The end of 2019 brings the end of a decade of massive transition in packaging. Sustainable, sanitary and automated technologies have advanced and multiplied, and the next 10 years will look very different.

While consumers demand more portion-appropriate serving sizes and convenient reclosable packages, they also are cognizant of the damage plastic increasingly has on the environment … so much so that new forms of packaging are being created. First announced in January, Loop, a circular shopping system emulating the traditional milkman model, enables consumers to use products from partnered consumer brands in customized, brand-specific durable packaging delivered in a specially designed reusable shipping tote. When finished with the product, the packaging is collected, cleaned and reused, creating the circular system and eliminating packaging waste.

These types of alternative packaging systems are not yet widely accepted, but by the end of the 2020s, they could be. Online shopping, food subscription services and click-and-collect models are all changing the packaging landscape. So how can bakers and snack producers keep up? The past year offered some solutions.

Flexible automation

At the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE) and Pack Expo in September 2019, several companies showcased flexible packaging systems designed to handle multiple products and pack various styles of cartons and bags. Josua Schwab, product manager, Bosch Packaging Systems, said versatility is critical when feeding flowwrappers and top-loading cartons.

“Flexibility means short changeover times, short cleaning times and the ability to run several products in several packaging configurations,” he said.

To increase efficiency and reduce rejected products, Bosch automated the splicing process. At high speed, the film roll is spliced during production. Mr. Schwab said this reduces downtime and makes it easy to switch to more sustainable materials and be ready for the future.

Cavanna Packaging

Stewart Systems, a Middleby Bakery company, introduced the Stewart MAP-Pak20 which, Mike Scouten, vice-president of sales and marketing at Middleby Bakery, said provides a bulk-pack format for quick-service restaurant (Q.S.R.) buns in a modified atmosphere package. This allows bakers to produce buns not only for retail but also the growing Q.S.R. and food service market. Additionally, Stewart Systems rolled out a P1200 model of its Pillo Pack automated sealer that can increase throughput without expanding the footprint on a packaging line.

Recent advances in automation and robotics have made the technologies easier to install on lines because of their shrinking footprint. Suppliers also are offering new entry-level robotics to ease bakers into the idea of automating packaging. Five years ago, robotic solutions for small- to medium-size wholesale bakers wasn’t cost effective. Today, thanks to a difficult workforce environment, they can be.

“It’s all about labor availability and reliability,” said Kelly Meer, product manager at Bosch Packaging. “If our customers can find the people, they’ll pay them. But if they find them and train them, then two weeks later they get another job offer down the street that pays $1 more, they’re gone.”

To avoid this turnover, Bosch offers automated solutions like the Feed Placer Sigpack LDF. The flexible Delta robot system feeds products into flowwrappers and thermoform machines. Mr. Meer said benefits of the robot handling include the careful alignment of delicate products as well as the ability to buffer or close gaps. Robotic handling also creates new opportunities for package formats. For example, it allows the stacking and sorting of products and the preparation of multipacks.

Bosch’s Kliklok technology creates bag-in-box solutions. The software and bagger capabilities now give bakers and snack makers options to mix and match components to offer exactly what the consumer wants: personalized variety. Not only are consumers craving diversity in multipacks, but they also want user-friendly package types, either for portability or reclosability.

BluePrint Automation (BPA) showcased a modular robotic system called the Spider 300V at IBIE. The machine can pack standard RSC and HSC cases, three-sided open display cases or display trays, and it can arrange them in multiple patterns.

“It’s a multi-robot system that’s pattern forming using vision and Delta robots to rotate and group randomly oriented products into two lanes,” said Robbie Quinlin, marketing manager, BPA. “Once the patterns are formed, we’re packaging them both vertically and horizontally at the same time and on the same line using two articulated robots with custom pick tools. It can do both at the same time, but typically it would be doing one of the other in both lanes.”

Being modular, users can add robots based on need. Each robot can perform 100 cycles per minute. Mr. Quinlin added that with vision technology, two different products can be fed to the robots to offer that diversity in a multipack. Additionally, new soft-grip technology from Soft Robotics, a BPA partner, means robots can pick up delicate and sticky products without damaging them.

