Sacking the competition: American Paper Bag revolutionizes an old industry

By Mark Guydish - [email protected]
Plant manager Cipriano Hinojosa and CEO Ian Robson could have opened their company, American Paper Bag, anywhere in the country. The choose Northeastern Pennsylvania. - Sean McKeag | Times Leader
A paper conversion machine that transforms a piece of paper into a bag in the factory of the American Paper Bag in Sugar Notch. - Sean McKeag | Times Leader
Shown are examples of paper bags that the American Paper Bag in Sugar Notch can make. The company uses a process different from the way bags have been made since 1860s. - Sean McKeag | Times Leader

SUGAR NOTCH — You may ask, how do you reinvent the paper bag?

For Ian Robson and Cipriano Hinojosa at American Paper Bag, the question is: Why didn’t anyone figure it out ages ago.

“It just never clicked,” company CEO Robson said. “We’re a very traditional business. Paper bags have been made the same way since the 1860s.”

You know the drill. You see it anytime you buy groceries and answer “paper or plastic” with the former: Rectangular, bottom folded and glued, top lacking handles or pretty much anything except an opening. A bad grip, unbalanced packing or bit of rain can make the thing crack open like a pummeled pinata.

It’s pretty much the same since Francis Wolfe invented a machine in 1852 to make them and Margaret Knight invented a device 17 years later to cut, fold and paste the bottoms. How did American Paper Bag manage to reinvent something so plain brown simple?

“We redesigned the paper bag,” Robson said. “It’s greener, it runs much faster through the machines, it uses less raw material, it takes less pallet space.”

He’s not about to reveal trade secrets, but he does show the state of the art machines about to be installed that, once up and running, can make three bags a second. They can also be reset to make different size and types of bags in as little as 30 minutes, compared with up to 8-hours to switch job types in a regular paper bag factory. “We think we’ll be able to get it down to 20 minutes” once workers are familiar with the system, Robson added.

The big trick is strikingly simple. While traditional paper bags and these new ones are made from a single sheet of paper, the old bags had those elaborate folds making the bottom. “There’s a lot of origami going on down there,” he quipped.

The new system essentially takes one long strip of paper and folds it in half, creasing the bottom and gluing the two sides together. The bag is more circular or ovate, but otherwise works as well as or better than the old style ones.

The advantages?

A traditional bag folds each side inward, immediately meaning a folding bag has four layers of paper when flat. The bottom has considerably more, and is folded over those four layers. “You can have up to 15 layers in this,” he says, holding a traditional bag. The new bags are two layers everywhere except the bottom, folding in one place for a total of four layers.

A retailer who uses millions of bags orders them by the pallet, and a truckload of those pallets being shipped to an outlet would hold about 90,000 bags, Robson said. Fill the same truck with American Paper Bags, and you get 300,000.

But that’s just the start. The design allows the company to change size and shape of the bag with ease via computerized controls on the machine. The design also means they can add folds — crease the lip of the bag over to increase strength, say — as part of that 3-bags-a-second process. “To fold over the edges in regular bags, they have to do it by hand.”

The bags can be made of different papers for different uses. They can have handles cut into them or added. They can have “glue lines” placed almost anywhere inside, allowing them to be compartmentalized (he showed one formed into two halves, just right for wine bottles), or to be made into mailing containers that can have a single glue line allowing a person to mail a package back after opening it.

American Bag will be able to print almost anything you want on as much of the bag as you want, can perforate the bag to make it easier to open from the top or sides, and can put vent holes in it, making it more suitable for shipping food, which Robson noted is a very fast-growing business. Plastic bags, by comparison, can actually steam hot food and make it soggy in transit.

“Phase 1” of the business plan should be done in the next few months so the company can hire people and start making bags in the 42,000 square feet of space being rented. There is already enough demand to “start making them right now,” Robson said. He expects to hire about 10 people initially.

“Phase 2” calls for expansion that would double the space and add another 25 or so employees, and the demand is already running so high “we may have to move that up.” It could be implemented less than three years from initial production.

Why set up here? Robson is quick to praise the state for offering incentives, but showered extra praise on the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce, noting the people there “made it one-stop shopping” in getting help and advice. He and Hinojosa, the plant manager, looked throughout North America for a corporate headquarters location, including California and Toronto, as well as Lehigh Valley and Scranton in Pennsylvania.

The building on Hanover Street in Sugar Notch provided the best of all choices, giving access to major markets, with lots of transportation options and without roads crowded with commuters, he said.

Besides, the Great Britain native added, “I love it here.”

That’s why you can expect to see millions of bags rolling out the doors in coming months. It’s also why, if Robson finds a good enough reason to do it, you may see little Sugar Notch in the Guinness Book of World records some day. One advantage to the bag manufacturing method is that the length of bag is only limited by the amount of paper in those giant rolls.

“We could make a mile-long bag,” he said. “That would be the longest machine-made paper bag on record.”

And that could hold a lot of wine bottles for celebrating.

Plant manager Cipriano Hinojosa and CEO Ian Robson could have opened their company, American Paper Bag, anywhere in the country. The choose Northeastern Pennsylvania.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/web1_TTL04xx18AmericanPaperBag1.jpgPlant manager Cipriano Hinojosa and CEO Ian Robson could have opened their company, American Paper Bag, anywhere in the country. The choose Northeastern Pennsylvania. Sean McKeag | Times Leader

A paper conversion machine that transforms a piece of paper into a bag in the factory of the American Paper Bag in Sugar Notch.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/web1_TTL04xx18AmericanPaperBag2.jpgA paper conversion machine that transforms a piece of paper into a bag in the factory of the American Paper Bag in Sugar Notch. Sean McKeag | Times Leader

Shown are examples of paper bags that the American Paper Bag in Sugar Notch can make. The company uses a process different from the way bags have been made since 1860s.
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/web1_TTL04xx18AmericanPaperBag3.jpgShown are examples of paper bags that the American Paper Bag in Sugar Notch can make. The company uses a process different from the way bags have been made since 1860s. Sean McKeag | Times Leader
American Paper Bag revolutionizes an old industry

By Mark Guydish

[email protected]

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish