Relying on robotics and other advances in technology can help bakers increase the throughput and flexibility of their packaging departments, despite limited space.

In the packaging area, the problem isn’t about getting 10 lb of products into a 5-lb bag. It’s all about figuring out how to be all things to all people.

“The biggest challenge everyone faces today is the multiple formats that they are trying to use to package their products,” noted Vince Tamborello, vice-president and general manager, Benchmark Automation, a division of Pro Mach, Inc. “Most products were sold in fairly specific formats in the past, but today we have products for convenience stores, for retail and for club stores.”

While bakeries have become pretty efficient at automating production, their packaging departments — especially those in cookie, cracker, bar and other snack operations — often find themselves struggling with how to automate to serve an increasingly diverse customer base anchored in multiple channels.

“You might make one product, but it may be individually wrapped or placed in a two-pack, four-pack or six pack — or even stacked,” observed Dennis Gunnell, vice-president of sales and marketing, Formost Fuji Corp. “You have no changes in production, but you get down to packaging where you’re having the product packed 10 different ways. You’re adding such complexity, and it’s creating such a bottleneck. Everybody wants flexibility. Everybody is looking to package their products in different configurations to stand out on the shelf.”

For a co-manufacturer like Hearthside Food Solutions, Downers Grove, IL, which operates 23 plants in the US and Europe, “fast, flexibility and adding more value” provides the guiding force for the company, according to Dwayne Hughes, senior vice-president, supply chain. To accomplish those objectives, Hearthside — which produces and packages everything from cookies, crackers and other snacks to more than 3 billion bars a year — relies on two key ­principles: standardization and duplication. “It starts with a clear understanding of what the customer’s needs and desires are for the finished package,” Mr. Hughes said. “Then there’s collaboration between engineering and operations.”

That cooperation determines everything from the footprint needed for the packaging systems to safety and sanitation requirements before designing and standardizing the equipment. In many cases, Hearthside relies on lean manufacturing techniques, continuous improvement processes and training to maximize labor. That’s especially true in its 1.1 million-sq-ft facility in McComb, OH, where it houses 55 baggers and up to 51 flowwrappers to crank out 170 million lb of cookies and crackers a year.

In addition to helping discover the root cause of downtime, real-time data management systems allow bakers to focus on improving quality control and maximizing overall throughput.

Spacing it out

Sometimes the solutions can be found through a comprehensive layout and design plan. “If the lines are U-shaped, a single operator can run multiple lines,” Mr. Hughes said.

Creative technical modifications can also help. “Configuring controls on one wrapper on the left-hand side and the controls on another wrapper on the right-hand side allows one operator to run them both at the same time,” he added. “It allows you to maximize the skills of your operators.”

Bakers need to evaluate the required level of automation. It can range from basic or hand-fed loading to an intermediate level that combines automated loading and wrapping with manual casepacking. Or it may involve only fully automated systems that may include robotics, according to Craig Collett, director of manufacturing operations and engineering, Bosch Packaging Technology.

Relying on various levels of technology to build in flexibility often takes up a greater footprint than many might expect. It also requires a solid backup plan just in case of a packaging jam or breakdown. “The biggest challenge for the snack market is that sometimes manufacturers don’t realize that automated packaging systems can be much more complicated than the baking process and that it takes up more space and is sometimes more expensive than processing equipment,” said Bill Kehrli, vice-­president of sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging.

“If they’re a smaller company, they often focus on making a really good product or try to get to a specific price point,” he said, “but then not realize the need for ‘accumulation and redundancy’ to obtain the necessary efficiencies in the packaging area. It doesn’t matter how great the equipment is or who the supplier is, eventually the equipment will stop. But the oven does not stop. You still have to package the products somehow.”

To maximize the use of space when designing a packaging department, the primary focus initially should target the highest demand for packaging. “It all starts with picking the format that’s going to occupy the largest amount of product for a given oven,” Mr. Tamborello pointed out. “If the focus is on individually wrapped items, many times we’ll present a fully automated solution for that package and then other options for lower-volume items that may require some hand-packaging. By focusing on the largest volume items or products that require the most workers to package them, you are ensuring your greatest payback.”

All too often, however, companies forget to design for the future, or they overestimate the potential for growth, according to Bryan Sinicrope, vice-president of sales and marketing, A-B-C Packaging Machine Corp.

“This can be a challenge as you plan for every contingency, which can inflate the machine price for capacity you may never require, but with clearly defined goals, you can get the best machines for your needs now and in the future,” he said.