The demand for flexibility is partly being spurred by online retail. But e-commerce is changing more than just how people buy food. It’s changing how the food is being packaged. Bill Kehrli, vice-president of sales and marketing at Cavanna Packaging, said display packaging could be decreasing as people buy more food online. And critical is the ability to package snacks such as crackers in cost-effective ways that protect the product when it is shipped in an Amazon box.

“Display packaging has zero value to internet shoppers,” he said.

Versatile packaging systems solve that problem. Cavanna Packaging’s Tray Slug Loader loads cookies and crackers into multiple forms of packaging for specific sales channels. The numeric, multilane loader combines three different functions: fill PVC blister trays with or without a lid, fill PVC trays with or without a lid, and feed slugs directly into the bar infeed system of a flowwrapper. Those slugs and piles can then be wrapped or boxed, depending on the secondary package needs.

Packaging hardware has clearly advanced and equally so has the software.

Get smart

New software developments make running complicated automated machines simple.

At IBIE Burford Corp. launched Burford Connect for its twist tyer machines. The plug-and-play system provides preventive maintenance tools as well as interactive training features on one screen. By performing predictive maintenance, Burford Connect reduces downtime on a line, said Mitch Lindsey, technical sales, Burford Corp. Users can access interactive manuals on the screen that walk them through troubleshooting to get the machines up and running again.

“Being able to offer the manual at the machine makes it a quicker troubleshooting process and means a technician new to a line can quickly bring up the manual and fix it without having to go back to a computer or supervisor,” Mr. Lindsey said.

Formost Fuji created an HMI system that mimics a smart phone or tablet that people are now used to operating.

“We’ve gone to great lengths to make the HMI similar to a tablet,” said Dennis Gunnell, president, Formost Fuji. “It’s very easy to look at menus and to work through and step through. It’s a step-by-step process that you physically have to go through and check off.”

Mr. Gunnell said the HMI simplifies maintenance and operation, especially for younger employees.

Burford Corp.

To maintain these pieces of equipment, proper training also must be established. And packaging suppliers are increasingly looking to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) as options. Because some people learn visually and others need hands-on experience, Mr. Gunnell said the adoption of these technologies in bakeries is going to grow tremendously over the next three years to ease the burden of training new employees on site.

“The ability is there now to do that for training,” Mr. Gunnell said. “Trainers can be 500 miles away and do training with the right tools. By the next IBIE, I think that will be commonplace.”

Sights on sustainability

Consumer awareness of plastic waste in oceans is at an all-time high thanks to increasing media coverage. Packaging companies are responding by giving bakeries and snack manufacturers more sustainable, recyclable and biodegradable tools than ever. Again, though, it’s about matching the right system and approach to a given bakery and its consumer demands.

This year Kwik Lok introduced the Eco-Lok bag closure made with sustainable materials. The Eco-Lok is formulated with a plant-based biopolymer called NuPlastiQ that requires up to 20% fewer greenhouse gas emissions to produce than standard plastic bag closures.

Beyond closures, film material is a huge part of the sustainability equation. However, Mr. Kehrli said there are challenges with achieving airtight seals with many biodegradable or compostable materials.

“Whether it’s the use of a corn material or paper to create a barrier, they all seem to allow oxygen to penetrate,” he said. “In the past, we’ve used a lot of polylactide plastic in Europe, and we’re starting to see that used in the U.S.”

Polylactide, or PLA, is a biodegradeable thermoplastic polyester derived from renewable resources. These new types of materials do affect production speed and behave differently in wrappers and baggers. Cavanna offers film analyses to determine the production speed and capabilities. It also can perform vacuum checks to determine the barrier and seal quality of films to ensure protection for baked foods.

Formost Fuji also offers testing for bakers to perfect a transition to sustainable materials.

“There’s still a lot of people that just think plastic is plastic; whether or not its biodegradable, it should run on every machine at the same speed,” Mr. Gunnell said. “But it could change everything. Some customers are surprised when they learn it might not run the same speed.”

He recommended that all bakers research materials and test them before running them on their own lines.

The next decade is likely to look very different from the one past, and packaging innovations can help bakers move into the future with versatile and sustainable equipment and materials.