Innovating in the Liquid IBC Market: An Interview With HOREN Plastics

Horen’s FC330 at PACK EXPO

Reusable Packaging News recently touched base in Europe to talk about intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) – also known as folding bins, with Stefan Schweiger, Director Business Development EMEA at HOREN Plastics. Among other points, Schweiger shared his excitement about innovation in the reusable packaging industry, particularly in reusable liquid IBCs and their potential to grow in that segment against other packaging options where current reusable IBC penetration is still very low.

Can you tell us a bit about your background, and why you came to be interested in working for HOREN Plastics, and your role at HOREN?

I have a background as an industrial engineer and I occupied different positions as Consultant, Business Developer, Finance Manager, Sales Director and Managing Director.

In my last role, I worked as Director Business Development for the market leader in RTP (reusable transport packaging) plastic products. I could gain a lot of insights into this industry, especially into liquid and automotive transport as well transport of dangerous goods where you need UN certification. I worked in the machinery industry but since I have worked in the transport packaging industry I have come to love this topic as there is still a lot of improvement potential, especially in RTP products.

I came to HOREN plastics because this is a very young but innovative company. This is something exciting and suits my entrepreneurial spirit. I have always been interested in developing new things and solving problems for customers.  

I like the spirit of HOREN to develop specific solutions for customers and not to follow the “one size fits all” approach. All products from HOREN are designed with a target of reducing transport costs and waste by a minimum of 40% in comparison to others.

At HOREN I took over the task of building the European Sales, Marketing and Service structure with a strong focus on IBC and automotive. We are now also introducing some very interesting FMCG products on the European market such as RPCs and RDUs, and so I am involved with retail as well.

When it comes to the adoption of liquid IBCs in Europe, what are the containers that foldable plastic IBCs are competing against?

 The transport of liquid is a huge field. The market share of foldable plastic IBCs is still low, only 3 to 5 %,  but we want to change that. We believe the foldable plastic IBC is the most efficient for transporting liquids up to 1250 liters. Other options for shipping liquids in Europe include:

  •  metal or plastic drums (rigid, non-foldable, often one way)
  • composite IBCs (non-foldable, rigid, difficult to clean, often one way)
  • foldable galvanized steel (foldable, heavy, not wanted in food environment)
  • cardboard (one way, disposal, no high stability, not perfect for transport)
  • stainless steel (rigid, very expensive, very expensive to cleaning, and heavy)

By offering a wider range of foldable plastic IBCs (e.g. footprint, volume, adapted to different transport media) we want to gain market share and replace non-efficient transport packaging where it is possible.

HOREN has a full fleet of different IBCs with a very high folding ratio (up to 4:1) and very good load capacity. Now we want to provide an alternative to other fluid transport packaging options where possible and where it makes sense.

What is the resistance to conversion which you have experienced?

  • Tradition: The areas where other transport packaging solutions are used and are well established. People are reluctant to change and a change needs time and effort and the will to integrate customers and offer or try out something new.
  • Price: Foldable plastic IBCs are more expensive than drums, cardboard or composite IBCs. Only if the customer is willing to look at a total cost of ownership rather than purchase price he will find huge benefits in foldable plastic IBCs. There are ways to overcome this like financing or pooling as well as renting.
  • Limitations of the Bag in Box (BiB) system: It is not applicable for UN certified goods or chemicals. There is a huge market and here we find a lot of other transport packaging options. Also, foldable plastic IBCs have not been capable of transporting viscous products, but we have already found a solution.
  • Companies have been slow to embrace green solutions: People in the past liked one-way instead of RTP. In former times sustainability and green were not as important as they are now. Luckily, this is changing more and more. If you change from one-way to RTP, the folding ratio and the weight have a big impact on improving sustainability.
  • Limitation of available products: Customers did not pursue the use of IBCs for liquid as there where there was only a limited amount of suppliers and products.

What are the key advantages of foldable plastic IBCs, generally speaking, versus alternatives?

There are a lot of advantages to a foldable plastic IBC: They are light but stable at the same time. The weight of the unit is 100 kg and you can transport up to 1.5 tons of liquid as well as stack them five units high There needs to be a lot of stability and it is not so easy to achieve that.

  1. Plastic is easy to wash and so the units can be washed and sanitized. This saves you water, cleaning and disposal costs.
  2. They use a liner. That means protection against oxygen, moisture, and cross-contamination. Through the BiB system, you can use the IBC for different applications. They are therefore perfect for pooling.
  3. You can easily repair these kinds of containers and extend life time.
  4. It is easy to fill and discharge the items for aseptic and nonaseptic applications.
  5. They are easy to load and stack when full as the pallet base is already integrated. There is no need of additional strapping or pallets.
  6. Less space is required. After usage, they can be folded. You can save storage space in your factory and optimize space on the truck if you return the item.
  7. They are recyclable. After up to 10 years of service life, you can recycle them and utilize the recovered material in new products.

Can you talk about the opportunity for different footprints in Europe, for example, 1200×1000 and the 48”x44”? Where does each of these make sense?

In Europe, there is a clear focus on 1200×1000 mm footprint. Racking systems, conveyor systems, and trucks are used to transport or store packaging units with this size.

But we also find in Europe interest into our new IBC with a footprint of 48”x44”. Originally we designed this for the American market as this is standard there.

The clear advantage with the 48″x44″ is the higher volume you can store or transport with this footprint. On nearly the same surface you can store 200 liters more than a standard 1200×1000 IBC. If you stack five units high, this means 1000 liters or 1 ton of product more. This is a huge number as it means less investment and less processing time. Where food processors have high volume and limited space, we see growing demand for the 48”x44”. So, it is the perfect application are seasonal production with high storage demands, for example, tomato paste and different juices or ciders. As well, rail transport is becoming increasingly important, and this footprint fits perfectly with that.

