Thanks to busy lifestyles and a growing culture of mobility, Americans’ penchant for grab-and-go eating continues.

According to the Chicago-based market research firm Technomic, 60% of consumers cite portability as an important or extremely important factor when choosing a snack, a 55% increase from 2012. The NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, reported that 28 million Americans consume a snack food within an hour of purchasing it on any given day and that 22% of grab-and-go snacks are sourced from c-stores.

Keeping up with that pace — and in many cases, staying ahead of it — makers of baked foods and snacks are working together with their equipment manufacturers to produce individually wrapped, single-serve products that offer both quality and ease of use.

Paul Garms, product manager for Bosch Packaging Technology, New Richmond, WI, agreed that consumers don’t have a lot of time to stop and smell the proverbial roses, much less stop and eat three square meals a day. “There is a growing demand from consumers and retailers for varied products as well as an immediate need of ‘I want what I want when I want it.’ Americans are shifting to individualized eating and drinking patterns,” he observed, adding, “For consumers with longer work schedules and busy lives, single-serve packaging adds convenience, conveys product freshness and delivers health-minded portion control.”

That assessment is shared by Christie Taraborelli, spokesperson for the Las Vegas, NV-based Paxiom Group, representing WeighPack Systems. “Demand for on-the-go packaging is definitely on the rise. We’re experiencing a large increase in requests for re-closable stand-up bags, carry handles and individually wrapped snacks,” she said.

Certain products have benefitted from this boom, according to Mr. Garms. In addition to grab-and-go items like muffins, snack cakes, cookies, crackers, donuts and granola bars, nutrition bars have been strong sellers among today’s busy but often health-minded consumers. “Increasingly popular products include individually wrapped bars, which have seen a 140% increase in sales over traditional mealtime foods and biscuit packs, according to The Wall Street Journal,” Mr. Garms said.

Likewise, Dennis Gunnell, vice-president of marketing for Formost Fuji Corp., Woodinville, WA, said that individually wrapped bars continue to perform strongly. “It’s amazing to me — those products continue to be a growth market. If you go the supermarket, you may see a half of an aisle with wrapped bars, and you still see new ones added,” he observed.

Competition within this sector is also raising the bar — literally and figuratively — when it comes to the appearance of individually wrapped snacks and baked goods. As Mr. Garms pointed out, “In contrast to value packs, single-serve portions are often associated with premium brands, driving demand for high-quality packaging that reflects this image. Increasing competition among baked foods and snacks continues to focus on distinct packaging that stands out on the shelf.”

Protect and serve

To meet the demand for single-serve, individually wrapped snacks and baked goods for purchase at c-stores or other retail locations, new packaging technologies have been deployed that focus on the needs of manufacturers and their consumers. Those packaging solutions include horizontal form/fill/seal (f/f/s) machines, also known as flowwrappers.

In the wrapping process, maintaining the integrity of the product is crucial. “The true craft is getting the product from the conveyor after cooling onto the infeed and wrapper so it won’t be harmed,” noted Gus Skapek, international sales manager for Campbell Wrapper, De Pere, WI, who said that some items, such as pastries with powdered sugar or jelly, are more challenging than others.

In addition to protecting the finished products, bakers and snack makers are also heeding consumer demand for packaging that is as easy to open as it is easy to grab off a c-store shelf. “Most consumers want a package that is secure, with a good appearance and, at the same time, one that they can open easily,” Mr. Skapek pointed out. “Therein lies the art: a package that is robust enough to survive the distribution system and get into the hands of the end user for convenient opening.” Features like a notched or serrated end seal can accomplish that function.

Expectation management

Mr. Gunnell agreed that there are a lot of big expectations when it comes to small packages, including the ability to access the product quickly and simply. “The thing that keeps coming up is easier openings for packages. Everyone wants integrity and shelf life with a good, heavy barrier and easy opening,” he explained, noting that the perennial desire to keep a lid on costs is also top of mind with food processors. “It’s a tall order, yes, but there are things we can do to facilitate that.”

From an operational perspective, versatility is another key concern in the design and use of horizontal f/f/s equipment for single-serve products. Diversity includes multiple products that are run on flowwrappers as well as different films chosen for their unique marketing or functional properties.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for changeover. The product life cycle continues to get shorter, and there continue to be new product additions for many manufacturers,” Mr. Skapek said.

At Bosch, Mr. Garms said that the company’s Pack 101 horizontal flowwrapper is an entry-level solution for smaller and midsize manufacturers looking for such flexibility, with pack width ranging from ½ to 9¾ in. “Its fully adjustable former and multiple cutting head sizes permit a wide range of products to be packaged on a single machine, reducing the need for future investment and giving manufacturers the agility to quickly adapt to changing market demands,” he explained. For mid-size companies, Bosch’s Module++ links the company’s modules to create adaptable and scalable end-to-end line solutions and allows easy upgrade with automation.

Fast and furious

Even as they produce more and different single-serve and grab-and-go products, bakers and snack makers aren’t letting variety get in the way of speed. “Speeds continue to be very fast. Our faster machines operate in a single lane at a rate of up to 600 packages per minute,” Mr. Skapek reported.

Mr. Gunnell, too, said that speed is a driving issue for the production of individually wrapped items. “The faster they can run them, the better,” he noted. Among other improvements, Mr. Gunnell cited Formost Fuji’s swing-arm rotary seals that let the end seal jaws pivot with the film for additional dwell time, resulting in better and faster sealing capability.

Doing more with less is also important in terms of cost and space. Ms. Taraborelli reported that WeighPack’s horizontal f/f/s machines are geared for efficiency across both mid-range and high-range speed applications. “Our Sleek 40 Wrapper is particularly interesting because of its compact footprint and affordable price point,” she said, adding that the servo drives and cantilevered pulling and sealing wheels optimize performance and maximize uptime.

With the need for both speed and quick changeover, some manufacturers are turning to automation. “You’ll keep seeing more of that, as the ability and experience level continue to climb. That creates a confidence level in robotics, especially when there are so many different products running on the same line,” Mr. Gunnell noted.

Keeping it clean

Ensuring the safety and quality of products has spurred a similar interest in easy-to-clean, hygienic systems, particularly when it comes to packaging products that have ingredients like sticky cremes, icings or jellies. “We continue to strive for sanitary design to make the machine as easy to clean as possible,” Mr. Skapek explained.

Mr. Gunnell noted that Formost Fuji’s wrappers also are designed for easier cleaning, with a robust frame and a design that eliminates a lot of the undercarriage directly under the product.

Efficiency, too, from a cost and sustainability standpoint, impacts the design and application of horizontal f/f/s machines for single-serve products. According to Mr. Gunnell, Formost Fuji’s horizontal f/f/s machine uses less energy and allows users to more easily control temperatures for sealing.

In world where speed and size are of the essence, bakers and snack makers will continue to rely on f/f/s equipment to package single-serving products that can keep pace with rising consumer demand.