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Fluted vs. Paperboard

By Tom Weber

June 1, 2018

We, Ralph and Tom, have just returned from the AICC Spring Meeting, where we facilitated a three-hour forum on the merging of microfluted products (E, F, N, and O) as compared to solid fiber paperboards, such as solid bleached sulfate, coated recycled board, and uncoated recycled board applications for folding carton and rigid box. The applications discussed applied to a majority of the corrugated, folding carton, and rigid box manufacturers present for the meeting.

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A Taber stiffness tester is a bidirectional pendulum weighing system that provides accurate and responsive measurements in small-load increments.

The exceptionally qualified presenters, AICC member panelists, and facilitators had more than 141 collective years of experience in the production and conversion of E flute, F flute, and thinner flutes for creative solutions involving nonconventional products that are lighter, use less fiber, save significant transportation costs, and can run directly through offset presses in some cases. There were twice as many attendees as anticipated, and we had to bring in extra tables and chairs to accommodate the overflow. It was obviously a very timely subject in light of hearing cases of liners as low as 10# and mediums as low as 9#/MSF.

The presenters were:

  • Al Hoodwin, Michigan City Paper Box
  • Michael Drummond, Packrite
  • Tony Reilly, Flutes Inc.
  • Dave Moreno, Greif
  • Darin Jones, Pacific Southwest Container
  • Sharlan Kozak, CEL Chemical

The meeting started with the presentation from Al Hoodwin, current AICC Chair and rigid-box manufacturer, who recently made his first adventure into microflute. There was a cautious approach to selecting the right components of 33/23F/33. The new alternative carton ended up having 30 percent more top-to-bottom compression than needed. Machine direction and cross-direction Taber stiffness tests were also performed. So, next time, lighter-fluted alternatives will likely be combined as engineering the best and most economical fit-for-use carton.

F flute is becoming more available from sheet feeders and trade finishers. As a side note, E/F combined board has some promising opportunities at replacing conventional 40 and 44# ECT grades.

There have been testing methods to directly relate fluted products to paperboard, but they have been widely unknown to many converters. Testing fluted materials under the protocols used for paperboard, such as block compression, Taber stiffness, and corner crush, will give folding carton and rigid box plants the opportunity to compare and quantify the results for the different substrates. These comprehensive test methods will take the guesswork out of the conversion and allow for a documented, repeatable, and statistical rationale to be presented to all internal and external stakeholders/clients involved.

There have been testing methods to directly relate fluted products to paperboard, but they have been widely unknown to many converters.

What were the key drivers, as identified by our quite diverse and sharing AICC member and Associate audience? Please see below:

  • Digital and direct print onto fluted substrates.
  • Making certain microflutes are mold- and bacteria-free for indirect food contact and pharmaceuticals.
  • Light weights—browns are increasing, although 9 and 10# are used today, 20# uncoated whites are coming, and paper grades were always available.
  • Still with SBS less than 10-point availability domestically.
  • Paperboard mills are closing, and merchant “open market” tonnage is disappearing into integrated companies.
  • E-commerce and the need to reduce the amount and weight of packaging.
  • Club warehouses (Costco, Sam’s, and B.J.’s) are changing the retail experience.
  • Shelf-ready/retail-ready packaging.
  • More seasonal product changes and more product offerings (SKU proliferation).
  • Modern corrugators have many new capabilities to tightly control sheet warp with process controls that can adjust moisture, heat, and actual starch applications.
  • Asitrades can meter adhesives through both conventional anilox rolls and grooved rod metering systems that can apply different application rates for each particular flute profile as needed.
  • Sheet feeders, historically B, C, and double wall, have been adding F flute rolls.
  • Lastly, how do we know what microflute profiles and material compositions to change to when going from paperboard to fluted products? Is there a method we can depend on to communicate to our clients to ensure success is built into our conversions?

There were recommendations regarding die cutting from the single-face or double-face printed side of the sheet and the use of counter plates. If this or score cracking has become an issue with you, contact us for referrals. One of the presubmitted questions involved the use and amount of biocide in food-grade and pharmaceutical packaging. There is a difference between starch line and glue line dosings.

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Single-face lamination (bottom) is generally considered to die cut with more accuracy than single-wall lamination (top).

All panelists, facilitators, and audience members were reminded that we are not competing with each other, and that the two distinctly unique product lines of microflute and paperboard are not mutually exclusive replacement strategies. They are additive and additional opportunities to advance packaging sales into markets that perhaps are not being currently served. A fairly high percentage of the audience already had the capability to produce microfluted products on their existing paperboard carton equipment but have chosen not to follow that path—until now! We believe now is the time to explore what this wonderful and creative microfluted alternative to paperboard can do for all AICC folding carton and rigid box members. It was proven without a doubt that within the AICC member and Associate organization, we have the technical, converting, and personnel expertise to support any member’s decision to step forward and take the next steps toward some freedom from the ever-tightening paperboard markets through the use of microflutes.

We believe now is the time to explore what this wonderful and creative microfluted alternative to paperboard can do for all AICC folding carton and rigid box members.

We have research that has compared microflutes and paperboards through Taber stiffness, block compression, and corner crush test protocols.

In summary, it’s time to move beyond learning and investigating to get actual trials. After more than more than 25 years, the combiners and converters of these mini/microflutes have worked out the bugs.


PortraitRalph Young is the principal of Alternative Paper Solutions and is AICC’s technical advisor. Contact Ralph directly about technical that impact our industry at askralph@aiccbox.org.


width=150Tom Weber is folding carton advisor for AICC. Do you have any questions? Ask Tom at 440-221-3103 or tweber@aiccbox.org.