The snack packaging landscape has shifted dramatically over the past decade. Online retail is modifying how producers target their customers. The need for shelf-ready packaging has changed how companies think about catching consumer attention in stores, and the multitude of smaller packaging options for single-serve snacks keeps growing. Snack manufacturers need packaging that can stay in-step with the rest of their versatile production lines.

According to the 2018 “Snack Foods – Packaging and Processing Market Assessment and Trends” report from PMMI, the top consumer snacking trends are better-for-you snacks, single-serve portions, resealability, flavor variety and combination snacks. The top retail packaging trends are shelf-ready packaging, stand-up pouches and lower case counts. These trends affect how snack producers should think about their packaging processes.

Joel Wiskochil, northeast regional sales manager, BluePrint Automation (BPA), is seeing tremendous movement to shelf-ready packaging. Cases must be easy to open and feature bags or wraps that stand up in a case on a shelf. The cases must also be stackable, and snack producers are now requesting lower counts per case, Mr. Wiskochil added.

“These trends have quickly evolved over the past few years, especially in the need for shelf-ready and variety packaging,” Mr. Wiskochil said. “Automation suppliers have to be quick on their feet and adapt to these new requirements.”

SNAXPO19, being held March 31 to April 2 in Orlando, will provide a venue for snack makers to investigate ways to better prepare for constant changes in the snack packaging world.

Focused on Flexibility

When it comes to packaging technology, flexibility is the No. 1 demand from consumer packaged goods companies, according to PMMI.

Snack producers are making variety packs ranging from two to seven flavors with unbalanced counts inside bags and cartons. Mr. Wiskochil said these companies are asking for capabilities like running vertical and horizontally packed products on the same machine. Requests also come in for different types of bags, from pillow to stand-up pouches to doy zip bags. And everything must come with a quick and easy changeover.

The PMMI report identified several snack manufacturer investment priorities for 2019 and beyond. One was the demand for flexible vertical form/fill/seal machines. PMMI attributed this trend to the fact that snack producers are looking for machines with smaller footprints to save space. The report also predicted a move away from bag-in-box packaging toward bag-in-bag. Food segments like cereals that were traditionally bag-in-box are already making this transition, especially for high-end products like granola varieties.

“We’re finding more and more situations where the secondary package is a bag, and we’re finding more equipment being designed to pack flexible packaging into flexible secondary packaging,” said Jorge Izquierdo, vice-president, market development, PMMI.

PMMI predicted more investment will be made in flexible case packing equipment in the next two to three years.

“There is an increased demand for portion packs, variety packs and small bag bundles,” said Jeff Almond, industry manager, snack food packaging, Heat and Control. “This is all due to consumers’ demand for convenience.”

But how can snack manufacturers adjust to the various formats without breaking the bank? By working closely with biscuit makers striving to address single-serve and family-sized packaging trends, Bosch advanced its packaging machines to deliver flexibility for pile packs.

In the past, pack configurations were often limited by the equipment. The number of crackers or cookies in a stack was determined by the number of extraction machines, according to Kelly Meer, product manager, Bosch. To make rightsizing effortless, modern flexible packaging solutions on the market enable packs with one to 28 products in one to four stacks on the same system.

The Smart Pile Loader (SPL) from Bosch can extract a variable number of products from each magazine, allowing manufacturers to select an predetermined stack count that is independent from the number of incoming lanes, providing lane flexibility. As a result, producers use fewer magazines, saving production space and achieving the same amount of biscuits per pack.

“Coupled with frequent promotions and seasonal fluctuations, the ability to change the number of products per pack easily can positively impact the bottom line,” Mr. Meer said.

Industry 4.0 is also changing the way companies manage the complex packaging lines. Smarter sensors and more connected computer systems are now able to “talk” to one another, up and down the line, to adjust production accordingly and automatically. Mr. Meer said Bosch’s modern technologies offer automatic lane balancing to compensate for variances in product supply upstream.

