North American market with a single source that could deliver the products paper companies needed. They created a 50/50 joint venture, with two board members from each company. Sonoco manages the marketing and sales side, while Cascades manages the JV’s four plants (Tacoma, WA; Birmingham, AL; Kingsey Falls, QC; and Berthierville, QC.) When it came to protecting rolls of communication papers from moisture and damage, the companies made better partners than competitors.
Now, fast-forward about a decade. Beginning in the early 2000s, the industry began to change, as the rise of digital technologies such as cell phones and tablet computers began to have a serious effect on the communication papers market, with declines of 8-10 percent per year.
According to Market Segment Manager Jeff Stacy, eventually the Cascades Sonoco board threw down a challenge. “We realized that we either needed to optimize our plant network and personnel or we could reinvent ourselves and look for new markets that utilized our expertise and equipment,” Stacy says. “In early 2010 we set out to find out what markets we could focus on and continue our legacy of solving problems and helping our customers excel.”
COATINGS FILL A CRITICAL NEED
As they had when forming the JV, the company leaders began by considering customers’ unmet needs. It was the beginning of a two-year journey of talking to their customers while closely examining market gaps, existing products, and the strengths and resources both Sonoco and Cascades were already bringing to the table. As packaging sustainability became a much more prevalent issue for consumers—and as lifestyle changes were leading those consumers to desire more “on-the-go” options—food packaging presented a host of opportunities.
“Our market intelligence and experience told us that water-based coatings would provide us the largest growth platform,” Stacy says. “We made investments in chemists, engineers, and marketing resources, and determined that we needed to provide wax alternatives for the corrugated industry.”
To meet the challenge, Cascades Sonoco developed a product line of proprietary coatings (FluteSHIELD and SurfSHIELD) that provided an alternative to the wax coatings that had been commonplace for many years. “The market was looking for more sustainable options. Also about this same time the
food service industry was looking for sustainable alternatives to polyethylene-coated boards. We took on this challenge and determined we could use our technology and intellectual capital and developed FlexSHIELD. This solution is recyclable, repulpable, and certified compostable.”
The fact that these benefits are delivered by the coating allows for virtually limitless customization. Customers can work with Cascades Sonoco to tailor their orders for complex and extreme conditions, including significant changes in temperature or environment, global transportation, and varying country regulations.
“There are very good coating suppliers in the market and in fact we do work with many of them; however, when we started looking into the needs and desires of our targeted markets we knew we would need to develop many of our own formulations,” Stacy says. “By having our own chemists and R&D Center, we are able to customize our formulations to our customer’s needs.”
Even with the customer mandate, the new products did not develop overnight; FlexSHIELD, for instance, took more than three years to develop and commercialize. “When 3rd party certification is required, the timeline is long and it’s an expensive proposition. You really need to be confident in your product and understand how your product will benefit the market,” Stacy says. “We found the most important step for success is to have customers that are open and willing to try new things, are patient in searching for the best solution, and are committed to finding new solutions to everyday issues.”
Today, FlexSHIELD coating is used on the food cartons used at Whole Foods Markets. It is the first water-based coating that can resist cracking when the folding boxboard is cut, scored, bent, and folded, all without losing its barrier properties. “During product development, we had numerous companies tell us if we could solve the cracking issues with a water-based solution, we would be onto something that the market has been after for a very long time,” says Stacy.
BUILDING THE ‘DREAM MACHINE’
The success of Cascades Sonoco’s new coating products led to another challenge: between the JV’s four operations, they had only one water-based coater, located in Berthierville. It was an older coater with limited capabilities, says Stacy. “We knew that if we were to excel in this market, we would need to invest in a new line that would provide us the flexibility to focus on numerous end-use markets and provide the size and scale we needed to supply the increasing demand.”
In 2017, the company began to search for the machine it needed. When nothing available on the market met all of its needs, Cascades Sonoco decided to design its own. “Our engineers traveled the globe looking for the best components that we could pull together and build our ‘dream machine,’ as we call it,” says Stacy.
