It’s a real challenge: How can bakery and snack manufacturers ramp up production using vertical form/fill/seal (f/f/s) machines and accompanying packaging systems while ensuring accuracy, not to mention allowing greater variety of products and package formats and sizes?

That challenge is one faced by many manufacturers who use these machines, whether they are co-packing or packaging products in their own plants. “Everyone is trying to get more production per square foot,” reported Tom Sosnoski, senior sales engineer for Bosch Packaging Technology.

Part of the need for the dual goals of speed and accuracy is the old-fashioned, but always pivotal, bottom line. Mark Lozano, sales manager for TNA North America, used the example of a small portion-pack bag of gummy candies. “If you go over one piece, you go over 5%, and that makes a huge difference,” he said, noting that giveaway adds up, as does time lost.

There is speed for the sake of speed — boosting throughput for operational and business reasons — but there is also a need to keep things moving at a good clip because of the amount and type of products being packaged. “In my view, there are some different elements out there,” said Ross Long, executive vice-president for Kliklok-Woodman. “The proliferation of products, for example, is creating a higher frequency of changeover. You’re trying to squeeze in more SKUs in the same production time, and there is additional time for changeover because of sanitation requirements. That has driven interest in speed.”

Along with product expansion and diversification, there is a greater range of packaging sizes in today’s marketplace, another factor that affects the rate and accuracy of the bagging process. “Portion control is a big thing we’re seeing, especially with smaller bags. People want to grab a bag of 100-Cal snacks, for example,” Mr. Lozano said. The move to smaller-portion bags affects speeds, he added, because manufacturers need to package the same amount of product in more bags in a single location and, hence, need to keep pace with volume with minimum waste and giveaway.

In addition to smaller bags, there is demand on the bigger side of things, spurred by consumers who shop for value and often patronize club stores. “In our market in the US, you also see a lot of larger bags, and that’s driven by club stores,” Mr. Sosnoski noted. “We are also seeing increased demand for large stand-up formats as an alternative to traditional bag in box solutions. If manufacturers decide to go with a flexible stand-up pack style they need to ensure the bag stands up without tipping over and has a premium appearance at point of sale.”

Beyond size, other product-based variations impact manufacturers’ package design and use of vertical systems that can work with different sizes and styles of bags. At Bosch, Mr. Sosnoski reported a greater use of Doy Zip bags, the company’s recloseable bag. “That’s probably the fastest growing area we see. At the same time, we also see a trend toward quad-seal bags that produce a nice billboard effect on the shelf,” he reported.

To help its customers reach optimum practical speeds with different formats, Bosch offers the SVE 2520 DZ vertical bagger that can produce seven different pack styles: pillow, gusseted, bock bottom, corner seal, four-corner, three-sided/zip as well as Doy Zip bags. “At the same time, you can maintain high speeds. With the small footprint of the vertical bagger, you get more production out of your square footage because you can put multiple units side by side,” Mr. Sosnoski noted, adding that the SVE 2520 DV can package 100 bags a minute in the Doy Zip format. “If you switch to a standard pillow, that machine can cycle up to 200 bags a minute,” he said.

Other equipment suppliers have helped manufacturers differentiate their offerings with various bag styles and formats that can be used with vertical f/f/s machines. Heat and Control, for example, offers vertical packaging systems that can build multiple styles and sizes of bags, such as its Ishida Atlas Flexible bagmaker that can create four-sided hem seal, block-bottom and pillow-pouch bags.

Achieving accuracy

While speed is top-of-mind among today’s bakers and snack makers, accuracy can’t be compromised. The degree of accuracy generally depends on the type of product being bagged.  As Mr. Sosnoski pointed out, “The more consistent a product is, the more speed and accuracy you’ll get.”

For inconsistent products, such as delicate and irregularly shaped chips and other snacks, vertical f/f/s machines are often chosen because they work better than some other packaging machines. The vertical structure of the machine enables speed, while the common pillow-pack protects fragile or irregular products.

Weighers and dosing systems that tie into vertical f/f/s machines help ensure accuracy for both consistent and irregular or delicate items. “The thing that affects accuracy the most, in combination with weighers, is making sure that every chip that is weighed gets into the bag it’s supposed to get in,” Mr. Long declared.

To ensure that product is placed in the bag accurately, Mr. Long said that Kliklok-Woodman has focused on the transition between the scale and bagger. “That minimizes what’s called stringout,” he explained. “And it has helped from an accuracy standpoint because we see less deviation from indicated weight to finished weight.”

According to Mr. Long, Kliklok-Woodman has also worked to make changeover as quick as possible without sacrificing accuracy. “We’ve put more automatic adjustment tools into both the bagmaker and weigher to help the time between starting up a machine in production and the time that it’s normalized for operation,” he said. “With more automatic controls, we get a much faster lineout.” In addition, Kliklok-Woodman integrated the control and operation of the bagmaker and weigher with a single point of control.

TNA also helps manufacturers balance speed and accuracy by offering an integrated geometry that helps prevent breakage. Indeed, some speeds can be too fast for delicate items; if fragile products like potato chips are packaged too quickly, problems like breakage, waste and giveaway can occur.  “Organic and gluten-free products bring another set of challenges, because they are sticky. They don’t run at the same speeds [as other snacks],” Mr. Lozano added.

Increasingly, automation is used to improve accuracy for a host of products. During the changeover process — which is more frequently done due to the higher number of SKUs — automation can cut down on human error. TNA has come up with an automatic solution through a barcode-reading system that ensures the product being bagged matches the UPC of the packaging film; the system can be fully integrated into TNA’s Robag vertical f/f/s machine. In addition, TNA’s equipment features a sensing system that detects failed seals and rejects them.

At Kliklok-Woodman, Mr. Long said sensor controls help monitor changes in product density and flow rates. “With that, we can look at the whole process and make intelligent packaging decisions,” he said.

Combo deal

Another way to maintain accuracy and efficiency is through integrated systems. TNA also offers a packaging line with a Robag high-performance vertical f/f/s system paired with a TNA Intelli-weigh multi-head weigher, TNA metal detector, TNA Intelli-date date coder and labeler. The system can handle a range of bag sizes and is compatible with different polypropylene bag film finishes.

According to Mr. Lozano, these integrated features go a long way with accuracy. “It cuts down on time, errors and rework and saves money big time,” he said.

The result of such integration is evident in speeds. “Traditional extruded snacks run 130 bags a minute and we’re now running 175 to 190, in part by changing the metal detectors for better control of the product,” Mr. Lozano explained, adding that bagging of potato chips has gone from110 to 125 bags a minute.

Mr. Sosnoski likewise underscored the efficiencies gained through integration. “We have competency in combining systems not only with the scale and bagger but also downstream to case packaging. Turnkey solutions make it much easier for installation and operation for food manufacturers,” he said.

By meeting the challenges of both speed and accuracy, bakers and snack makers can do even more — better.