KANSAS CITY — Today’s discerning consumers are placing new demands on snack food manufacturers such as the desire for better-for-you snack options that come in convenient, single-serve portions, according to the “2018 Snack Foods — Packaging and Processing Market Assessment and Trends” report produced by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. These consumers are looking for features such as re-sealability, flavor variety and combination snacks, which translate into an explosion of s.k.u.s and a move to more flexible packaging for baking and snack food processors.

In order to meet these consumer demands, consumer packaged goods (C.P.G.) companies are seeking packaging machines with increased flexibility and speed to deal with this new variety of products, according to PMMI’s research.

The study also indicates C.P.G.s in the baking and snack space wish to see more “disruptive” innovation rather than “incremental” improvements. They are looking for advances such as primary and secondary packaging steps combined into a single and more efficient process. In addition, improved sanitary design is critical to meet regulatory requirements, but ease and speed of cleaning are becoming increasingly important.

All of these consumer and retail trends point to automation and robotics as a potential solution. And while many manufacturers seem reluctant to make significant investments in robotics over the short term, PMMI’s Evolution of Automation Industry Research report projects major investments in the next 5 to 10 years.

It estimates the installation of more than 1.4 million industrial robots in factories around the world between 2016 and 2019. These robots can ease production issues faced by baking and snack operations by delivering benefits such as increased flexibility, quicker and easier changeovers, improved sanitation and reduced downtime due to human error.

Increased automation can also impact the skills shortage many manufacturers struggle with. As automation increases, operators must be able to run machines without much training. There is a move to embed technology in such a way that it will be transparent to the operator and will allow untrained users not only to operate the machinery but also become capable of performing self-guided maintenance tasks. Although 3-D immersive animation remains costly, it will enable a relatively unskilled worker to perform a large number of first-line maintenance tasks with continuous machine checks, reducing the need for highly skilled maintenance technicians.

As manufacturers embrace automation, the number of “smart machines” that are better connected, more flexible, self-aware and safe are expected to grow. Baking and snack companies will have the capability to expand the level of intelligence derived from plant floor machinery in order to accommodate more predictive planning and more flexible business needs, according to PMMI’s Automation report.

Baking and snack manufacturers wrestling with these consumer challenges will find the latest automation and robotic solutions and packaging innovations at Pack Expo International 2018 held Oct. 14-17 in Chicago. At the PMMI-produced show, 50,000 attendees will convene with 2,500 exhibitors, with peers in the snack food industry calling The Snack Break Lounge home. A reception will be held Tuesday, Oct. 16, from 3:30-5:30 p.m. New this year, The PACKage Printing Pavilion will offer an opportunity to see cutting-edge labeling innovations and techniques to improve shelf appeal. Returning show features like The Containers and Materials Pavilion and The Reusable Packaging Pavilion will display advancements in sustainable packaging that are new to the market. In addition to aisles of packaging solutions, packaging professionals will have access to free, on-floor educational sessions at three different Innovation Stage locations.

To register and learn more, visit www.packexpointernational.com.