As consumers enjoy more prepackaged snacks and bakery products — 94% of all Americans snack at least once a day and more than half of adults snack two to three times a day, according to a recent study from the market research firm Mintel — manufacturers continually seek ways to keep up with today’s snacking society.

To meet demand, bakeries and snack food companies are producing more and different types of products and, at the same time, are looking for greater equipment efficiency, including vertical form/fill/seal (f/f/s) machines, and speed ranks high among manufacturers’ priorities for vertical f/f/s systems.

“In the snack food, bakery and confection markets, so many things are going on in bagging that affect speed,” said Mark Lozano, sales manager, North America, TNA North America, a global supplier of integrated food packaging and processing solutions with US offices in Coppell, TX. 

Speed is even more top-of-mind among those who produce single-serve and smaller-portion packs and who want to do more with less. “Baking and snack customers are trying to maximize output per square foot. We have seen growing interest in high-speed applications related to small single-serve packages,” noted Paul Garms, product and marketing manager at Bosch Packaging Technology, New Richmond, WI.

Mr. Lozano, too, said that single and smaller serving packages are changing the game when it comes to throughput and speed for vertical f/f/s systems. “There has been a shift to smaller-portion bags, and that has impacted speed. You don’t change what comes out of your ovens in terms of the product — you need to be able to package those products into more bags in a single location. You’re getting more bags out and need to keep up with the volume,” he explained.

Volume is decidedly increasing, according to Mr. Lozano.  “Originally, we said we could do 80 bags a minute, and people were like, ‘Really?’ Now, we can run at least 135 bags per minute for smaller packs,” he explained.

TNA recently worked with a cookie company to ramp up production of 100-Cal single-serve cookie packages. “We partnered with them to do 194 bags a minute in a single tube,” Mr. Lozano said, adding that TNA has also worked with gummy candy manufacturer to produce bags at speeds of 180 to 220 per minute.  TNA isn’t just keeping pace, either. “We’re aiming even higher,” he declared.

Other vertical f/f/s speeds vary based on machine, material, product and system design. At Bosch, Mr. Garms reported vertical f/f/s baggers can run up to 200 cycles a minute for a single-tube bagger.

Hayward, CA-based Heat & Control, Inc., offers several different solutions for high-speed snack packaging, including a bag maker and dual-snack packaging system composed of two bag makers direct-mounted to a double weigher. Brian Barr, sales manager for packaging systems, agreed the numbers are moving up. “Ishida’s Atlas 123C continuous motion bagmaker produces up to 250 pillow bags per minute, depending on product and bag size,” he said, noting that the system is also designed around versatility, producing bags from 3- to 9-in. wide and lengths from 3 to 21 in.

Raising the speed limit

In addition to the types of bags being used in vertical f/f/s machines — including single-serve and smaller portions — the products themselves also impact bagging speed.

As companies add to the variety and scope of their product lines to compete in a tight market, they’re simultaneously seeking to minimize downtime. “In product diversification, flavor is a big thing, and that requires quick changeover,” Mr. Lozano noted, adding that TNA designed tooling for its systems to be disassembled and assembled in 15 minutes.

Mr. Garms also underscored the effect of product diversification on the operation and speed of vertical f/f/s equipment. “Even though a machine is capable of cycling at a high rate, it doesn’t necessarily mean a given product or film will run at those speeds. Many variables affect the overall speed, such as product characteristics, which dictate the way the product falls and the amount of  ‘string out,’ ” he pointed out.

Other factors, too, impact the top speeds vertical f/f/s machines can reach for a particular product and/or cycle. Mr. Garms pointed to the materials used with the equipment. “The film composition affects how much time is needed to make the seal,” he remarked.

Film and bag manufacturers keep f/f/s in mind in their respective R&D processes, too. For example, Clear Lam Packaging Inc., Elk Grove Village, IL, expanded its line of PrimaPak flexible, stackable, reclosable packaging produced from a single roll of film on a vertical f/f/s; the packaging technology replaces stand-up pouches, preformed trays, platters and jars. Other material suppliers, such as Atlanta-based Printpack, Inc., are also innovating in films for flexible packaging and use in vertical f/f/s machines. New materials range from high-barrier films for vertical and horizontal f/f/s machines to striped metallized films for vertical systems.

Meanwhile, today’s fundamental designs reflect the push toward greater speeds and versatility. Mr. Garms pointed to the motion profile of the jaws and film transport. “You may find two bagger companies claiming the same cycle rate capability, but the calculations that define the movement will have a large impact in translating cycle speed into real speed with product. The motion profile will have a large impact on how long a machine can operate at a given speed before maintenance is required. If a machine has abrupt motion with excessive acceleration, there will be higher forces on the components in the machine,” he explained, emphasizing that Bosch has focused on the design of the motion profiles to create smooth and efficient movement.

Mr. Barr also noted the importance of jaw motion. “Ishida’s exclusive rotary jaw motion delivers high-speed continuous motion packaging with accurate film registration and tight bag seals,” he said. Other design features that improve speed in vertical f/f/s functions, he said, include load cell-driven film tension control and servo motor controlled pull-down belts, which deliver optimal film tension and feeding, along with a stripping device that prevents product from entering the seal.

As bakers and snack makers continue to make more products — faster — vertical f/f/s machines will allow them to aim even higher.