We recently met with Amit Shah, the new joint-president of UFlex and its Packaging Division’s chief marketing officer, in his office at the Noida plant. Shah, who has worked for several years with a couple of the other substantial packaging companies in India, was visibly upbeat about UFlex’s overall performance over the past six months, following the Covid-19 pandemic and nation-wide lockdown. Speaking to us mainly about the packaging division’s performance, he explained that since the company immediately received permission as a supplier to the essential goods sectors, it was up and running right from the beginning of the lockdown.
In May itself, the company came up with a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) solution in collaboration with IIT Delhi that it called ‘Flex Protect.’ The company describes its PPE, saying, “The protective coverall is made from a combination of Non-Woven Polypropylene Fabric and further impregnated with Anti-Microbial PPCoating through a special process to increase its breathability. As compared to other PPEKits, the Flex-Protect Coverall Standard is made of 70 GSM, which makes it very comfortable and flexible, and fit to be worn for long hours.”
UFlex responded to the frontline health workers’ requirements and the food and pharma industries with equal immediacy and agility. As opportunities arose for new products such as sanitizers and liquid handwash, it quickly developed new flexible packaging solutions – especially for branded suppliers. New pouch laminates and shapes and innovative closures and caps were created and launched to help deliver distinct branding for the new and booming category.
Shah explained that many of the innovations were possible because UFlex has an engineering division that manufactures a range of equipment from gravure and CI flexo presses to pouch-making and pick, fill and seal machines. To help meet the sudden demand for the new hygiene products during the lockdown and after, the engineering division could come up quickly with several modifications and innovations of existing machines. These gave the company an edge – a comprehensive packaging supplier of both components and finished pouches for the new category.
UFlex Engineering Division feeds innovation
UFlex is perhaps one of the most intensely vertically integrated packaging companies in the world. From films to packaging and equipment for packaging printing, lamination, pouch-making, pick, fill, and sealing equipment. Purposeful action across divisions that manufacture machines, films, and packaging materials made the company the most reliable supplier during the pandemic lockdown.
Whatever component or machine was in short supply could be made in one of the plants in Noida. Innovative pouch shapes could be designed because pouch-making machines could be modified. Caps and closures could be manufactured in-house because there was an earlier plan to produce them. The dies had already been imported.
We took up the discussion with Ajay Tandon, president, UFlex Engineering and New Product Development, a few days later to better understand his division’s essential support for innovation, especially during the pandemic and the lockdown. Tandon said, “In the past three years the Engineering Division has delivered four new and high end machines to complete the gamut of liquid packaging, lamination, filling and sealing and recycling machines. These are its extrusion coater and laminator, its Aspeto liquid filling and sealing machine, its highly automated CI flexo printing machine and flexible packaging waste recycling machine. Also, it has improved its PFS and VFFS machines with higher speeds. All of these projects are fulfilled and launched in the domestic and export markets.”
Special pouches, spouts, and caps
There was a sudden spurt in the requirement for spout pouches to maintain the supply chain in the lockdown for the new product categories of sanitizers and hand washes. UFlex has been making pouch-making machines for over 25 years, with more than a hundred supplied within group’s converting division and similar number to outside customers. The upsurge in demand for special pouches for sanitizers and liquid soaps meant that brand owners wanted a pouch that increased their shelf impact and customer convenience to use as re-fills, with various shapes and spouts.
The engineering division was able to adapt the punching dies for pouch making machines using the Thomson blade tooling technology.
UFlex already had multiple injection moulding machines it uses for moulding sliders for ziplock type of pouch. And since the company’s chairman had planned to enter the spouts and caps segment long before the pandemic, the imported dies and molds from Husky’s factory in Austria and special spouts technology from Pöppelmann in Germany were available. Different designs and diameters of spouts and caps could be produced on a short notice to fulfil the requirements of spout pouches.
Spout fixing, capping and filling & sealing machines
Tandon explained, “The next challenge was to adapt and increase the capacities for spout-cap assembly, spout fixing/sealing and capping machines with automation. Different types of automation were needed to suit the specific requirements of customers. For certain customers, to allow the filling of pouches with the spout on the coroner of the pouch the pick, fill, and seal (PFS) machines required modifications. The high demand required modifications to make the PFS machines faster and with special conveyors. The pouches’ feeding and holding mechanisms also had to be modified to achieve speeds 40% faster than before. New machines had to be designed and made for automated fixing of separately moulded caps and spouts. All at very short notice.
The introduction and mass supply of pouches with special spouts and automation in spout and cap fixing assembly gave the company’s packaging division vital leverage during the lockdown and even after. As Amit Shah and Ajay Tandon explained to us, not only all the major brands but also packaging material competitors were supplied by UFlex to meet the demand. The UFlex PFS machines were supplied in many numbers not only to brand owners, but to their co-packing units also.
Lastly, both Shah and Tandon mentioned the company’s many-sided approach to sustainability. Shah reminded us that its innovative bio-degradable laminate is still under trial with a brand owner. In closing, Tandon explained that Mixed Plastic Laminate (MPL) which are and will likely remain dominant in the flexible packaging industry, need to be recycled. UFlex engineering has built machines to recycle this MPL waste which includes metalized polyester laminates, and has already placed around fifteen of these in the field. It is in keeping with a company that thinks of the entire packaging process and is now compelled to take on the industry and society’s biggest challenges.