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In-Plant Technologies Drive Process Improvements FLEXSTAR Packaging: An Ever-Evolving Plant & A Passion for Customer Service

By Robert Moran

From conceptualization to completion, very little escapes notice at FLEXSTAR Packaging Inc., Richmond, BC, Canada. Here, attention to detail is the order of the day. With $22 million in annual sales and what seems to be an ever-evolving press-room floor; process, product and progress stand in unison. Capital equipment expenditures are linked to continuous improvement. Delivery of significant value, through service and quality, speak to the staff’s commitment to customers; as well as its promise of world-class converting. This plant is driven by technology. It’s been that way since the start of 2005 when FLEXSTAR, which was formerly Sonoco Products Co., transitioned to private ownership. Today’s 61,000 sq. ft. facility actually dates back to the 1970s and operated under these names: Seaforth Plastics, Crown Zellerbach, Flexpak, Crown Forest, Fletcher Challenge, Gravure International (a flexo operation), Graphic Packaging Corp. and Sonoco. FLEXSTAR is owned by a team of investors (many from Parian Capital) and led by firm president, Marc Bray, who for two years, served as Sonoco’s on-site general manager. Bray recalled. “Once we acquired the assets of the business, we kept it running. That’s a testament to the staff, plus the service and quality offerings that we were providing our customers, 98 percent of whom stayed with us through the entire transition period. Our vision is to be the service and quality leader for flexible packaging on the west coast, where there is a true need for a full service converter.

“FLEXSTAR employs some 83 people, with a print production staff of 22 that work a three-shift, 24-hour, five-day week. Many possess 30+ years technical expertise. Serving with Bray on the management team are:

  • Dale Ince, vice president, manufacturing
  • Bob McQueen, director of marketing
  • Kevin Bramhoff, director of sales
  • Ron Dolny, operations manager

Food, Glorious Food
Ninety-eight percent of the packaging plant’s output is related to the food industry, according to McQueen. “Major markets are cereal, bakery, processed snacks, confectionery and coffee.” “We focus on converting technology,” Bray continued.“Correct specifications breed cross-over markets. That’s our philosophy. …

“Extruded bags were the primary business here for decades,” Bray observed. “When we started investing in technology to pursue cutting-edge products, like barrier lamination, etc., we went through a study on whether to invest in new film making technology, or buy outside. Our service position is based on our ability to manufacture application specific sealant films in house. Control of film manufacturing makes a huge difference in overall quality. It’s what allows us to turn products around quickly. In fact, a new film extrusion line, featuring technology that is easier to start-up and shut down, eliminated the necessity for seven-day shifts with no impact on output.”

Mission & Vision
For the record, McQueen posted the following statement to the corporate homepage. ”FLEXSTAR manufactures custom printed, laminated, flexible roll-stock and specialty films for the consumer and industrial markets in North America. We have a clear vision, a heavy focus on people, and are nimble so we can quickly respond to changing customer needs. Much of our success has been based on our team’s collective experience in the industry.”

To that, he added, “The foundation of FLEXSTAR manufacturing is based on process and material technology. We strive to stay at the forefront of converting through strategic investment in equipment and capabilities that are consistent with the needs of our customers. We offer award-winning flexographic printing with in-line lamination in both medium and wide web formats.” “Innovation goes beyond a specific product or process,” McQueen maintained. “Innovation in services and how we do business with our customers is a key part of our philosophy. Our focus is enhancing our customers’ ability to sell their products. That is what in turn will sell our products. Bray proclaimed, “Process control is the first step in quality assurance. We focus on doing it right the first time! We try to ascribe our GMPs – good manufacturing practices–after FIRST Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications and Tolerances. As Ron Dolny insists, “While, it’s great to have all the latest tools, if we don’t take care of the tools, they don’t do the job consistently. We simply can’t stray from targets and achieve the same results because we are not taking care of our new equipment, measurement devices, data input/interpretation systems and press peripherals.” McQueen reiterated, “At FLEXSTAR, customer service is not just a function, it is our passion! All of our team members are dedicated to meeting customer needs. Our people and their collective extensive experience in packaging, can provide: customer field service support, collaborative quality programs, structural analysis, and art / design assistance…. We understand flexographic reproduction and the best practices required to ensure repeatability.”