Located at the company’s Birmingham, AL, facility, the US$16 million new coating line will have the capability to produce coated and laminated products up to 110” wide and up to 72” in diameter. It incorporates state-of-the-art drying and cooling capabilities to offer the flexibility to produce a wide range of products for many different markets.
Cascades Sonoco worked closely on the expansion project with the Alabama Department of Commerce and AIDT, Alabama’s worker training agency, which will provide recruitment and training services. In addition, the company worked with the Jefferson County Commission, Alabama Power Co., and the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA) on the project. The project’s public inauguration was set for May 1.
NO ‘ONE SIZE FITS ALL’
With the new line in Birmingham up and running, and with coatings designed for sustainability, Stacy feels that Cascades Sonoco is in a position to develop new products and new solutions for many years to come. “Sustainable packaging is on everyone’s mind these days,” he says. “I feel coated paper clearly has an advantage. We get calls and inquiries daily from large companies, small companies, and even entrepreneurs looking for assistance in coming up with new packaging that is recyclable and in some cases compostable. There is no one size fits all in this business, and that is exciting.”
Paper360° asked Stacy what he would recommend to paper and packaging manufacturers that are exploring coating innovation as a way to grow their own businesses.
“Many paper and packaging companies are already deeply engaged in coating innovations,” he says, “and with all of the bans on plastic and foam, the market will only continue to grow. Developing new products takes time, resources and money. Having a vision and focus on the markets and products that best fit your company is key.
“You cannot be all things to all people, and that is OK,” Stacy concludes. “The market for recyclable and repulpable paper packaging has been around for a long time and it is clear that it will be a leading product for many years to come.”
Fellows Perspective: Trends in Coating
Demand for coated printing papers continues to decline due to the shift to digital information exchange. This has led to financial problems for major coated paper producers in North America and Europe, including machine and mill shutdowns and bankruptcies.
On the other hand, demand for paper-based packaging continues to increase. This has led to repurposing and rebuilding of newsprint, uncoated free sheet, and coated paper machines to produce containerboard and solid bleached board for folding carton applications. Retail Ready Packaging has grown in Europe over the past decade and is slowly starting to grow in North America. Digital imaging is replacing conventional offset and flexo printing in both packaging and communication papers and paperboard.
Lightweight corrugated packaging with high quality graphics is a growth area—one in which Europe and Asia, especially China, is ahead of the US. Microflute corrugated can be converted in conventional folding carton equipment. However, the bulk of folding carton imaging is done by offset, so the outer liner requires a coated surface suitable for offset printing as opposed to flexographic printing. There is also a need for white top and coated white top linerboard that is suitable for digital imaging, primarily pigmented ink jet printing. European mills are already making these grades, but there has been little progress on developing them in North America.
Sustainability concerns are another market driver that will impact the demand for coated paper and paperboard. The paper vs. plastics pendulum is swinging back toward paper in both rigid and flexible packaging. This creates need for coated products that combine recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable packaging with high graphic quality imageability by flexo or digital processes (see main article.)
A review of recent years’ TAPPI Coating and Graphic Arts Division conference, committee, and course presentations shows a continued focus on what has been the marketplace of the past as opposed to a focus on emerging markets and the future. This is changing positively. The PaperCon 2019 program includes a focus on sustainability and changes in packaging in both the Coating and Papermaking Tracks. The focus is also changing at TAPPI CorrExpo. There’s a lot going on in packaging and digital printing, and their interaction with sustainability concerns— it extends well beyond coating.
Chuck Klass is a consultant to pulp and paper producers and industry suppliers all over the world with specialties in recycled fibers, papermaking, and coating focused on commercializing new technology and developing new value-added products. He has six decades of industry experience and has been A TAPPI Fellow since 1984, He was inducted into the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in 2016.