Be it morning, noon or late night, sweet or savory, people love their snacks. For a long time, snacking meant a quick bite or an indulgent treat to be enjoyed at leisure, but changes in consumer snacking habits dictated by changing lifestyles and more adventurous palates are reshaping the snack industry.

As consumers go about their busier-than-ever lives, running from one activity to the next, the line between a snack and meal has blurred, creating the need for convenient eating opportunities centered on sustenance, ethnically inspired flavors, a bit of indulgence and a dose of healthfulness. Add in the demand for multipacks, single servings and the always-present expectation that the product will be fresh, flavorful and intact right out of the bag, and snack producers face a litany of packaging challenges.

In the bag

Perhaps the most notable consumer-related trend in vertical f/f/s packaging is the need for single-serve packages, which is driven by the increased interest in healthier snacks as well as the need for convenience.

This trend highlights the critical need for flexibility in packaging equipment as snack producers must be able to quickly transition from one bag style or size to another with minimal downtime. Bag makers that can quickly switch from flat bottom to gusset to four-corner seal to edge-back seal to pillow packs are most likely to capture the interest of snack producers. When it comes to bag size, equipment that can change from 1-oz to 24-oz bags with minimal downtime will also get a closer look.

“Manufacturers are looking for greater equipment flexibility for faster product changeovers to meet the demand for increased flavors, sizes and pack types,” explained Mark Lozano, national sales manager, TNA North America, Coppell, TX. “The ability to clean equipment and change products on the packaging line in the shortest amount of time is also important in order to adhere to food safety guidelines, while maintaining profitability.”

According to Jeff Almond, snack food industry manager, packaging systems, Heat and Control, Hayward, CA, cost reduction and productivity savings are also trending. “Smaller bag end seal and back seal sizes reduce film expenditures,” he said. “Snack producers are also looking for productivity savings for current lines through reduced waste, increased speeds or automation.

A mixed bag

The packaging needs of snack producers are just as varied as the snacks they produce. Common challenges don’t always have a common solution when factors such as operation size, product type and variety come into play. Working in partnership with snack makers eases the problem-solving process.

“Heat and Control/Ishida designs and builds bag makers only for the snack food industry,” Mr. Almond said. “This gives us a laser focus on the unique challenges of snack packaging.” He added that all engineering, development and experience is dedicated to features that improve the subtleties of packaging snacks, such as film handling, seal quality, speed, weigher interface and the control/communication functions required for snacks. “We work with our customers as partners, who can then leverage all of our dedicated snack food experience to ensure their operations are smooth and efficient at all levels,” he observed.

Complete system integration is another option for meeting packaging challenges head-on. TNA’s system integrates the process from distribution and seasoning all the way through to the finished bag. “As an example,” Mr. Lozano explained, “the chutes are designed to optimize product flow since the primary consideration is to both add speed and enhance the accuracy of the finished package.”

There are also options to select the correct programs, verify legibility of the date coder for every package and monitor and adjust system speed to maximize system efficiency. “We listen carefully to all our customers and develop innovative machinery and packaging lines that suits their individual needs,” he said.

An emerging trend in snack packaging that could integrate the production process even more is the concept of a single-source supplier, where one manufacturer handles everything, including controls, upfront engineering, installation and service as well as streamlining projects and providing ongoing support.

Mirroring this trend, Mr. Almond noted that the same people design and build both Ishida’s bag makers and weighers, which ensures the equipment communicates smoothly and provides accurate production data.

According to Kliklok-Woodman, Decatur, GA, the company works in partnership with manufacturers of weighers, servo augers and volumetric cup fillers so that it can offer customers seamless system performance via a single source.

Pack the bags

The range of snacks alone is enough of a challenge for producers and equipment suppliers. Factor in the need for various bag sizes, frequent changeovers, increased packaging speeds and consistent quality, and the packaging difficulties start stacking up.

Each snack comes equipped with its own set of challenges and bagging rules. Accommodating various shapes is just one example. “Potato chips are a naturally shaped product, while extrusions can be erratic in shape,” Mr. Lozano said. “Sizing selection of the whole potatoes, and subsequently the chip, allows for better machinability for the high-speed demands of the smaller bags/packages.”

The fragile quality of many snacks must also be taken into account. Their airiness forces speeds to a lower rate. Even among chip types there are differences. For example, potato chips have a different density than tortilla chips, altering the packaging requirements.

To accommodate for the various sizes, shapes and densities, Ishida manufactures bag makers designed for specific types of snacks. For example, according to Mr. Almond, the company’s Atlas 233 is equipped only with the features that optimize potato chip packaging in the 80-120 bpm range. “You don’t pay for features you don’t need, so you get optimal performance with a low lifecycle cost,” he said.

