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Reinvention brings rewards for Cascades Sonoco

JAN BOTTIGLIERI

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from an article in the forthcoming issue of Paper360°, and is offered here as an exclusive "sneak peek" for Ahead of the Curve readers. Read the full article in the May/June issue this week at paper360.tappi.org.

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 of Directors 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.

Paper roll on the back end of the coating line at the Birmingham facility.

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. 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 time line 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."

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.

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, and with all of the bans on plastic and foam the market will only continue to grow," he replied. "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."

 

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