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Being flexible to keep pace with changing trends

10 October 2016

Meeting increasing demand for a greater variety of products and product presentation requires ever more flexible food packaging solutions. Food Processing reports. 

In increasingly competitive markets such as the food sector packaging flexibility is key. “Retail food markets have always been fast-moving and competitive,” said Tony Burgess of Proseal. “This means that one constant requirement for food processors is the need to maximise efficiencies on production and packing lines. For tray sealers this means that tool changes in the changeover from one pack format to another need to be simplified.”

Proseal has seen a significant growth in different sealed tray formats in the past few years. “As well as standard sealed trays, we now have skin packs, below and above the flange, skin deep, MAP and vacuum MAP packs,” continued Burgess. “It is therefore important to choose a tray sealer that is versatile enough to handle these many different formats.”

An element of future-proofing is important in the development of new tray sealers to give food manufacturers the reassurance that they are able to handle the packing trend without the need to invest in new kit every time.

Proseal, for example, can handle all of the above-mentioned sealing formats, and these options can be added at any time, and even removed if required. The different pack types can be sealed using the same tooling to give manufacturers the flexibility to switch easily between packs during normal production, or to run trial packs.

“Another focus of our development work has been the future-proofing of our models,” said Burgess. “It is of little benefit having a machine that is fast and efficient if it is not able to cope with newer pack formats. Therefore, as we develop new features in line with new customer requirements, we ensure that these can also be retrofitted to models already out on the production floor, enabling all customers to keep up to date with the latest trends.”

In terms of line speeds, the introduction of new technologies such as following motion and intelligent buffering, which enable trays to feed continuously into a tray sealer without having to pre-sort and adjust pack spacing, have helped to increase speeds. They also improve product handling since there are fewer line stoppages due to misplaced trays.

The availability of online monitoring of equipment and the ability to collect data on small but unscheduled line stoppages can help identify recurring problems and implement corrective action to maximise line uptime.

These developments also underline the importance of creating fully integrated packing lines, where individual pieces of equipment are linked together to help maximise efficiencies and which can be tailored to the precise needs of individual products.

Keeping pace with demand
Innovation within the food industry is often driven by retailers need for greater efficiencies. The latest trend towards the widespread use of shelf ready packaging (SRP) requires food manufacturers to work with their packing equipment company to engineer innovative new products designed to work efficiently at high levels of productivity with SRPs.

According to Smithers Pira global demand for SRP is expected to reach 32.1 million tonnes by 2017. In the face of rising robotics and automation uptake it is important that manufacturers ensure that the initial investment they make in automating their packing operation becomes a long term asset with the ability to deal with SRPs today while providing the capacity to adapt as these demands continue to evolve over the years.

“SRPs offer a number of benefits – not least greater ease of access to the product, improved branding and in store efficiency, so retailers often see it as a must-have, and use their leverage with manufacturers to make it happen,” said Andrew Yates, sales & marketing director at Endoline Machinery. “However, food manufacturing is an ever changing industry, with the constant shift in consumer trends posing an on-going challenge. To keep up, retailers frequently set new criteria to change the design of shelf ready cases. Complying with these retail expectations and changing SRP criteria can be a double-edged sword for manufacturers who are investing heavily in automated packing equipment.”

The cost of adoption of SRP’s cannot be recovered at the retailer by increasing prices so it must be offset elsewhere, by reducing the overall cost of goods on the shelf, which usually requires significant initial investment at several stages in the supply chain. The adoption of robots and automation by food producers can be a substantial part of this investment.

Automation can drive up throughput but manufacturers need to ensure they have, flexible equipment to deal with differing, and changeable packing configurations while keeping downtime and wastage to a minimum. Consequently many manufacturers, particularly the smaller establishments, are still hesitant about automating their processes, with many believing that the changing requirements set by retailers’ means the task is best tackled by hand. The costs associated with bespoke automation or robotic solutions can also put companies off. Many are also unaware of the current automated solutions and technologies that are available today.

Robots, in particular, are extremely flexible and can be programmed to handle a wide variety of different packing configurations and pack designs at high speed with zero errors.

When purchasing automated systems it is important to factor in several machinery features to protect the longevity of the investment. In-built adjustment handles or LCD touch screens need to be accessible and should be easy to use to allow for quick changeover periods. They should factor in a wide range of different case sizes and dimensions so no matter how frequently a retailer demands a change in box style the manufacturer is able to quickly re-programme the case erector or sealer.

Open the box
Material waste, due to poor packaging machinery, is another area which can affect downtime and inflict costly penalties on the manufacturer. A case erector handling a variety of case materials and sizes can cause tears if the case is not opened positively from both sides. This can be overcome with the use of dual sided opposing vacuum grippers which provide solid, equal compression to pull the case open eliminating potential wastage. Endoline, for example, offers bespoke vacuum plates for each machine based around the design of the cases to ensure that the perforations do not tear during the forming of the case.

For ease of construction many food manufacturers have traditionally utilised tuck in bottom ‘crash lock’ cases. However, today's SRP criteria demands the design and performance of these cases offer more efficient handling and faster brand recognition to ensure easier product access. This makes the use of hot melt glue within case erectors essential with SRPs as tape interferes with the functionality of the cases at the retailer.

It also allows for higher running speeds, made possible by the growing use of servos while significantly reducing the cost of consumables by eliminating the need for tape.

“There is no question that packaging requirements will change,” concludes Yates. “Manufacturers should look for modular systems to create a bespoke production line which can be easily re-configured or retrofitted with new technology to suit the changing demands placed on them. Automation shouldn’t be a throw away investment but one which can become a tangible asset for many years.”

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