"We need smart, resource-saving packaging"
Germany-based Windmöller & Hölscher (W&H) is a world leader in providing machines for manufacturing and printing flexible packaging. With a staff of 2,700 and an export ratio of 93%, in 2016 the company turned over nearly EUR 800 million. In this interview with VDMA, the association of Germany’s engineering industry, the W&H chairman, Dr. Jürgen Vutz, talks about the market outlook, smart packaging and the need for packaging that is light, resource-efficient and, above all, recyclable.
Dr. Vutz, how would you describe Windmöller & Hölscher?
Dr. Jürgen Vutz: Our company started out in 1869 supplying folding paper bags to pharmacies for filling in their powders. A decade later, we entered into mechanical engineering. We started first with machines for printing and processing paper and later on added plastics technology and film extrusion. Today, we are a global market leader for facilities for manufacturing flexible packaging with a staff of 2,700. We re-invest 8% of our turnover in R&D and are active on all five continents. This year we have set ourselves the goal of achieving a turnover of EUR 850 million.
What is the key to this success?
Vutz: The market for flexible packaging is growing by 3 to 4% every year. In this environment, we successfully address our customers' requirements and every year we generate a third of our turnover with new customers. At present, we have 50 different machine types that we can customize according to the various customer needs.
Where do you see the greatest market potential?
Vutz: I would say Asia. In North America, the annual expenditure per head for packaging is USD 400; in Asia it is USD 40. We are very active there and are expanding our services.
How important is it for future development that as a complete supplier Windmöller & Hölscher can offer film systems, printing technology and machines for sack production from a single source?
Vutz: We are the only manufacturer in the world that covers the entire process chain, from film extrusion, to printing and surface finishing through to downstream processing. Our R&D people from all these areas work closely together. Our printing specialists also give their input when it comes to film specifications and our engineering specialists know what it takes to process printed films. Knowing their way around the entire process chain is key to designing processes that are more efficient and smarter.
That brings us to smart packaging or Packaging 4.0 ...
Vutz: That is correct. We collect the information and data from all the different process steps and, as such, create added value for our customers. These data deliver insights on the machine status and are the basis for optimization; for instance, for minimizing waste when proofing or in downstream processing. Sensors and image processing systems monitor the quality during the production process. Potential problems are identified and resolved during the ongoing process. Since errors in films or in printing are precisely documented, the people processing downstream know to the centimetre where the defects are located on the web. This reduces the amount of waste and saves costs, time and energy.
How about production runs for flexible packaging and how do matters stand in your market when it comes to digital printing technology?
Vutz: If you just look at the number of different varieties of chocolate in a supermarket, you can see job volumes are decreasing. Like in Formula 1 racing, now it's the pit stop where you win the race and not because you can drive faster. Networked, smart processes are important here, too. Up to now, however, there has been no digital printing process for flexible packaging that is cost-effective and complies with manufacturing standards. Research is in progress and we as a company are naturally also focussing on it. Its time will come. In the future, we foresee a trio of gravure, flexo and digital printing. At present, digital technology is driving the further development of established printing processes. It is acting as an additional impetus in reducing make-ready times and increasing cost-effectiveness in gravure and flexo printing. As soon as digital printing processes are ready, we will integrate them into our smart Packaging 4.0 strategy.
Your company has recently expanded its technical centres. What role do they play?
Vutz: Technical centers for extrusion, printing and downstream processing are important for developing and optimizing new applications together with customers. They are also a great help for sales. We sell products that need a lot of explanation and these centers enable potential customers to try out their prospective new systems with us before deciding to buy. We are currently investing mid-double-digit millions to set up the world's largest technical center for machines for flexible packaging production in celebration of our 150th anniversary.
Energy and resource efficiency is a central concern for your company. What do you think about the current discussion on plastic waste in oceans and plastic packaging?
Vutz: It is completely legitimate to discuss this topic. Nobody wants plastic in rivers and oceans and this topic clearly should be on the agenda. We need to close the loop on plastics manufacture and disposal towards recycling. We are working intensively on this issue and are making every effort to educate our staff and our partners' and customers' staff. It is essential that recycling solutions are set up throughout the world. But there are some good reasons for packaging. Worldwide, more than one-third of all food is spoilt on its way to the consumer. An example: the production of 1 kg of beef pollutes the atmosphere with 13 kg of CO2 in comparison to 200 g of CO2 for packaging that protects the beef from going off. Packaging ensures that products don't migrate to the rubbish bin before their time. But we need lighter-weight and smarter packaging that can be produced and recycled with a minimum of resources.
A final question: where do you see Windmöller & Hölscher in 2030?
Vutz: A world market leader that has seen high growth in the dynamic market of flexible packaging, sets technological trends and is continually able to retain excellent personnel. Our segment's know-how doubles every three years. Windmöller & Hölscher is a highly exciting, innovative company that nevertheless has retained its family character here in Lengerich. Our working environment is becoming more and more attractive. Packaging 4.0 is on its way so that we will be able to offer our customers smarter and easier-to-operate systems than today.