Like many suppliers, Kliklok-Woodman helps its customers meet their unique vertical f/f/s needs by offering a range of equipment that can address production needs and budgets. According to the company, it offers easy-to-use, versatile entry-level and economy bagmakers as well as high-performance continuous-motion bagmakers and technology to create special package shapes.

For example, the company’s G3c universal ­bagmaker handles a range of bag style options such as block bottom bags, perforated bag string, promotional strip, notching and hole punching. Applications include potato chips, tortilla chips, corn chips, pretzels, snack crackers and popcorn, with speeds ranging from 20 to 240 bpm.

Grab bag of flavor

With flavors such as bacon ranch, sriracha and jalapeño sprucing up the category, snack producers and equipment suppliers face a new processing challenge — seasoning application and its effect on packaging. “Seasonings are the largest cost item in the snack world,” Mr. Lozano noted. “It’s important to maintain the integrity of the seasoning on the product across the whole production line, including the distribution and packaging processes.” Because each type of snack base product has its own set of attributes, including structure and surface area, application needs vary.

“Whether goods have been fried or baked first during the manufacturing process influences how the seasoning will adhere and how it needs to be applied,” Mr. Lozano continued. “Baked goods are too dry for some seasonings to adhere to, whereas fried goods may retain sufficient surface oil to allow powder seasoning to stick to it.”

The company’s latest seasoning ­innovation, the TNA intelli-flav OMS 5, features a responsive variable mass seasoning system with a dynamic vibratory weigher to directly control oil spray and powder flow into the drum. According to Mr. Lozano, this enables an accurate amount of seasoning to be evenly applied for improved coverage and flavor dispersion. “We have developed a number of innovative technologies that allow manufacturers to better control the application process for greater accuracy and reduced waste,” he said.

Heat and Control’s FastBack On-Machine Seasoning system applies seasonings to snacks just before they enter the weigher. The system features seamless integration between the distribution conveyors and the scale infeed system. It increases production versatility, provides more uniform coverage, reduces seasoning waste and maintains product integrity.

Speedy delivery

The need for speed is something almost every snack maker demands, and engineers are constantly researching and testing strategies for bumping up packaging rates. But it’s not as easy as it may sound. Individual snack characteristics, density, piece and bag size all have a say in how fast a machine can pack the snacks.

Across the industry, bag makers on the market today can produce bag widths from 3 to 13 in. and bag lengths from 3 to 28 in. Speeds range from 10 to 250 bpm depending on the model, product, bag size and weight.

When it comes to packaging snacks such as thin-sliced potato chips, plantain chips and large tortilla chips, their large surface area, irregular size and low density make them more difficult to package. At the other end of the chip spectrum, kettle chips are easier to package because of their smaller size, more regular shape and higher density.

“From a speed standpoint, less dense products have a slower fall rate and string-out between charges,” Mr. Almond explained. “Dense products fall faster and have less string-out, thus affording the opportunity to be packaged faster. Volume relative to bag size is also a factor. The key to optimizing snack food packaging performance is a balance between film characteristics and a bag that is sized right relative to volume for maximum speed and efficiency. A solid post-­packaging plan, either with automation or semi-automation also is a key factor.”

The TNA robag FX 3ci is a high-­performance vertical f/f/s bagging machine, featuring a throughput rate of up to 250 bags per minute. “The TNA robag FX 3ci provides up to a 30% improvement in performance in both output and reduction in rejects,” Mr. Lozano stated. “With improved modularity and core component capability, the bagger is completely upgradable to any combination of jaw size or configuration, and this provides full flexibility of bag size, type and application on a single system.”

The materials used to create bags for vertical f/f/s packaging also play an essential role in how fast and how smoothly the machines can run.

Film feeding systems with high levels of accuracy and control let snack makers quickly work in films of varying sizes and easily join films during changeovers. “By holding the film to back plates with a vacuum, for instance, manufacturers can easily trim and tape the film during changes,” Mr. Lozano added. “This results in less film waste and a quicker product changeover time.”

According to Heat and Control’s Mr. Almond, Ishida bag makers also handle a range of film, and their load cell-­controlled film tension and servo motor-managed film pull-down and end seal technology reduces film waste and increases packaging speed.

Bag of tricks

Higher speed systems, closer integration to downstream packaging activities and increased efficiency in machine networking, communication and data management are some of the major areas in which snack makers can expect to see technological improvements and enhancements.

With consumer trends driving innovation in vertical f/f/s equipment, it’s important for suppliers and producers to develop strong partnerships that can navigate the twists and turns that keep this technology from being everything except straight up and down.