When it comes to tortilla production, the process has always been old-school; change has come mostly through increasing size and speed. “The lines have just gotten bigger and more efficient,” said German Chavez, vice-president of manufacturing for Mission Foods, Irving, TX.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t change to be made, especially in the realm of packaging. The key, Mr. Chavez pointed out, is knowing where to innovate — and where to renovate.

What’s the difference? “Renovation is something we already do, but we want to do it better,” he explained. For example, Mission Foods has traditionally hand-packaged its tortilla products. But in the interest of improving efficiency, the company is exploring ways to use robotics to automate this part of its operations. “The packaging area has been a challenge for our industry,” Mr. Chavez said, recognizing an increased use of robotics as a solution. In response to that, Mission Foods has begun to dabble in robots by first working with a vendor for its Mountain Top, PA, facility, and later working on developing a system of its own. “This is basically the future of our packaging layouts,” he explained.

In automating packaging lines throughout the company, Mr. Chavez described a three-phase approach, based on the size and layout of each of the company’s 21 plants. First, Mission Foods will look at locations that are conducive to adding robots, those that have room to grow. Next, it will consider plants that would require some investment but minimal building modifications. Lastly, Mission will look at facilities where the company has to evaluate the level of capital expenditure needed to create the necessary space for robots in the packaging areas.

Innovation, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. “Innovation is something that doesn’t exist,” Mr. Chavez said. “With innovation, we have to be more careful with it.”

In terms of packaging, Mission categorizes new, sustainable material as innovation, mainly because history shows consumers are loyal to conventional polybag tortilla packaging. No one has tried new materials. As an environmentally conscious company, Mission Foods has sustainable packaging on the radar, but not without careful consideration, especially when it comes to consumer acceptance.

“We’ve looked into different types of packaging materials, but it’s a matter of getting the consumer educated,” Mr. Chavez said. “If the consumer accepts it, there’s an opportunity there, not just for us but also for the industry.” 

It’s a puzzle that has consumer buy-in as the framing pieces and testing at the center, including knowing that a different type of package could maintain the quality and freshness that Mission tortillas are known for.

Whether it’s to renovate or innovate, Mission Foods carefully evaluates new concepts before taking steps forward. “There are plenty of great ideas — and we always test them,” Mr. Chavez said. “And that comes from our CEO. He says, ‘Don’t go with my idea just because I said so; let’s test it.’ ”