When it comes to capital spending next year, labor may once again become the primary factor, followed closely by reducing waste and improving food safety. That’s because businesses face substantial labor-related headwinds to growing their bottom line, thanks to the pending fees of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and the legacy issues with underfunded pensions.

In the baking and snack industries, companies are turning to temporary help or part-time workers or even paying existing employees overtime instead of adding permanently to payrolls. They’re also re-examining their criteria for return on investment (ROI) when it comes to installing bulk or case packing equipment.

With baggers cranking out 100-Cal packs at 120 or 130 units a minute, snack producers often don’t hesitate to fully automate case packing because it takes two or three people to manually operate at those speeds, ­noted Rocco Fucetola, northeast sales manager, BluePrint Automation, Colonial Heights, VA.

Now many companies are investing in case packing, even if manual packing requires only one person to ­operate a packaging line that is running 30 to 40 10-oz bags of chips per minute.

“In the past, they have not automated the case packing of that product,” he explained. “Companies are now looking to automate across the board. With the new health care law changes coming and the difficult time that people have hiring and maintaining workers, they are looking to automate areas they would not normally in the past.”

Speed and budget constraints often determine what type of systems to install. That’s why other snack producers are upgrading to semi-automatic machines that reduce their packing team to one person or to fully automatic systems that just need an operator to periodically refill the case magazine, according to Bryan Sinicrope, vice-president sales and marketing, A-B-C Packaging Machine Corp., Tarpon Springs, FL.

Semi-automatic machines typically run at speeds up to 15 cases per minute while automatic systems can operate at much higher speeds. However, for those on a tight budget, Mr. Sinicrope noted semi-automatic units generally cost about one-third the price of fully automatic systems.

Reducing the workload

In addition to ­cutting labor, advances in technology for case packing — and for bulk packing fresh and frozen baked goods for foodservice operators — have increased productivity and sometimes even improved the quality of life on the production floor. Automatic case erecting, bag lining and taping can reduce repetitive motion on the job and even stress on production lines turning out tens of thousands of pieces an hour, according to John Keane, executive product manager, packaging and automation, AMF Bakery Systems, Richmond, VA. 

Improvements in bulk packing, he added, streamline the sometimes highly chaotic packaging operations with high-speed bun and roll lines. “The implementation of inspection/rejection and line-balancing systems prior to the grouping area reduces the amount of work an operator has to perform by increasing the efficiency of getting the individual products grouped prior to releasing them to the slicing area,” Mr. Keane said.

Combining robots and vision systems can reduce waste and improve packaging efficiency in getting buns and other baked goods into bulk packers, noted Brandon Woods, director of sales, LeMatic Inc., Jackson, MI.

Instead of an automatic laner, which relies on a variable-frequency drive to speed up or slow down a conveyor’s feeding lanes, the company now sees more interest in robots and vision systems to fill the lanes with buns, rolls or other baked foods. Specifically, such systems will allow bakeries to replace the infeed operator who monitors product quality and aligns buns into the bulk packer. “Using these systems will reduce the manpower on the line and reduce the number of times the product is touched,” Mr. Woods said.

Baguettes, as well as crusty or artisan breads and rolls, aren’t as difficult to automate, mainly because their short shelf life usually requires them to be shipped frozen, noted Christophe Brest, director of sales, De La Ballina Industry, a French company with North American offices in Chateauguay, QC.

“Vision systems and robotic solutions improve our capacity to respond to customer needs by handling products individually and then accurately placing them into the cartons, as well as controlling product quality,” Mr. Brest said. The system will reject products that fail to meet up with predetermined product specifications.

The challenge, however, is that these Old World products come in odd shapes and sizes. A wide range of varieties also requires programming on how to place multiple configurations of products into cartons. Frozen, fully baked or par-baked products may have to be loaded lengthwise, crosswise or both.

Using robotics, Mr. Brest noted, allows bakers to quickly adapt to one product from another. It involves switching a software program that helps vision systems direct the robotic arms to the items. Changeovers are much faster today than in the past. For example, switching out a gripping tool or end effector often takes less than 30 seconds, he added.

Bulk packing systems can be a concern in many facilities in existing plants where bakers are looking to automate. Robotics enable bakeries to reduce their packaging footprint, Mr. Woods noted.

Additionally, LeMatic offers systems that have a smaller footprint and operate at slower speeds for small to mid-sized bakeries that are just beginning to automate their packaging operations.

There are other ways to save space. At the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) this fall, Stewart Systems, Plano, TX, featured the redesigned P-1000 Pillo-Pak Nautilus option that reduces the overall packing-area footprint and can mitigate space constraints in certain existing buildings, noted Dave Machette, sales and marketing specialist. “This feature is unique to Stewart’s P-1000 Pillo-Pak Bulk Packer and allows basket conveyors to be routed through the packer’s frame, clearing the aisle between and along the packers for unhindered operator access as well as providing up to a 43% overall reduction of required floor space requirements,” he noted.

