Agility and innovation will be key in the post-COVID world

Amit Shah, Joint President for Flexible Packaging Business at UFlex, elaborates on how the company quickly bounced back on its operations and delivered benchmark product innovations to fight the pandemic like the six-layered N95 mask, Flex Protect PPE coverall.

Going forward, he expects the momentum achieved in the first quarter of this fiscal to continue, especially given the growing demand for safe and hygienic packaging, particularly in food, e-commerce and healthcare sectors.

Mr. Amit Shah

IBT: What role has innovation played in the success of UFlex across its business divisions? Please tell us about some of your most innovative packaging solutions and the unique value addition they provide to clients?

Amit Shah: Innovation is not just a term, it is a part of our DNA, our very being, at UFlex. It is one of the key factors that has driven our growth and helped us in maintaining our leadership position in the market. We continuously keep doing newer studies and R&D, basis which we introduce newer innovative products to keep pace with the fast-changing world.

Some of the remarkable innovations we have introduced lately are:

  • Easy Tear Structure for Single-dose Sanitizers: Single dose packs have been commonly used for one-time use of products like tomato ketchup, face creams, shampoos etc so far. However these packs are difficult to tear by hand. In order to stay abreast of the rising demand for sanitisers that can used be on-the go, UFlex Packaging Business developed the first-of-its-kind ‘easy tear structure’ for single dose sanitizers that offers ease of convenience and can be effortlessly opened by hand.
  • Eco-friendly paper-based tubes with reduced plastic at source: FlexiTubes launched an eco-friendly paper-based tube for the cosmetic and food industry called Kraftika. Depending on application and pack size, these tubes help reduce plastic consumption at source by upto 65% by replacing it with paper. The virgin kraft paper used in tubes is laden with properties of high bursting force and very low moisture absorption properties; and lends the tubes an earthy and rusty look.
  • Six-layered N95 Mask to Prevent COVID Spread: We responded with an innovative pivot to our line of business by venturing into manufacturing of safety solutions like N95 Masks. These are 6-layered personal protection masks without valves, which are capable of filtering out bacteria and other particles greater than 0.3 micrometre, so that the wearers can protect themselves from respiratory diseases. UFlex N95 masks have greater resistance against splashes and strong resistance against PM 2.5. The raw material is indigenously manufactured to provide the best safety from harmful bacteria and viruses.
  • Fast Cure Solvent-free Adhesive SL 777A/999C: A fast cure laminating adhesive for flexible packaging industry by our Chemicals business, it ensures no change in Coefficient of Friction (CoF) even after the process of lamination.
  • A Water-based Playing Card OPV: Another launch for UFlex Chemicals Business was FLEXCOAT PC OPV- 1009, an environment-friendly water-based Overprint Varnish (OPV) for printing over paperboard used for playing cards.
  • Water based Cylinders: Water-based cylinder is a new innovation to achieve low ink GSM and low volatile organic compound (VOC), thereby helping achieve low cost and further eco-friendliness.
  • Laser Embossed Cylinder for Hand Embossing Effect: Getting hand embossing effect on a table cover, curtain and wall paper have been made possible with the launch of Laser Embossed Cylinders by UFlex.
  • Silver Scratch Film for Packaging & Label Industry: UFlex Holography Business has developed a premium product namely Silver Scratch Film in 12 & 15 micron variants for Packaging, Labels & Decoration industry.
  • Engineered Special Slitters to Boost Efficiency & Volumes: Our engineering business developed secondary slitter ACCUSLIT-25 for efficient slitting of jumbo PET/BOPP and other films.
  • Rotogravure Printing Press Designed to Print on Aluminum Foil: ‘Rotoflex Stanmas 20’ is an engineering marvel by UFlex that strengthens the portfolio of Rotogravure printing machines it already offers. This machine can be used for printing multiple substrates and can print on aluminium foil of varying thickness as well as other substrates spread over polymer family and paper. The ideal printing speed on the machine is 150 meters/minute for aluminium foil, while other substrates can run upto 200 meters/minute. Suitable for narrow web application, Rotoflex Stanmas 20 is a mechanical line shaft that can stretch upto 8 colours configuration.
  • A Stylish Revival to Aseptic Packaging with Lens Effect: UFlex Aspetic Liquid Packaging business launched a cutting-edge packaging solution with lens effect called ‘Asepto Eye’ for the beverages segment. Asepto Eye is a ripple concave lens and single lens technology that gives 3-D effects on the aseptic packs. These lenses come in various sizes & shapes and offer bespoke artwork, as per the brand owner’s requirements.

