Today, microflute packaging makes up 5-7% of total US corrugated shipments, according to Assn of Independent Corrugated Converters (AICC) technical adviser Ralph Young.
Even in a consolidating box market, growth in microflutes still seems to prevail, according to contacts.
PackRite pres Michael Drummond started his company in 2008 focused on microflute packaging. The company sells its boxes and cartons to both corrugated and folding carton companies. He sees this niche growing at a very rapid pace, thanks to the demand coming from food packaging, display work, and specialty packaging, which would include liquor and tobacco.
"A lot of packaging is going from a litho label on a spot panel to a box that has graphics," he said.
Single-face lamination.He added that jobs that were preprinted are now going to single-face lamination -- and this is where microflute is growing significantly.
"What we're finding is the marketplace is more accepting of single face because people can do much more with it than they can with litho lamination," he said.
Bay Cities Container COO Brett Kirkpatrick also sees continued growth in microflutes, especially in the health, beauty, and cosmetics arena.
Recently Bay Cities developed Baypack, a clamshell retail package made with microflutes that folds over and encapsulates a product in recycled PET.
It allows for a full billboard on the back, Kirkpatrick said, and Costco is a "big" fan of these packages.
"With E-flute, we're definitely seeing growth in labeling, which we define as putting an 80-lb to 100-lb coated paper label onto double-faced E-flute, said laminator maker Automatan's dir of sales Brian Foley. "Labeling in general has been very strong, especially in the last two years."
Not everyone agrees.But not everyone agrees that demand for microflute packaging continues to grow. Independence Corrugated mgr John Lingle sees stagnation.
"There was a huge push, maybe 10, 15 years ago when it was thought microflute would have the potential to replace boxboard," he said. "But from what I have seen, this hasn't been a successful transition. First, the cost savings weren't there. But I also believe the difficulty in converting proved to be a little more of a challenge than people originally anticipated. A 40 pt corrugated substrate was much more difficult to print and convert vs a 30 pt boxboard substrate."
Don't look for microflute packaging to continue to take further market share from folding cartons, he said.
"What could have moved has been moved," he said. "Microflute packaging in fast food has grown. But that would be more of a replacement of paper and wraps. If I were a folding carton converter, I would not be threatened by microflutes."
Longe Star Corrugated pres John McLeod has had similar experiences with microflute packaging production. The company has been producing B- and E-flute on laminators since the mid-1980s. At times it would run 65% B-flute on these machines and then for no particular reason production would switch to 65% E-flute. The company hardly uses its F-flute cartridge, he said.
"Is there any customer that's using E that would want to go to F for any reason?" he asked. "Or is there any customer that's specifying F or N? We see very little in specifications. That's not a driver from the customers."
Impact of lightweighting?Has the slow but steady move to lightweight containerboard in the US negatively impacted microflute packaging's market share? McLeod doesn't believe so. Lightweight containerboard is available to make microflute packaging but the pricing stops him dead in his tracks.
"It causes me to stop and not get excited about it because 18- or 19-lb (corrugating) medium costs me almost the same as my 23-lb medium does," he said. "Suppliers ask for a premium on a per-ton basis and then the yield brings it back down to where we were (with 23-lb medium). So why go light?"
He added that he focuses on yield per ton. So until the new lightweight US containerboard mills start eliminating premiums, he won't buy what they're offering.
Microflute packaging has all but disappeared at corrugated display and packaging producer Accurate Box. The company operates two Asitrade laminators. One Asitrade is always running E-flute, the other is always running B-flute. And every month to six weeks, Accurate runs an F-flute job.
"Years ago, before the big box stores came into vogue, we were using microflutes as a cost savings for our customers," said Accurate Box Exec VP Mark Schlossman, who doesn't classify E-flute as a microflute.
"If an item was in E-flute, we could put it in F-flute and save our customer a couple of percentage points," he said. "It was easy to do. Our customer would put its product in our box, put our box in a master shipper, and ship it toitscustomer. There was no strength requirement, per se, for my litho box."
"But, today, probably 85% of what we make ends up in a club store environment and there are no shipping boxes," he said. "They're all pallets. The box must be strong enough to support the weight of the product and the weight of two pallets stacked on top of one another, in some cases. So, most of our boxes are going the other way to either E-or B-flute."
For Schlossman, it really doesn't matter whether Accurate runs E-, B-, or F-flute. Instead, it strictly comes down to a strength formula for the customer and meeting that strength requirement with the right flute.
"In our world we no longer are finding a need at all for F-, G-, or N-flute," he said.
Automatan's Foley stated that the most recent substrate trend goes beyond paperboard. He's seeing display production moving over to other substrates.
"Target is having a display hanging above an aisle," he said. "It's a two-sided mounting where a litho label is put on both sides of a substrate."
"Where that might have been a corrugated sheet in the past, it might be foam or chipboard now," Foley said. "Some packaging might have been taken away from folding cartons but some of the displays seem to be moving from corrugated to a solid substrate. Stores want litho. If they're gluing labels on both sides (of the material), there's moisture involved. When you're dealing with corrugated, sometimes you can have warp issues. Foam and chipboard are more rigid materials; there's not as much chance for warp."
Going forward, the key for paperboard converters will be matching their customers' need for performance with cost, contacts said. That equation can include microflute board.
Welch Packaging(WP), a group of seven sheet plants headquartered in Elkhart, IN, acquired sheet plant Indiana Corrugated, based in Marion, IN, earlier this month. Indiana Corrugated was founded in 1979 by John Long, and 44 are employed at the firm, which operates a 175,000 ft2plant. WP's sheet plants are in Elkhart, Indianapolis and Marion, IN, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Chicago.
Sumter Packaging(SP) a sheet plant based in Sumter, SC, purchased sheet plant Iredell Container of Statesville, NC, this month. SP produces industrial and specialty packaging in Sumter and Orangeburg, SC, and Charlotte, NC. The company will continue to operate the Iredell plant, which started making boxes in 1978.