Corona treatment: an expanding technology

Driven by the technological evolution of materials and of printing and laminating machines, corona treatment of plastic packaging films is showing clear progress and turning its gaze to other application areas.

Surfaces of films intended primarily for the packaging industry and made from polyolefins, polyfluorocarbonates and polyacetates must be "activated" by a chemical reaction before being bonded, printed on or metallized.

Corona treatment is used to increase the film surface’s wettability and to make it more receptive to ink, adhesive or other material.

Corona treatment exposes the surface to be activated to the bombardment of energy-charged ions, within a high-voltage field, at normal pressure and improves the permeability of any treated plastic, paper or metallized surface.

As far as Corona treatment is concerned, Ferrarini & Benelli stands out in Italy. Alongside with Claudia Benelli - president and General Manager of the company - we analyzed the technology, talked about the market, business strategies and innovation.

Can you talk about the strategy you have used to cope with the needs and evolutions of a market that, especially in the packaging sector, has undergone a relevant technological evolution both in terms of new materials and of processing techniques?

Through our experience and on the basis of systematic research work, we know how to meet the needs of a constantly evolving market, resulting in efficient systems that guarantee high production speeds and are able to act on any innovative and high-tech material.

Our machinery has been developed gradually with a view to flexibility and in cooperation with manufacturers of packaging film extrusion lines, rigid or hollow sheets, flexographic and gravure printing machines, laminating lines, labeling machines, etc. Flexibility has been achieved through the design of modular systems and thus suitable to meet the processing needs of any type of customer and any type of machine (by adding modules we are able to satisfy small to large processors).

Collaboration with machine manufacturers has also been key. Since corona treatment systems are "accessories" to be placed on various and diverse types of production lines, they must be in a position to meet all technical requirements and all production issues that arise."

Can you give us some examples of achievements with the cooperation of plastics processing machine manufacturers?

"We have made treatments each time smaller in size and intended for increasingly compact lines; we have made types that can be used as draw calenders by mechanically developing their drive roller and pressure roller.

We have also developed specific corona treatments for blown extrusion lines, while for cast film lines we have developed treaters that can process up to 250 meters per minute homopolymer polypropylene film, which is notoriously difficult to process in-line.

Finally, we have developed corona treatment for rigid sheets and refrigerator sheets equipped with an automatic adjustment system that adapts to variations in the thickness of the production die and ensures a consistent air gap (the air space in which corona discharge takes place) between the electrode and counter-electrode."

Your philosophy, then, can be summed up with the phrase "being flexible within modularity"...

"Yes, because it is a philosophy with which we can meet all kinds of needs with low costs and in a short time. In fact, modularity makes it possible to cope with a wide variety of needs by simply installing a fair number of independent blocks previously made."

Do you plan to diversify the production range with components intended for particular plastics application niches?

"More than range diversification we develop a study of technical ways aimed at meeting requests of customers who need corona treatment in certain innovative areas. To give you an example: up to now, treatment has been done on continuous film from reel to reel. We have recently been asked to carry out sheet-to-sheet treatment, and we have consequently developed a new system suitable for carrying it out. This is just a small example because in fact the requests for the use of corona treatment in particular applications and sectors never seem to run out."

Can you tell us about your national and international position, giving us an idea of current market trends and indicating where you are looking to further develop your presence?

"Let me preface this by saying that at the European level there are few companies that design as technologically advanced machines as ours. I would say that in the European market the major presences are limited to two companies in Italy (one of which is ours), three in Germany, one in the UK and one in Denmark.

Our direct foreign market at this time of economic stagnation has settled around 30 percent of our sales. The markets in which we operate by level of importance are in order: in Europe, Spain, France and Belgium; in the rest of the world, South America, Australia, Turkey and North Africa. We are present in all these areas through multi-firm sales agents.

Some of them also provide after-sales technical service and are in charge of a spare parts warehouse. The remaining 70% is sold in Italy and 40% is exported indirectly. In fact, domestic manufacturers of plastics processing lines install our treaters on machines for export. We are currently planning to expand our presence in Asia and the US.

Regarding the market trend, in the first 6 months of the year we have noticed a general reduction in demand, which, based on the general downturn in investment, has at the same time manifested itself as a demand for simpler and therefore less expensive treaters. We have seen this attitude especially in smaller companies. However, the largest companies, for example those with solid shares in the plastics processing machinery market, have not given up on quality. Their market-oriented policy shines through in their continuous demand for innovation. I personally believe that this should be the line of behaviour of the entire Italian industry in the sector in order to maintain the quality and high-tech image acquired in the international market and hold up the German competition accordingly."

Can you now illustrate your medium-term goals: will you continue innovation, strengthen the commercial structure or focus on the product?

"We are implementing a policy of production and commercial strengthening with the aim of first growing in size and then gaining market share. In fact, an expansion is planned and it will be expressed in the development of a new headquarters. The decision to make this investment was made after verifying the good level of appreciation encountered by all our products for which we receive a slightly but steadily increasing demand.

We also want to enter new areas, more and more specialized niches. The new and larger premises will also enable us to cope with the demand for larger and larger corona treatment systems for faster and faster lines intended for the production of films more than 4 meters wide. At this critical time for the plastics industry, we will make a fairly large investment, confident that we will be able to deal with it adequately, also on the basis of the positive signs of recovery coming to us from the market."