“Feeders can now automatically detect empty single lanes without operator interference and ‘inform’ other magazines to extract missing biscuits to complete the pack per recipe,” Mr. Meer said. “As a result, downtime is avoided, and producers can achieve consistently high product quality without product or material waste.”

Ready for robotics

For some snack producers, especially those hit by the current workforce gap, robotics are necessary to meet production demands.

BPA offers two machines that tackle the need for shelf-ready displays. The Gantry 300 is capable of both horizontal and vertical packaging up to 150 products per minute. The new high-speed Spider 300 also provides both horizontal and vertical packaging — up to 300 packages per minute and 50 cases per minute.

BPA has also invested in its variety pack technology, which is application-specific. BPA singulates a package from some form of manually loaded work-in-progress containers. The system then conveys the product into either a vision guided system or an indexing collating system. The products are then robotically picked and placed into either some form of lug (typically for mother bag loading) or directly into the packaging container (typically for cartons). These systems are also integrated with a carton former and sealer or a flowwrapper-style bag former.

BPA is also developing a new all-in-one case erecting, packing and closing system that will be available later this year. “This new development will provide snack manufacturers the ability to service different supply channels from the same packaging line,” Mr. Wiskochil said.

At SNAXPO19, Heat and Control will highlight automatic solutions such as the Inspira bagmaker. The bagmaker, according to Mr. Almond, leverages automation and becomes a key component of Heat and Control’s packaging cell, which includes scale, bagmaker, seal checker and automatic case packer.

In the snack industry, there have been some common needs for automation such as case consolidation, speed of existing assets, space and utilization of labor. “We needed to create an environment where a machine operator could easily handle multiple lines complete with automation while being extremely efficient,” Mr. Almond said.

Together with the Ishida ACP-700 automatic case packer, the complete system works together through the HMI to feed information forward and back to keep production moving and avoid bottlenecks. The machines also fit in legacy plants, providing an easy way to upgrade a line without redesigning the entire packaging area, Mr. Almond added.

However, there has been some reluctance to fully automating packaging lines. According to PMMI, many snack producers still perceive robotic technology as too expensive. Its report indicated that robotics, is gaining traction but will not be heavily invested in for another five to 10 years.

However, Mr. Almond said that the ROI that robotic and automatic machines provide is reason enough to invest sooner rather than later.

Around the corner

Snack manufacturers are adjusting to new retail frontiers like online shopping.

PMMI’s report stated that e-commerce is experiencing fast growth in the US with strong influence on packaging being confirmed by large- and medium-sized snack producers. The goal of online-ready packaging is to minimize re-packing efforts, according to PMMI. This means packaging lines must create smaller cases, lower case counts, easier-to-open cases and smaller multipacks.

“As our customers navigate the supply chain needed to meet those market demands, we are poised to supply new technology needed for efficient operations as well as the ability to leverage existing assets to meet demands,” Mr. Almond said.

Looking ahead, PMMI predicted that more flexible and faster pouch-filling, f/f/s and other machinery will be needed to accommodate the demand for single-serve snacks. BPA is focusing on more flexible automation to expand the variety pack opportunities for its customers.

“BluePrint has positioned itself well to partner with our customers to help them achieve reliable, cost-justified, flexible technology to take variety packing to the next level,” Mr. Wiskochil said.

But flexibility alone isn’t enough. Today’s packaging innovations must also have limited changeover time. “Many manufacturers see changeovers as the weakest link in their production process and are forced to stick to one pack configuration for their products,” Mr. Meer said.

To further reduce operator errors and boost uptime, new technology such as Bosch’s latest Biscuit on Pile Packaging System offers reliable and robust format changes in several dimensions. Fast changes in pack configurations, sizes or numbers of biscuits per pack means that running promotions throughout the year is easier than ever.

“The time of the one-product-per-line approach has passed,” Mr. Meer said. “Modern technologies offer easy-to-use smart technology to ensure continuous production of biscuits with future market needs at heart.” 

This article originally appeared in SNAC International's SNAC World