Going with the flow

by Ryan Atkinson, Baking & Snack
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Flowwrappers are like any other piece of machinery in a bakery or snack food manufacturing facility when it comes to ever-changing challenges. Products evolve and consumer demands waver, but the end product must still be wrapped quickly, efficiently and reliably.

Meeting those challenges are even more important when the flowwrapper is responsible for putting the final touches on a food product. The package is the first thing the customer sees and touches, which can go a long way in product sales. 

Managing modern materials

Bakers and snack producers are trying new films to cover their products. Some are going with thinner, higher-­quality films to reduce packaging while some are looking for more sophisticated materials.

“One of the big things, in general, is that this is requiring some more flexibility,” said Dennis Gunnell, vice-president of sales and marketing at Formost Fuji Corp., Woodinville, WA. “Different films require different sealing patterns and some of these patterns can get quite complicated.”

The thinner films can present unique challenges. If too much pressure is applied to the film, it can fracture. If too much heat is applied, it will burn.

“We’re playing with three variables: heat, pressure and dwell time,” said Paul Garms, product and marketing manager for Bosch Packaging Technology, New Richmond, WI. “When you have a thinner film, you’re giving up certain qualities that you had with a thicker film with multiple laminations.”

One way to work around that problem is to change the profile of the jaw and the serration patterns or use methods traditionally used for thicker films, such as long-dwell technology.

“We can adjust it to where the sealing jaws on a flowwrapper actually move with the film for a certain amount of time and that will help with the pressure problem,” Mr. Garms said. “On our long-dwell machines we can actually move with the film for one second. That is another potential solution: just add more time to get a good seal.”

Mr. Gunnell said the varying sealing patterns of higher quality films can be most problematic. “The actual seal bar has a pattern face on it and, depending on the film, that pattern face can handle different films,” he said. “Some films stretch one direction, some another, some have flow characteristics so the film can flow caulk and create a seal. Others have little. There are things going on that put a higher demand on the technical aspects of the seal bars.”

Mr. Garms pointed out the challenge of becoming more sustainable and using less product to complete a wrap while, at the same time, retaining the qualities necessary to keep food in the best condition possible.

“Everything is an evolution, a gradual change, but I think all suppliers right now are focused on sustainability and environmental concerns,” he said. “And they’re always looking to reduce costs. A lot of times these things are aligned when you’re talking about moving to thinner films, but in certain applications, they need certain barrier properties to eliminate air flow and oxygen ingress that might degrade their product.”

 Many a move to thinner film can’t be made because those additional laminations are needed, either for the look and feel of the package or for the barrier properties that come with them.

Revisiting resealability

It can be challenging enough to keep up with the newest and best ways to package a product. It can throw a completely different wrench in the operation when the need arises for a package that can be closed again after opening.

But that, Mr. Gunnell said, is a trend that rears its head after few years.

“That comes up every so often. People start looking more for something that you can open and close again pretty easily,” he said. “That seems to be pretty hot again in the last year or so. They’re looking for easy ways to get into the package and then easy ways to reclose it again, either for freshness or to keep it from falling out of the package.”

The problem is in finding ways that are easier and less expensive to achieve that.

“If it’s a bagged product, you’ve got a couple of options, but with a wrapped product, you’ve got a number of them, whether it’s tape, a label or a zipper,” Mr. Gunnell said. “There are a lot of different things you can use, and none of them are perfect. A lot of the things that came out five, six, eight years ago were not the most user-friendly and now people have been playing with it and trying to solve the problem long enough that there are some better options.”

One successful adaptation has been the cookie tray that is resealed from the top instead of the sides thanks to a die-cut opening. Consumers can peel the wrapper back, take the cookies they want and reseal the package.

“That is probably what I’ve seen more than anything,” said Vince Tamborello, president of Benchmark Automation, Bogart, GA. “Rather than wrapping it into smaller packages, you take the entire tray and make it re-sealable.”

Those ideas come in waves, Mr. Gunnell said. When a trend like resealable packaging hits the industry, it takes time to come up with a plan and implement it, but when that happens, it spreads.

“I think that’s what ends up happening; it takes a while from when a challenge is first seen for equipment guys like us to get it on our radar and find a solution,” he said. “And every time something better comes along, everybody tries to make some improvements.”

Premium packaging

Sometimes a customer is looking for more than the traditional selling points of moisture barriers and breathability when searching for the right package. Sometimes the look and feel of a material is put at the top of the priority list.

“I had a customer last week that wanted a certain feel,” Mr. Gunnell said. “They paid extra money for it. It’s a real soft, warm feel when you grab the package. The product was not expensive, but the package is.”

Flowwrapper manufacturers can help achieve that special request, but more times than not, that means a significant spike in cost for the customer. The higher quality materials can be used to wrap a product and then seal it at a faster rate, but it doesn’t always end up in the price point needed.

“That’s where the challenge comes in. People are trying to push materials,” Mr. Gunnell said. “Something may have been designed to run up to 100 to 120 a minute on a certain product and now they want to push that same material to 180 to get better efficiency and take advantage of line speeds. But that material can’t be pushed that far. When you move to a material that can run at higher rates, it’s a lot more money. That’s really where the cost comes into the equation.”

And if everything does come together and the perfect combination of look and feel and cost is achieved, it still, like everything else, needs the seal of approval from the consumer.

“People get an idea of what they want the package to do, but in the end the consumer says if they want it,” Mr. Gunnell said. “Some things don’t change. The customer is always right.”

Foreseeing the future

Even after numerous emerging challenges are dealt with, there will always be a new batch coming down the road. Consumer demand changes, causing some products to change and others to go away altogether. That’s why Mr. Gunnell stressed the importance of flexibility.

“The thought of running something for two, three, four, five years … you just can’t plan on that,” he said. “The product may not be around that long. Every machine we sell now, there’s a good chance that in the next three to seven years, it’s going to be configured to do something else.”

A flowwrapper could last 20 years, meaning companies and their engineers must have the future — an unknown future at that — in mind when spending money on a new machine.

“A machine that has that flexibility built into it is key. An adjustable forming box, easy-to-change cutoff pitch, a design of the in-feed that may lend itself to different sizes easily, a machine that is modularly designed to scale, those are all important,” Mr. Gunnell said. “If you buy a machine to do one product, are you really getting the most out of your money?”

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