IBT: Recently your company developed a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Coverall ‘Flex Protect’ in joint collaboration with IIT-Delhi and INMAS, DRDO, which has four-layered protection and anti-microbial coating. What are the key competitive USPs of this product, and how are you planning to bring it to the market?

Amit Shah: A few months back, we introduced ‘Flex Protect’ which we developed in collaboration with IIT-Delhi and INMAS, DRDO, Delhi. The product has been approved by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for use by the front-line health workers who are fighting the battle against COVID-19.

The primary USP of ‘Flex Protect’ is breathability and ultimate protection by design. As compared to other PPE Kits available in the market, 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 as well.

Most of the products currently available are not breathable at all, which makes it difficult for the frontline workers who are wearing them for long duration. Flex Protect has almost 30% better breathability, while also conforming to ISO 16603 (Resistance to Blood and Body Fluids), which is mandatory against infection causing viruses, so that they do not to enter the coverall through the fabric.

We have kept four-layers of security in the PPE kit, starting with First zipper, followed by Velcro, then Second zipper, and finally a Permanent Seal Tape. The edges of the PPE kit are secured with high strength seam cover that shields all the holes created during stitching. The coveralls are designed with double forearm, providing safety for the healthcare workers. The equipment comes with multi-layer fastening that seals all the inlet ways.

IBT: Please elaborate on the vision and execution roadmap of your Project Plastic Fix, which was launched in September 2019. How do you see this playing a role post-COVID, considering the alarming rise in medical waste?

Amit Shah: As pioneers in the packaging sector across the world, we have always been seized of the fact that, sustainability will be the way forward for any business to survive for a long time to come. We launched our global sustainability initiative ‘Project Plastic Fix’ with a vision to keep plastic off the environment. But in essence, a circular economy converts ‘waste into wealth’. Project Plastic Fix uses a combination of methodologies that UFlex already practices to eradicate plastic waste, such as:

  1. Recycling plastic waste into granules further used to make over 10,000 household and industrial products like road dividers, flower pots, outdoor furniture, dustbins and many more useful articles.
  2. Reprocessing plastic waste into fuel through a process called Pyrolysis that emits zero greenhouse emission.
  3. Converting plastic bottle waste into Asclepius, its range of green BOPET packaging film with upto 100% post-consumer recycled (PCR) content that has the same properties and applications as any of its fossil-fuel based substrate twins. This method creates an endless loop of polymer that is reused in packaging and labelling to make a new product each time.
  4. The company will be introducing a Biodegradable and Recyclable packaging solution that will convert uncollected plastic waste/ laminate waste into biomass, upon degradation.

In line with this campaign, we have commissioned two lines in Noida for washing and recycling of post-consumer Multi-layer Plastic Waste and PET Bottles waste to be converted into granules and chips for further useful applications such as our green BOPET films with upto 100% PCR content ‘Asclepius’; and other household and industrial articles like dustbins, flower pots, road dividers and much more. This plant in Noida is aimed to mitigate the piling plastic dumps in Delhi–NCR and give these wastes a second life.

For recycling of post-consumer waste MLP, the plant uses UFlex developed RELAM 250 machine, a one of its kinds recycling machine induced with a technology that makes all types of multi-layered flexible plastics (MLP) bags, carry bags etc be recycled homogeneously into granules, without separating layers of plastic and aluminium.

We expect our initiative to play a very integral role to address the issue of stock and flow of plastic waste. We have been working with various brand owners and convertors to adopt these technologies and support them reach their sustainability goals.

IBT: What impact did COVID-19 have on your company’s operations and output? How did it affect your global supply chain strategy, as well as prices of raw materials like paper, plastic, propylene resins, films, paperboard, and adhesives? How are you coping with this situation?

Amit Shah: COVID-19 led lockdown and restrictions have disrupted the global supply chain. Initially, there was a lot of confusion for players like us with operations across the globe. There were new instructions being introduced by countries frequently that we had to follow. Being in the business of packaging life-sustaining products in the consumables and pharmaceutical space, we were on top of the situation from the very onset of Corona and worked with local authorities at each of our plants. We also had a faster return to normalcy and restored production at full capacity wherever possible, without neglecting employee’s health and following important new rules about sanitizing, social distancing, temperature checks and wearing of PPE.

UFlex is the world’s only fully vertically-integrated packaging company and we only import a handful of foreign materials, and even those can be obtained locally. So, the overall impact and challenges of sourcing raw material has been marginal.

IBT: The pandemic led to an unprecedented exodus of workers to their hometowns, leading to a rising propensity towards new age automation, robotics, AI, etc. What is your experience and future plans in this regard?