Communication among vendors is critical before installing a new or supplemental packaging line. “This requires strong project management and organization both [by bakers and snack manufacturers] as well as each of the suppliers,” said Joel Wiskochil, northeast regional sales manager, BluePrint Automation. “Ensuring that all available information is accurate at the onset of the project is very important to its success.”

Mr. Gunnell concurred that a little human-human interface, so to speak, can eliminate unnecessary surprises and lead to a much smoother startup. “There is value with getting everyone in one room and making sure that everyone is on the same page,” he said. “When you get people face-to-face, you get the answers to all of your questions plus a lot of information and specs that you might not get in an email or text.”

Having the proper specs — along with the discipline to operate consistently — reduces issues at the end of the line. “If you’re running at high speeds, you need products that fit their specifications to be packaged because the machine is designed around a certain set of standards which you cannot adjust on the fly,” Mr. Gunnell said.

Making sure cookies are properly aligned before they enter the packaging system is critical to a smooth-running operation.

Harnessing real-time data

Communication also involves getting the various pieces of equipment that populate the packaging floor to talk with one another electronically so operators and supervisors can monitor production flow and reduce waste.

“Data management systems give you the ability to evaluate your line by reviewing precise data on the efficiency of all the operating machines and help you more easily pinpoint production issues that need to be resolved,” Mr. Sinicrope said.

In addition to helping discover the root cause of downtime, real-time data management systems allow bakers to focus on improving quality control and maximizing overall throughput. In many ways, Mr. Wiskochil said, analyzing such data provides the foundation for a successful continuous improvement program. “All of this adds up to streamlining each station within the packaging process to offer the most output per time allotted,” he said.

Mr. Collett noted that cookie and cracker producers can use tools such as tablets or other mobile devices to control the cleaning and maintenance procedures and transfer the real-time data from the production floor to managers’ desktops even faster.

“These data management systems can offer more benefits, including monitoring packaging material availability and scheduling deliveries,” Mr. Collett explained. “By using an integrated ERP system, biscuit manufacturers can manage their logistics and procurement in a much more lean way, which ultimately helps them achieve optimal results.”

Hearthside, for instance, invested millions of dollars in SAP, and it’s paid off in a big way. “We get real-time data that allows us to achieve accuracy of over 99%, which allows us to reduce our working capital, especially when it comes to packaging materials,” Mr. Hughes observed. “We have real-time software on each line so our operators at any given time know what their packaging usage is on that line so we can continually monitor and help reduce our costs using this real-time data. If we’re running five lines, the plant supervisors can pull up on their screens and track all of the material usages. We can see the actual amount of packaging material being used and not have to wait until the end of the week to get a packaging usage report. Having real-time data at your fingertips is how we’re adding value to our operations.”

When adding the latest advances in packaging technology, getting the new equipment to “talk” with older legacy systems typically requires upgrades in software and electronic controls. “I would say the biggest challenge to implementing new technology and equipment within a production line or factory is communication between the upstream and downstream equipment,” Mr. Wiskochil noted. “Often, replacing the surrounding equipment controls structure to accommodate the new technology is required. While there is a cost to this, it offers seamless communication and a more efficient production line.”

With today’s software and electronic controls, field technicians can better provide remote maintenance and troubleshooting, almost 24/7 to bakeries across the globe and often without leaving their home offices. However, the challenge is not technology but convincing the baker or snack producer to allow remote access with all of the concerns about computer viruses and potential industrial espionage.

“There are ways to isolate different parts of the production line from the ERP to allow our electrical techs to get onto the equipment and solve a problem remotely,” Mr. Gunnell said. “In the end, monitoring remotely often times allow us to fix systems more efficiently, cheaply and quickly than sending a tech person to the facility.”

In some cases, the Cavanna Group has even resorted to shipping Google-type glasses to customers. The glasses permit field technicians to fix a problem without leaving the office by walking a bakery’s maintenance personnel through the situation. “[The bakery’s] tech can put the glasses on. An earpiece goes into the tech’s ear and a microphone into their pocket. We can remotely be their service arm and tell them to move this piece or turn that bolt to make a mechanical and electrical adjustment,” Mr. Kehrli said.

Additionally through HMI systems, Cavanna’s technicians can show a bakery engineer how to modify software, if needed.

For many bakers, the packaging department remains one of the final frontiers for saving on labor, reducing waste and adding to the bottom line. With more real-time data, better planning and greater open communication, it could be the next domain that is technologically conquered.