Historically, the production, packaging, sales and marketing departments in the baking industry tended to operate on different wavelengths — some may argue that’s an understatement — due to the nature of their jobs and objectives for strategically growing businesses. However, the once vast abyss between the specialized groups has narrowed considerably as cross-functional teams collaborate to streamline new product development, increase speed-to-market and improve customer service.

In many ways, investing in packaging equipment has become interrelated with customer service among some grain-based manufacturers such as Clif Bar, according to Rich Berger, vice-president of engineering for the Emeryville, CA-based company. Mr. Berger is among a select panel of experts who participated in Baking & Snack’s exclusive Equipment Trends survey and provided qualitative analysis for a special report to be published in the February issue of the magazine.

Overall, according to members of the panel, packaging lines today need to be versatile enough to handle everything from a 12-piece carton for retail to a 50-pack for mass merchandisers and other channels. Sales and marketing, in many ways, have become integral in the decision-making process in the purchase of packaging equipment.

“When we’re designing or engineering process and packaging equipment, we think, ‘Where could the market and consumer preferences go? How can we enhance the design of our equipment and facility to be agile enough to accommodate those trends?’ ” Mr. Berger observed.

“You can’t build a line to be everything for everyone and every product, but we have a great group of marketing and sales people who give us insights and direct us with consumer preferences,” he said. “We try to design and deploy assets to support our business now and in the future.”

To establish the environment for equipment investment, Baking & Snack’s survey drew a baseline for current spending trends. According to the survey, 64% of executives reported an increase or significant hike in equipment purchasing in 2015 compared with 2014 while 30% kept investment the same and only 6% decreased it. The survey was conducted by Cypress Research Associates, Kansas City, MO, late last year.

Looking ahead to this year, more than half (52%) of respondents plan to heighten their equipment spending — yet again — in 2016 compared with 2015 while 37% will keep it the same, and 11% expect to reduce their budgets. Moreover, in 2017, 39% said their companies project they will bolster equipment spending again — the third consecutive time for several companies — while more than half (53%) plan to maintain 2017 spending with 2016 budget levels. Only 8% plan to decrease it in 2017.

When it comes to the packaging department, companies such as Mission Foods have turned to other industries, such as meat, poultry and dairy producers, to discover advances in hygienic practices and help ratchet them up within its operations, noted German Chavez, vice-president of manufacturing for the Irvine, TX, multi-plant tortilla manufacturer. “How do we make our plants cleaner than anyone else’s? How can we use the least amount of preservatives and maintain a good shelf life?” he asked. Those are questions with which the company constantly challenges itself as a part of its continuous improvement process.

When asked to check all types of packaging equipment companies expect to buy in the next year, 44% said they were targeting metal detectors, 32% checkweighers, 32% wrappers, 31% robotic automation, 30% horizontal baggers, 27% labeling equipment and 25% casepacking systems.

Moreover, between 15% and 20% of respondents cited palletizers, online vision systems, form/fill/seal vertical baggers, cartoners and closing equipment. Only 5% indicated they had no plans to purchase packaging equipment during the next two years.

After examining the data, Marjorie Hellmer, president of Cypress Research, noted that one of the most significant statistical trends may be an unexpected one. It involves the small percent that plan to decrease spending over the next 24 months. To Ms. Hellmer, the absence of negative sentiment throughoutthesurvey findings indicates a robust industry outlook for 2016 and 2017 equipment purchasing.