Amit Shah: We were one of the early adopters of technology and automation in this sector. Back in 2016, we set up a ‘Fully Automatic Robotic Laser Engraving Line’ for manufacturing rotogravure cylinders at our Noida facility. We have recently launched a new automated Chrome Plating Line for Rotogravure Cylinders that helps enhance efficiency and ensure consistency with improved print quality. We have also introduced automation at the shop floor level, under which we have integrated the machines with the IT application. So, the production that happens on the machines automatically goes into the system with minimal manual intervention.

We are working on certain industrial IoT projects to improve the capability of our machines, integrate more and more touchless technologies in operating our machines and maximise the efficiencies and the productivity.

IBT: How have the domestic and global market situations changed for your business vis-à-vis demand and client approach to present/future procurement? How are you addressing the situation?

Amit Shah: Overall, market situation has not changed for us; on the contrary, the demand for packaging has only increased due to the safety and hygiene priority, which packaged goods bring. To give you an example, in the earlier months of this pandemic, there was an enormous rise in the consumption levels for essential commodities, which led to increase in demand for packaging for these industries.

For food packaging, the demand of items like flour, rice, edible oils, etc experienced a jump in demand. The same was the case for packaging of hand sanitizers and hand-wash, which witnessed a surge due to increased hygiene concerns. Most packaging companies focussed on fulfilling these demands to pack higher pack sizes to ensure volumes. To counter such sudden demand, UFlex also introduced some novel packaging solutions like packing sanitizer in tubes and single dose packs or packing hand wash in large 750 ml spout pouches. However, once there was easing of restrictions globally and supply chain got restored in July 2020, we have been seeing normalcy in demand.

IBT: What are the new growth opportunities that you can visualise for your business units viz. films, flexible packaging and aseptic liquid packaging in the global market post-pandemic? How are you gearing up to explore them?

Amit Shah: The pandemic has led to a shift in priorities for health and hygiene and resulted in rising demand for packaging across, food, e-commerce and healthcare. While addressing the changing demands of our customers, safety and health has taken precedence over other traits that have opened up a bigger canvas for our research strength to develop innovative packaging solutions, safe for humankind. We are observing various opportunities coming our way considering we have innovative products across the entire spectrum of packaging. We are regularly introducing newer products to suit the changing demand that will help us ride the growth tide. While tweaking our offerings, we made sure that we are not deviating from our goal of sustainability.

As part of our growth trajectory and to have a larger outreach, we are expanding our packaging films capacity and presence by setting up three greenfield manufacturing facilities at Russia, Hungary and Nigeria and one brownfield expansion at Poland.

As far as Asepto- our aseptic liquid packaging business goes, we consider India to be a key growth country. Being the home-grown brand, we stand an advantage to address the needs of the country in aseptic packaging. Although we have ventured into the international markets and global companies are leveraging our expertise and capabilities of our product offerings, we want to consolidate our position on the home front.

IBT: There is significant uncertainty in the Indian economy, given the rising number of cases and huge economic contraction in Q1? How are the projections looking for your business post the opening up of the economy and what is the outlook for the market ahead?

Amit Shah: Our performance over the last quarter was spectacular and the same is reflected in the resulted we posted for Q1, FY’21. Our total production volume during Q1 FY2020-21 grew by 13.44% QoQ. Even if we don’t see same spikes in packaging volumes as demands are getting back to normal levels, we still expect the positive growth momentum to continue as packaged products will become an important part of consumers’ buy.

IBT: What are the major learnings for you from this crisis in terms of leadership and business strategy? What factors will, in your view, separate winners from the rest in the post-COVID world?

Amit Shah: The pandemic has been a classic test of our leadership character. Despite the nebulous situation at play, we were able to rise to the occasion and ensured continuity of packaging material supplies for essential services like food and pharma. The challenges that crept from the outbreak of the epidemic prompted us to modify our facility setup to compliment the new way of life and speed up our product offerings.

In my view, the most important factor that will separate winners will be the agility to move along with the fast-changing market and keep introducing relevant innovative products.

Mr. Amit Shah is an industry veteran with over two decades of domestic & international experience in B2B marketing and sales, in both domestic as well as international markets. He started his career in Sharp Industries and has worked with India Foils, Paper Products Ltd before moving to ITC Limited where he spent almost a decade, heading Sales as a SBU head.

Amit did his Bachelor of Science and Masters in Business Administration from Himachal University. He serves as Joint President for Flexible Packaging Business at UFlex.

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