He added that the open design allows ease of access for sanitation, and minimal use of roller chains and sprockets reduces maintenance.

At IBIE, reducing downtime — either through simplifying maintenance or sanitation — emerged as a major theme with many bulk packing systems along with other advances in engineering. “Conveyor designs have made cleaning easier,” Mr. Keane observed. “Product contact elements have evolved to be softer in their touch on the ­product. Drive-train systems have been removed and replaced with direct-drive systems.”

Meanwhile, Stewart Systems replaced all transfer points with knife-edge transfers for cleaner bun transition from conveyor to conveyor. Mr. Machette noted that the transfers also minimize product damage such as heel sanding while reducing the resulting crumb residue.

Greener pastures

Likewise, sustainability has become a major issue for bakers and snack manufacturers seeking not only to lower costs but also to respond to demands for more environmentally friendly packaging from retailers and foodservice customers.

As a result, recycled packaging materials have become more the rule than the exception, and in some cases, these can pose a challenge. “Corrugated with high amounts of recycled content can have problems with adhesive sealing because the corrugated material doesn’t easily absorb adhesive into the fibers. It is important for manufacturers to address these issues and test cases before they are put into production,” Mr. Sinicrope said. “Ways to solve this issue include extending compression time, using quick-set adhesives, varying adhesive applications or using pressure-sensitive tape. If manufacturers are aware of these issues, they can solve any problems before they impact their production.”

Corrugated board made with recycled content may not have the same structural integrity as virgin corrugated board, so the side walls may not be as stiff and the corners not as square. “This can result in cases being inconsistent from one another, requiring case erectors, packers and tapers to work with the dimensional changes or shape the container to a designed size for handling,” Mr. Keane explained.

Some cases can now be erected and sealed without tape or glue spots. Although they cost 20 to 30% more than standard cases, they can be reused four to six times by snack producers who operate direct-store-delivery systems where route drivers service retailers. “Once they load the shelf, they break the case down and send it back to the plant to be reused,” Mr. Fucetola of BluePrint Automation observed.

BluePrint Automation offers the Model VPP, a vertical pick-and-place case packer with integrated case erector that locks together such reusable case packs often made with recycled corrugated material. “Quite honestly, virgin corrugated is actually a little bit more difficult to run on a system because it is so rigid and unforgiving,” he said.

Many retailers are also looking for shelf-ready case packing and palletized displays. Focke & Co.’s ­highly flexible packager offers gentle product handling throughout the packaging process. Articulating robotics allows flexible packing configurations and increased presentation capabilities for shelf-ready packaging, according to the Whitsett, NC, company.

Focke & Co. also provides a toolless multifunctional side-load case packer for a variety of formats. Case sealing can be made using adhesive tape, hot glue or a combination. Sealing of only one side is also possible.

Customer-friendly sealing

Many bulk packers also take new approaches to sealing. Food-service chains are asking bakers to add seals to compartmentalize buns within a pillow pack to provide convenience and ensure freshness, Mr. Machette said. “Various methods and sealer configurations can be used to compartmentalize the simple pillow pack into sections that include as few as two buns,” he indicated. Specifically, Stewart uses a combination of center seals, TriPaks and skip seals to make these individual compartments within the pillow possible.

Traditionally, many bulk packers relied on heat sealing, and while the process remains popular today, many companies are providing alternatives in response to market demands and other concerns.

Stewart offers perforated sealing where buns can be separated at the restaurant. “Additionally, since the packages can stay together by means of a perforator zipper, there’s no need for additional coding and package identification,” Mr. Machette noted.

Advances in technologies enable quicker packaging around the product, according to Mr. Keane. “AMF’s seal bar design uses an impulse wire technology, which cuts and seals at the same time,” he said. “It does not need the time required to bring conventional hot bar sealers up to the sealing temperature as well as not having to hold a hot bar at temperature when not being used to create a seal. Another benefit involves ­employees’ safety when they’re working around conventional hot bar seal systems.”

At IBIE, LeMatic rolled out ultrasonic seals, Mr. Woods noted. “This technology eliminates the side heaters for sealing the film,” he said. “This reduces plant air and the spare parts for the heaters. It is a greener way to seal the film from a baker’s standpoint and doesn’t keep the extra spare parts on the shelf.”

Additionally, ultrasonic sealers allow bakers to use multiple types of packaging films ranging from conventional polyethylene to more exotic laminates and high-barrier films that extend the shelf life of buns, rolls and other baked foods.

In the end, automated bulk and case packing is much more than just labor reduction. It’s about safety, sustainability and building a better workplace.