KANSAS CITY — Consumers today want their snacks and baked foods to check all the boxes all at once. And in modern families, those boxes might look quite different for each person in the house. While e-commerce and the rise of home delivery are helping people do more frequent, smaller shopping runs, many families are still choosing to shop in bulk once a week or a couple times a month. For these folks, variety packs still meet multiple needs at once.

These types of products have come a long way from the corrugated boxes stacked on the bottom shelf at the big-box store. Although there’s still a market for this type, some tweaks in secondary packaging, as well as advances in automation, lend themselves to variety packs that are more user-friendly than ever before. Meanwhile, this style is also addressing the current workforce gap, space constraints and the ever-present need for flexibility.

“From a consumer standpoint, having multiple flavors in a single carton is a great advantage,” said Jim Campbell, north central regional sales manager, Blueprint Automation (BPA). “For producers, it can be a pain to create.”

It is important for bakers and snack manufacturers to look at every aspect of the process and rely on help from equipment suppliers to keep the lines running smoothly.

Adapt to the surroundings

For a variety pack operation, it’s important to remember that flexibility is key.

“A producer might want to do 3-, 6- or 8-packs today, and then in 2 months do a holiday pack to add an extra product or even a coupon for promotion,” said Dennis Gunnell, vice-president, sales and marketing, Formost Fuji. “The challenge is that you don’t always know what the extra piece is going to be, so you have to anticipate something that you can’t predict."

Having multiple items in one bag or box is already complicated, so the trick for bakers is to not only forecast those adjustments but also know how much they are willing to invest in terms of dollars and efficiency.

“The more adaptability you build, the more efficiency you’re likely to lose,” he added.

This can be especially challenging for operators such as co-packers, and the key is to keep open lines of communication with customers, equipment vendors and internal departments such as R.&D. or marketing. Look at the big picture and understand what makes the most sense and where the worthy investment is.

For BPA, the three tenets of the company are innovation, partnership and flexibility, which is an integral part of the company’s equipment design.

“Innovation and flexibility are how we approach the industry when evaluating a footprint by offering flexible solutions that can accommodate tough layouts and innovating new solutions that focus on space savings,” Mr. Campbell said.

Labor relations

Traditionally, variety packs have been a manual operation. However, the manufacturing talent pool is dwindling, and that’s leaving bakers and snack producers in a lurch when it comes to the old way of doing things. More than ever, they’re relying on automation to fill that packaging gap.

“The largest advancement has been the ability to feed product from bulk and then pick and place into a carton,” Mr. Campbell said, noting that BPA’s feeders allow for just this style of automation.

Bill Kehrli, vice-president, sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging Group, also noted the labor issue with manually assembling variety packs.

“There was typically a team of people to package the products — granola bars, cookies, crackers — and manually place them into secondary packaging that could be a carton, bag or flowwrapper,” he said.

By using scanners and vision systems that can ensure accurate counts and proper varieties, Cavanna’s automation can help supplement the workers that are becoming increasingly unavailable.

“Through barcode scanners, operators can make sure the flavors match up with what’s supposed to be running,” Mr. Kehrli said. “These are safe check measures to help operators avoid human errors.”

The company also offers robotics solutions that fill in when there’s a lack of human workforce.

On the horizon, collaborative robots are providing assistance that doesn’t totally eliminate people but can help with challenges such as ergonomics and other strain-related physical issues. Collaborative robots also take up a smaller footprint than large industrial robotic systems. While this innovation is still on the fringe for the baking industry, many bakers and packaging suppliers are keeping it on the radar.

Space saving

Oftentimes space constraints go hand-in-hand at the end of the line, and this can’t be truer for variety packs. This is a big reason why many food manufactures think hard before keeping this part of the process in house as opposed to hiring a co-packer.

“This is a challenge, especially with older plants that are already maxed out, when someone says, ‘We want to put a package out there with three varieties, but we need to do it in the same space with the same people,’” Mr. Gunnell said. “They have to look at the space they have available and figure out how to shoehorn it in.”

Cavanna’s Twin Slim system also helps consolidate the footprint in this area.

“It can fit in the space of one wrapping system and provide twice the speed and half the ­labor,” Mr. Kehrli said. “It’s basically two machines in one.”

While most of the specific technology advances are happening in the robotics realm, primary packaging that feeds into those units can streamline the process while saving a bit of space. Formost Fuji works closely in feeding the robotics and collation machines.

“We can build conveyors that are thinner or a design that will match up with the robotics or mechanical collating features,” Mr. Gunnell said.

The company can also modify its equipment to feed into secondary packaging and fit in a tighter area.

“We can take the electrical control box off the back of the wrapper and make it remote,” Mr. Gunnell explained. “We can put the machine right up to the side of the conveyor to reduce the robot’s arm reach by 4.5 to 5 inches.”

Modifying the infeed and the back of the machine makes the robot’s job easier and eliminates unnecessary space.

Quality control

When putting together variety packs, quality becomes more important than ever because there are so many moving parts for the operator to keep track of.

One specific consideration is the importance of the seals before the primary packages go into the bag or box.

“The key to having successful variety packs is good bag seals and making sure they’re checked correctly,” said Jeff Almond, industry manager, snack food packaging, Heat and Control.

When there’s a manual system loading the bags into a box, tray or bag, quality control might not be as big an issue because line operators can visually inspect the bags. But in a high-speed automated system, a seal checker becomes an important feature.

“We play in that space with the quality check and making sure the bags that go to automation are well-sealed and reject any bags that get damaged in transit or have any sort of leak,” Mr. Almond said.

To ensure this, Heat and Control’s Ishida seal checker can detect a pinhole as small as 1 millimeter running at speeds as high as 150 bags per minute.

“They may not be running at that speed, but it’s important, especially for snack foods, that if you have a particular product that’s gas-flushed and you need a certain shelf life on it, even a small tear or hole will cause the product to go stale before the date on the bag,” he said. “We are able to detect that and reject the bag. A lot of customers have come to appreciate that level of technology.”

BPA’s checkweighers can verify accuracy on a package, according to Mr. Campbell.

“Errors occur,” he said. “BPA accounts for this by weighing the package at the end of the pick cycle. If all products are accounted for, the package will proceed. If not, it’s automatically rejected and can then be manually reworked. It’s a simple but tried-and-true method of ensuring product quality.”

Vision systems are another tool for monitoring quality. “There are definitely safe check measures. We can put vision systems into our setups to ensure the products have proper count and the proper varieties,” Mr. Kehrli said. “Then barcode scanners can match what they’re supposed to be running.”

When it comes to the combinations of products that can go into variety packs, the possibilities are seemingly endless, especially when consumer preferences can change on a dime. To keep up with their shifting tastes and give them plenty of options, bakers and snack producers just need to make the right choices for what works best in their operations, space, budgets and retail venues.