This year saw higher demand for smaller, single-serve packaging; meanwhile, food manufacturers have had to manage more complex and versatile packaging lines that require quicker changeovers and more sophisticated automation. Across the board, baking and snack companies now demand more versatility and higher capacity from their packaging systems.

Automation is the beating heart behind innovation at the end of the line. Companies feeling the effects of the workforce gap need to supplement low headcounts on lines and the lack of industry knowledge and experience with improved easy-to-use technology. In many cases, smart automation is the lifeblood for the future.

PMMI recently conducted a survey to research automation’s impact on consumer packaged goods (C.P.G.) companies. It found that as automation increases in importance and usability in the manufacturing sector, collaborative robots (cobots), artificial intelligence and big data provide three distinct drivers of investment and performance.

Companies that automate find themselves with a distinct competitive advantage over competitors taking a “wait-and-see” approach, the survey revealed. PMMI reported that 44% of C.P.G. producers are at least planning to increase investment in big data analytics capabilities in the next 18 to 24 months to improve operational efficiencies. Innovations in Industry 4.0 technologies, data management, interconnectivity, robotics and hard automation are filling in gaps left by the competitive workforce environment.

Turnkey takeover

Finding, training and retaining workers is a widespread challenge. Jim Campbell, north central regional sales manager, BluePrint Automation (BPA), said reallocation of labor is driving packaging innovation.

“The current economic environment is one of the most competitive in a generation,” he said. “The acquisition and retention of labor is continuing to be a struggle, wreaking havoc on producers’ ability to get product out the door.”

One way to heighten an operation’s performance involves investing in turnkey, easy-to-use equipment that any worker can understand.

“In the snack industry there has been some common challenges for manufacturers to justify automation such as case consolidation, speed of existing assets, space and utilization of labor,” said Jeff Almond, industry manager, snack food packaging, Heat and Control.

Ishida and Heat and Control address those challenges by providing a complete system composed of the Ishida scale, bagmaker, seal checker and air fill regulator, and automatic case packer. The integrated operation feeds information forward and back and fits in legacy plants.

“We needed to create an environment where a machine operator could easily handle multiple automated lines while being extremely efficient,” Mr. Almond said. “It required machinery that works as a single unit instead of as several distinct unit operations, provides little or zero waste, is simple to operate and has a very low life cycle cost.”

Another element of Heat and Control’s system introduced this year includes the Inspira line of bagmakers. The stainless steel machines are easy to operate and maintain with an icon-based HMI.

Automated systems for baked foods do not always require robotics, but the acceptance of that technology is more widespread. Baking companies now question how to strategically employ robots, rather than asking why.

“We’re seeing people be more selective with where we apply the robot,” said Bill Kehrli, vice-president of sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging. “There’s a time and place for everything; A robot doesn’t always answer all of your problems.”

Cavanna’s robotics include a new G41 model for carton loading. The robot can pick 40 packages a minute and gently handle most products. However, hard automation like belts and other proven equipment can be faster and more efficient. New innovations in product handling on Cavanna’s Slim flowwrapper create ways to gently handle products like crackers on-edge through the wrapper’s infeed.

Meanwhile, Bosch Packaging Technology’s recent focus has centered on end-of-arm tooling for robotics and merging robots with its other technologies to boost efficiencies. The company created customized machines to feed cakes, muffins and other delicate products more gently into horizontal form/fill/seal machines. At Pack Expo in Chicago, Bosch showed the flexibility this turnkey solution offers with its entry-level wrapper, the Pack 102, and a Fanuc cooperative robot. The robot orients product for infeed, allowing the Pack 102 to pack up to 150 products per minute. Additionally, Bosch’s HMI 4.0 creates a uniform and intuitive interaction with a guided production workflow for employees.

The ability of the packaging equipment to transfer information to the rest of line improves worker productivity and increases efficiency through collaboration.

Versatility on demand

In addition to creating a constant stream of information as well as packaged goods, equipment must be able to switch between products quickly and easily. Recent advances in HMI control mean companies can do this with the push of a button.

BPA’s Spider 300v robotic case packer not only manages product at the infeed but also changes over quickly when handling different cases and pack patterns at the outfeed. The robotic case packer can simultaneously pack vertical and horizontal patterns on the same machine.

“For years, BPA has possessed the capability of offering horizontal and vertical pack patterns inside the case, which have adequately satisfied this market need,” Mr. Campbell said. “However, retailers are becoming more unpredictable when presenting product to end users and flexibility is key to making the most of the investment.”

Much of the demand for versatility is being fueled by consumer trends in smaller, single-serve portions. For products like biscuits or crackers, Mr. Kehrli said bakers are having to create new portion sizes that feature three to five pieces in a wrap. That means the packaging equipment must process more packages more quickly, but not necessarily a greater number of products. Cavanna introduced its PiCo machine that can feed a sandwich cookie into a short slug of 8 or 10 cookies on edge. Then, with an electronic changeover, it can package a pile of 6 or 8, stacked 2-by-3 or 2-by-4.

“This allows people to serve two different markets,” Mr. Kehrli said. “Some prefer slugs, some prefer piles. Changeover from one to another can be accomplished in less than two minutes.”

In secondary packaging, the demand for versatility is even more wide ranging. Mr. Kehrli explained that consumers also are looking for smaller cartons, but that some want 4-count cartons for granola bars while others still want 6-count sizes.

“It’s a huge range people are looking for today,” he said.

E-commerce also is changing the way food manufacturers organize their packaging lines. Kelly Meer, horizontal form/fill/seal product manager, Bosch, said they need to design their secondary packaging efficiently and stack more boxes on each pallet or container.

“Offering intelligent solutions that optimize the use of corrugated material means using the correct box size for each individual delivery,” Mr. Meer said.

In vertical form/fill/seal (VFFS) machines, the trend toward smaller packages also is driving innovation. Some food producers, Mr. Meer explained, require shorter production runs, frequent format changes and unprecedented flexibility in pack styles, formats and sizes. To address these needs, Bosch designed a new version of the SVE 2520 Doy Zip VFFS machine, which is adaptable to larger packaging formats.

“The compact continuous motion machine allows for a higher output of excellent quality bags, resulting in lower cost per bag and a faster R.O.I.,” Mr. Meer said. The machine produces seven of the most popular bag styles: pillow, gusseted, block bottom, corner seal, full corner, 3-sided, Doy and Doy Zip.

Automated machines that, in a small footprint, produce more packaging options are redefining how packaging lines look in bakeries.