The Repertoire
State-of-the-art printing presses and peripherals in position at FLEXSTAR are plentiful, according to McQueen. They include: gearless technology, automatic viscosity controls, web inspection, defect detection, video plate mounting, sleeve technology, automatic ink dispensing, and color control systems. “We produce lamination and coated webs using solvent, solvent-less, and water-based platforms,” he said. “This includes FDA and CFIA compliant laminates for hot fill, boilable, and retort applications. We have a temperature controlled hot room that can hold more than 100 pallets of product at any one time. Barrier lamination webs include metalized substrates and foil. FLEXSTAR also produces in-register pattern cold seal for medical and confectionery applications.”

McQueen continued, “High speed slitting is a key component of our service and throughput strategy. Our capabilities range from cantilevered, low tension machines to dedicated medium web machines; to surface winders for larger OD rolls, foil laminates, or wide web rolls. Slitting is usually the final step before shipment and with good process controls we ensure all the previous work is not wasted.”

Elaborating on the plant’s capabilities, McQueen noted, “The latest addition to our portfolio is stand-up pouch manufacturing. We offer bottom gusset, three side seal, shaped seals, various punch holes, rounded corners, and in-line zippers. We are one of the few North American manufacturers who can offer our customers finished pouches from concept to commercialization under one roof. What results from this capability are quick turnarounds and the ability to get products into the marketplace faster.”

Tools of the Trade
Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), real-time inventory reporting and enhanced scheduling in conjunction with customers, are some of the new concepts customers are looking at to enhance the overall supply chain and drive efficiencies, according to Bray. “FLEXSTAR controls our data collection and reporting capabilities with a state-of-the-art, ORACLE™ based ERP system, from Globe-Tek Corporation,” Bray reported. “We realize that a capable, user-friendly operating system is extremely important in successfully managing a custom business comprised of a large number of variables. This assists us in forecasting and managing for raw materials, which in turn helps our customers get products to market faster.

“Bray explained, “We actually switched to a new ERP system in 2005. It was the first investment we made. Results to date have been very positive. We have five years of data in the system. Today, it allows us to look at post cost, hone efficiencies, manage inventory, do quotations, participate in electronic data interchange on the order side…”

“Nearly everything in the plant is new” Bray declared. “First, we moved further into lamination in 2006. It began with installation of a Nordmeccainca Supercombi 2000. Two years later, in 2008, in went a Nordmeccainca Super Simplex. “In 2007, came an eight-color wide web Uteco Onyx press. It was followed in 2010 by a 10-color Onyx. We replaced four presses with two. Our new Onyx presses, featuring matching footprints, have the capacity to produce what many other converting operations put out with four.” Both presses have BST ProMark video inspection / print fault detection systems, Inkspec viscosity controls, and X-rite color formulation systems that take graphic ink and press side measurements. To bolster consistency, we’ve added two Microclean units for aniloxes and plate cleaning. Both serve to remove variables associated with reproduction.”

“In 2008, we added a stand-up pouch machine from PPI Technologies. Slitting upgrades saw acquisition of some Deacros with the latest technologies in digital drives and shafts with roll locks. Bray said this year, 2011, brought with it a new W&H Optimex three-layer extruder. “It’s been up and running for several weeks now. This is a very exciting time. Nothing is being overlooked.”

Thinking back on the equipment recapitalization experience, Bray stated, “What we just went through, with the press and extruder, is Phase 2 of our overall capitalization plan. Phase 3 will bring additional lamination, wide-web slitting and stand-up pouch capacity. Target time frame is 2011-2012.” Citing other moves, Bray pointed out that, “We did move into Digital Facility Management partnering with OEC Graphics. We have been running with this since June of 2009. This arrangement allows us to make our printing plates onsite with separation work done at OEC and at FLEXSTAR. The prepress activity is managed via a customized Workflow Management tool provided by OEC Graphics. This system allows for order tracking and managing the customer approval process.”

“OEC has also brought along technology, such as High Definition Flexo to our operation, thereby increasing our offerings to our customers. With the introduction of HD flexo, we will be able to print sharper, cleaner, crisper images with smoother vignettes and improved contrast. We are right there with rotogravure printing. We have been able to transition a number of jobs from offshore roto to traditional and HD flexo. These tools, along with an optimized flexo printing process, give our clients packaging solutions focused on their unique requirements.”
Poised & Prepared

“By carefully controlling our manufacturing process, we remain nimble in our ability to jump in and out of orders,” Bray noted. “Our whole group shares one attitude, and embraces these words: ‘If we need to do it, we will!’”

According to Bray, “Customers today have a tendency to order products to avoid obsolescence. Thanks to shorter lead times, they are better able to predict their requirements. It’s changed everything and created the playing field under which we operate.

“…We are going to continue to get more efficient and be able to put out increasing volume with the same workforce. Challenges exist to be overcome!”