What about the opportunity for smaller sizes? Is HOREN active in this area?

Yes. The small size IBC is in our development pipeline. We have been pushed by customers and we see a demand for a 1200×800 mm footprint in some areas where the IBC has to be transported through narrow doors in facilities such as laboratories and bakeries, but also for applications where the customer produces smaller batches, such as cosmetics. As we have all of our product development in-house, it is logical to extend our product fleet and put a 500-liter IBC on the market.  

We will show the first container in this area by the end of the year and I am very excited about that, as it is a logical extension of our product range. With the 1200×800 mm base, we also could offer an 800-liter IBC if there is sufficient demand. Our products are designed to be modular so it is no problem to extend the line.

At the PACK EXPO Show, HOREN introduced its Residue Reduction System (RRS) for viscous product discharge. Why is this an important innovation?

One limitation in foldable IBCs (steel, cardboard or plastic) has been the flat construction of the bottom. Highly viscous products such as adhesives, cosmetic products, jams never could flow out properly at the end of the filling process. Even if you install a pump it will not work properly as the liner will build folds that can trap residue liquid. For expensive products, a 10 % residue is not acceptable.  In response to this challenge, customers used stainless steel or metal IBC with a conical base or they developed other tools which never worked properly. Some suppliers brought IBCs with a sloped base on the market. But the slope goes against foldability and transport.  

HOREN has taken this challenge and developed the RRS (Residue Reduction System) This system is a combination of a special liner, the full flow valve and a pneumatic driven unit which is squeezing out the product from the liner folds in a mechanical way.

With the RRS you can use any foldable plastic IBC and guarantee less than 0.1 % residue for liquids with a viscosity up to 300.000 CP. So there is 1 liter left if you discharge 1000 liters and you need 50 minutes of time. For customers transporting expensive liquid goods, this solution is fabulous. You can use the system for all kind of IBCs and we have even developed an RRS Mini for rectangle 250-liter drums.

What’s going in terms of a container tracking solution?

 As you know this is a hot topic and I could not say we are an innovative company if we had nothing new here. China is advanced in the usage of IOT (internet of things) applications. All of our containers can already be equipped with a barcode or RFID. This is not a big deal. But we all know it needs a lot of manual work to scan it and then you have only information about the container (shipping and destination locations.) In a time, especially in Europe, where companies are looking to improve production processes through better data usage, this seems old-fashioned to me.

HOREN has worked for three years on an improved system and we will see this year,  providing customers with better transparency about their products and allowing them to access information from everywhere. Especially for IBCs, this is a great thing as the containers are not cheap in comparison to drums and you transport 1000 liters of goods, which can be very expensive. In some areas such as pharmaceutical and food, you need to document transportation information.

The new technology from HOREN will send precise, real-time position and will also provide additional information about the status of the container. The information will be transmitted to a cloud-based system. You can access this cloud by your mobile phone, laptop or computer and you can have the full history of the movement per container.  

HORENs vision is to provide our customers with efficient (high foldability, low weight, high stability, easy to operate and repair, recyclable) and intelligent transport packaging in order to have the minimum total cost of ownership, avoid waste and reduce carbon footprint.

In your mind, what does the reusable packaging industry need to do to provide better value and capture more market share?

  • RTP must put more into new developments and innovations. It is fine to maximize the usage of existing products … but we also need to develop things new to use latest technologies in material and production. There are new technologies which can make RTP better.
  •  We need to adapt our products to the new ways of transport. Intermodal and transcontinental become more important in a world of global supply and production. But is RTP really optimized for that or do we try the one fits all approach?
  • RTP needs to be “intelligent” and help customers to optimize their production process and integrate information into the data flow. One-way packaging can not provide this.
  • We need to convince our customers about the advantage of RTP throughout its lifecycle and move them away from the “cheapest price” approach. RTP is, for me, a real game changer if it comes to sustainable thinking.
  • RTP is, for me, a real game changer when it comes to sustainable thinking. We must stop the waste generated by one-way transport packaging. I think our generation has the duty to reduce waste and think green.
  • RTP suppliers should also form an interest group and push governments to examine more closely the huge advantages of RTP. We need some kind of lobbying to help our customers to turn to RTP even it costs more at the beginning. It will pay off after awhile and has a positive ecological impact.

What is special about HOREN?

HOREN Plastics is a Shanghai-based company that has been in operation since 1998. At that time they bought and sold RTP. Around 6 years ago they were approached by a large pooling provider and asked to design a valve to provide better discharge of liquids. HOREN managed, without any know-how in this area, to develop a new type of valve with full flow technology – the only one in the market. It is able to discharge IBC units 30 % faster. Over 1.5 million valves have been sold to date.      

Subsequently, the customer asked HOREN to develop a 1200×1000 mm footprint liquid IBC. HOREN managed to develop this product, again without previous product experience, and in the two years since this product entered the market, it has been a game changer.

During this process, HOREN managed to develop a lot of smart things and protect them via IP (over 120 patents). This was only possible because there are more than 40 skilled engineers working at HOREN. So the R&D power is huge. Now that experience and know-how are used to develop and improve other products like FLCs, RDUs, and RPCs. All of these products have requirements for foldability, light weight, and high stability. 

You can achieve this by thin walls and there you need some special know-how. So you need to look into design and production technology to make this happen. HOREN is not looking to replicate existing products but is gaining a reputation for developing innovative new products. That’s what is special about HOREN.

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Further Reading: