Box set

by Lynn Petrak
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In package design circles, there is a lot of talk about thinking outside the box. But for some bakers and snack makers, thinking inside the box is just as important.

Bag-in-box packaging, in which a product is bagged then loaded into a box or carton for merchandising and storage, has long been a popular format for a variety of packaged foods in both the retail and foodservice markets. Such formats offer a variety of benefits, from aesthetics to package integrity to product protection.

A classic solution

In recent years, the parallel push to drive down costs and reduce package waste has led to the elimination of some types of secondary packaging. “If you can make a rigid enough four-corner stand-up pouch with a good seal, then you can get away from the outer carton,” said Paul Garms, product and marketing manager at Bosch Packaging Technology, Minneapolis. Mr. Garms reported that although some food manufacturers are going away from secondary packaging, others still prefer the billboard effect of the carton, in addition to its other attributes. That’s why Bosch often partners with third parties who make side-loading or end-loading systems for secondary packages to provide a complete solution for customers, he added.

While bagged products are penetrating categories once dominated by bag-in-box packaging, boxes still have a place. “I don’t see them going away. There is a trend toward flexible packaging, including pouches, and much of our business surrounds that, but the younger generation wants visibility and likes something to recognize — to look at — that a box offers,” remarked Rocco Fucetola, vice-president of sales and marketing for BluePrint Automation Inc., Colonial Heights, VA.

Scott Reed, vice-president of sales, marketing and customer service for Adco, Sanger, CA, has seen the same trend. “I think it’s fair to say that this conversation has been on the table for many years. Product packaging is something that is constantly evolving and certainly, some products are moving more into flexible packaging. However, there is a certain connotation of quality and product protection that comes from a carton, and consumer preferences and habits still drive that,” he remarked, adding the use of bag-in-box packaging is also largely product-dependent.

Likewise, Andrew Parlour, general sales manager for Decatur, GA-based Kliklok-Woodman, said that despite marketplace changes driven by budgets and the desire to reduce secondary packaging, boxes are literal and figurative building blocks for many types of food products. As with other packaging equipment and material companies, Kliklok-Woodman offers systems for both rigid and flexible packaging.

“Think about your own pantry: There are a lot of food boxes there. We as consumers are trained to look for boxes,” Mr. Parlour declared, adding that boxes are well entrenched in the industry as a whole. “One of the things that keeps bag-in-box going is the fact that there is a large investment in that type of packaging — not just in the initial packaging machine, but all throughout the distribution chain and in the supermarket, including how products are merchandised on the shelf.”

In addition to tradition and practicality, Mr. Parlour noted other benefits of bag-in-box packaging formats. “Overall, consumers have a perception of quality that comes with bag-in-box. The billboard effect is great, and you can’t argue that the package has a certain presence on the shelf,” he said.

Mr. Parlour cited RTE cereal as an example of a category that has perceptions tied to quality and cost, noting that bagged cereal has yet to catch up with boxed cereal in consumer preference. (An apt side note: He pointed out that boxes like those for cereal have other household uses: “Some of those boxes have been used for school projects!”)

Indeed, cereal is a major category dominated by bag-in-box packaging. Crackers, salty snacks and cookies, too, are often sold in such formats. “Another big one is cake mixes. There are a lot of powder applications for bag-in-box,” Mr. Garms added.

Mr. Parlour agreed that powdered products go well with this type of packaging. “Offshore, we are seeing some interesting drink mixes packaged this way. In Latin America and the Middle East, for example, there are powdered drinks going into bag-in-box lines,” he said.

Although traditional bag-in-box products remain on the shelf and in demand at grocery stores, there are some newer uses as well. “Some companies are putting different products or different varieties in the same carton,” Mr. Fucetola reported. One example, he said, is a cellophane or film-wrapped carton filled with single-serve snack packages, such as chips, crackers or cookies. “That product really sells itself. They are really reinventing things,” he said of snack food makers who are using the carton both from a design perspective and as a convenience benefit to on-the-go shoppers, including busy moms.

Speed and strength

Bag-in-box packaging usually requires the use of side-loader or end-loader machines that transfer bagged products into a cartoner. Some equipment companies, such as Kliklok-Woodman, offer complete systems spanning bag makers and end-load cartoners. “We are a one-stop shop. The main benefit is that everything ties together, and there is a single point of control,” Mr. Parlour noted.

Other equipment manufacturers, meanwhile, might make one type of machine and team with another manufacturer to offer an integrated solution.

As with many types of packaging solutions, manufacturers of secondary packaging systems report that food industry customers are looking for greater efficiencies. “Speed is driven by improvements in process, and as process improves, so does speed. Speeds are always going up,” Mr. Parlour observed.

Flexibility is also a priority among food brands, including snack food makers and bakeries. “Manufacturers are going from side loaders and end loaders to top loaders. That allows them flexibility for variety, like getting different styles of bags in the same carton,” Mr. Fucetola explained. “A top loader also allows them to use flat stock rather than folded cartons, which makes [such packages] easier to transport.”

Because of their versatility, Mr. Fucetola said that top loaders also meet the ever-growing demand for efficiency. “A top loader can be faster because it’s not dedicated. In the old way, you’d have three baggers lined up, and the product went into cartoner at a certain speed. With a top loader, you load it robotically, so if you want to increase the speeds, you can add more robots,” he said.

BluePrint Automation offers different types of machines for bag-in-box applications for the baking and snack industries, including a standard pick-and-place machine. “I call it a glorified robot,” Mr. Fucetola said. “We also offer something more elegant, a true robot that moves on vision. A product could come out in a random way, and the machine corrects for disorientation as well as for different varieties.”

Adco has also added a new robotic carton loader to its top load cartoning system lineup. The Adco RCL-2x (2-axis) robotic carton loader was designed for the most demanding production environments and is capable of achieving rates of up to 400 products per minute. The top loader features 100% native Allen-Bradley machine controls and can be configured with a wide range of end-of-arm tool and product infeed designs.

Mr. Reed also underscored the versatility of a top-loading cartoning and the fact that flat cartons are generally easier and less costly for end-users to purchase, transport and store. “There are certain types of bag-in-box packages that are conducive to being picked and placed rather than pushed,” he said, citing other advantages like recloseability and the fact that top loading offers options for interleaving pack patterns, among other things. In keeping with offering more options to food companies, Mr. Reed said that Adco is also set to roll out a new horizontal end load cartoner that offers medium speed auto-loading in a smaller footprint.

The equipment innovation work also continues for Kliklok-Woodman, which provides total solutions for bag-in-box applications, according to Mr. Parlour. The company is currently working on a new system that it hopes to introduce at Pack Expo Las Vegas later this year.

In addition to packaging equipment like loading and cartoning machines, there have been some changes and improvements in bags and films. For example, Bemis Co., Oshkosh, WI, offers the FeatherWeight high-­barrier line of films that protects moisture-­sensitive cereal in boxes. The film also helps extend shelf life of RTE cereals while keeping costs down and allowing sustainability benefits because of its lighter weight.

As packaging evolves, bakers and snack makers can still find new and innovative solutions in the classic bag-in-box format that marry speed and versatility while giving consumers the comfort of familiarity.

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