Have you always been interested in science?
Yes! My parents gave me a Chemistry Set for Christmas when I was 12 years-old and it all started from there. I was fascinated with what happened when you mixed things together in a test tube – the changes of colour and the intense white flame when you ignited magnesium – it was magic and made me want to do more with chemistry. Later on, I set up my own laboratory and spent all my pocket money on buying chemicals to carry out experiments. I had a lot of fun wearing my WW2 gas mask when I was making chlorine gas – so you see the die was cast when I was quite young, and I went on to study chemical engineering and specialised in polymers.
Tell us about your career before you came to work for Vetaphone
I worked initially for Mobil Polymers in Evere analysing polymer additives. It was the mid 1980s and we had a whole range of analytical technology available including MFR, IR-analysers, NMR-equipment, spectrometers and so on, which made it a piece of cake to find out what the competition was up to! Then I had a break because at that time we still had to do a stint in the Belgian army. After that, I joined Exxon Chemicals in Machelen-Diegem as a special lab technician on an extruder reactor pilot line that provided test results to the main production line in Cologne, Germany. This gave me a technical grounding in plastic engineering, and I was allowed to travel to customers with the sales team to explain the test results.
Did this give you an appetite for sales?
After more than three years in R&D I was looking for a change and ended up joining a company that represented the sales interests of a number of different manufacturing principals. One of its divisions specialised in machinery for the plastics industry and I started by selling extruders, pipes, windows, films and injection moulding equipment. The company also had an interest in selling corona treatment technology manufactured by some Danish company called Vetaphone!
So, that’s how it all started?
Sort of! The problem was that Vetaphone was just one of many companies we were representing, and I didn’t get to spend much time on corona sales, especially as each year my list of other responsibilities grew bigger. After 12 years I took the plunge and started my own business – this was in 1999. I’d been speaking with Vetaphone CEO Frank Eisby and Sales Manager Aage Ellgaard for some time and they were instrumental in helping me start up on my own. Initially I took on sales in Belgium and Luxembourg, but soon added The Netherlands, which was a blank canvas from my point of view. The Internet was in its infancy and it took me three months of research to come up with around 400 potential customers. And that’s when the real work began, trying to convince these guys that they needed to know more about corona and especially Vetaphone corona!
What’s changed in the 30 years that you’ve been involved with Vetaphone?
You can split it into two sections – the technology and the market.
The biggest change in technology has been the advent and growth of digital printing. Thirty years ago, it was unheard of as a commercial process and sceptics doubted its ability to survive and prosper. Boy, did they get it wrong! An interesting and little-known fact is that Vetaphone was instrumental in assisting Agfa-Graphics develop its digital technology and become one of the first to successfully launch inkjet onto the market. Today, modern digital lines run at 70m/min and produce quality that is equal to flexo. Will they go faster and run at 250m/min? I doubt it, because there is no need – flexo copes with longer runs at high speed very cost-effectively so the two technologies should be seen more as complementary than competitive. You even have hybrid presses these days that combine the two, which really highlights my point.
What else in technology?
The other major change has been in ink. It used to be mainly solvent-based but now converters and their customers are looking for ‘greener’ options and this has seen a large uptake in water-based technology, both inks and lacquers. The only problem is that water-based requires higher surface tension to secure good adhesion and requires a higher-powered surface treatment. More power means a larger treater with more electrodes and a more powerful generator – nothing we can’t cope with, but a significant change in the technology specification from 30 years ago.
What’s changed in the market?
One thing is the cost of raw materials. Plastic substrate is obviously oil-based, and the Petro-chemical industry is both global and volatile, so when European converters cannot buy the virgin substrate for the same price that Asian converters can deliver the finished product from halfway around the world, you can appreciate the issue. This, and other factors, continue to have a downward pressure on price and one way to compete has been for companies to merge and form larger production units. By grabbing market share they can influence particular sectors of the market and reduce costs – but it can only be done once and is often the start of a downward spiral.
You’re known as something of an expo expert, and won an award for it in 2016 – tell us more?
I think I’ve worked on the Vetaphone stand at 46 expos in 30 years, and I’m still counting – but not during Covid, of course! Drupa, ICE, Labelexpo, K – you name it, I’ve done it! I see it as a vital part of the mix for salespeople and it’s why the global pandemic has been so difficult with the lack of face-to-face contact. To me, meeting customers to learn about their businesses so I can make a good recommendation is vital – it’s why I’ve driven around 1.2m km over the years – roughly three times to the Moon and back, just to get in front of customers – and yet there are still people who don’t get corona treatment! They think they understand it but don’t realise that as substrates and techniques change, they need to keep up to date with what corona can do for them. Film recipes change, storage conditions vary, two rolls of supposedly the same substrate from the same source behave differently on press – these are just a few of the variables that need explaining and solving if production is to run smoothly.
How do you reconcile plastic packaging with environmental issues?
One thing is for sure – the world needs plastic packaging if only to extend the shelf life of products and keep food-waste levels down – when there are so many starving people in the world it’s incumbent on the richer nations to conserve resources as best they can – and plastic packaging is key in this. I’ve always maintained that it’s not the creation of plastic packaging that’s the problem, it’s the haphazard way in which so many countries go about dealing with waste and recycling. That’s where investment and a greater degree of joined-up thinking needs to be applied.
Can the plastics industry also assist in this?
It already is, in the shape of switching from multi-layer films for special applications to single layer materials that will do the same job. These are easier and less costly to recycle, and I’m closely monitoring a Dutch company that has embarked on some serious research in this area, with some promising results to show for it too.
How can Vetaphone help with this issue?
By spreading the word about the value of plasma treatment. Currently it accounts for less than 5% of our business and for good reason – corona treatment is still very effective. But, as new and more complex packaging materials are developed, the use of plasma treatment to replace expensive solvent-based primers will have a major impact on the market, and Vetaphone leads the way in this sector. Plasma is not a replacement for corona but a valuable addition to our range of treatment capability that will play a bigger part in our future and that of the flexible packaging industry.
What’s the future for plastics in packaging?
I’m confident the sector will continue to grow and increase its importance and value in the global food-chain. Technology will help with this, if you look back to see where we’ve come from. Ten years ago, we couldn’t treat PVDF with standard corona – now with plasma we can achieve 70-dynes, which is good enough to get a drop of water to stay on the surface of the film when it is held vertically – imagine! But the industry also needs managing better at local and international levels to tackle waste and recycling – how that can be done to best effect is something the political leaders need to engage with big-time, and soon!