Although risk of COVID-19 transmission through food and contact surfaces remains low, consumers are not taking any chances. In this environment of hyper caution, automation can provide another level of confidence in food safety and sanitation.

“One thing about a typical Cavanna line is that no one ever touches the food, ever,” said Bill Kehrli, vice president of sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging USA. “Since we offer high-speed automated systems, there are very few people around our lines. Our European safety standards require more safety guarding and so a lot of the time the food is encapsulated from the cooling tunnel all the way through packaging.”

Mr. Kehrli added that bakers are concerned about the simple probability of spreading COVID-19 in their facilities when there are 100 people on the production floor. The risk of exposing a greater number of people drops if automation can reduce that number by half.

“We try to redeploy people and get them away from the food,” Mr. Kehrli said.

From a consumer perspective, bakers are also looking for new ways to protect their food and keep it fresh for longer. That means more items are packed in resealable packaging, or in single-serve packs so they can be opened and eaten in one sitting. Packaging suppliers are taking several approaches to tackle this consumer demand.

Formost Fuji offers a resealable tray for muffins in addition to resealable options for cookie trays and bread bags.

“We’re putting a peelable label on the package, and then we’re scoring the material under the label,” said Dennis Gunnell, president, Formost Fuji.  “When you peel the label back, it exposes the product, and you can reclose it using a tape-type label. This can be pre-applied, or it can be done in line on the machine, in real time.”

The need for automation extends beyond primary packaging. Somic America developed the 424 case packing system for cartons, wraparound cases and retail-ready two-piece premium packages. It uses a variety of compact machine configurations and is being developed to help automate other parts of primary packaging, said Peter Fox, vice president of sales for Somic.

“Some of the primary benefits of the new Somic cereal bar cartoning system include a very compact infeed system, which provides a rate of 800 bars per minute with positive bar collation,” Mr. Fox said. “The bars will then be loaded into four trays per cycle, followed by the closing system that will close four cartons simultaneously.”

Snack manufacturers are also looking to automate their manual hand-packing lines. A-B-C Packaging offers the Model 19 packer that requires just one operator to open cases and place them on the case packing funnel. The entire machine occupies just 75-square-feet of floor space, including the infeed and takeaway conveyors.

Heat and Control also recognized the importance of floor space when designing its Ishida Inspira Bag Maker and the Ishida Case Packer. The bagmaker works at high speeds and creates consistend seal quality, while the case packer packs multiple patterns and can be changed over quickly.

“Both incorporate the latest technology so their impressive performance also comes with reduced energy and air consumption and operating noise levels and one of the industry’s smallest footprints,” said  Brian Barr, director of sales, Heat and Control.

Greater automation reduces headcounts on production floors, but it also increases the need for technical support. Pre-pandemic, bakers showed hesitancy to give suppliers remote access for network security reasons. But COVID-19 has forced a shift in this thinking, mostly because plants were not able to bring in outside help for fear of increasing risk of exposure in a facility.

“It’s certainly making a difference making sure plants and operations keep running,” said Jorge Izquierdo, vice-president of market development, PMMI, at the Pack Expo Connects virtual event earlier this year.

AMF Bakey Systems offers the web-based AMFMethod Documentation and Training Tools, which give operators access to equipment manuals, videos, animations, documentation and other interactive assessments for proper safety, maintenance and operation, remotely.

“Additionally, AMF’s customer care team offers VirtualCare solutions for real-time, mixed reality assessment and virtual training by AMF’s team of trained service technicians,” said Alain Lemieux, product group leader, AMF.

Suppliers are coming up with the new and improved ways to work remotely and virtually with customers. Formost Fuji has used HoloLens technology to do factory acceptance testing and other maintenance. Recently, the company installed a system in Canada and instructed the facility on how to use the machine using Facetime.

“These technologies are less expensive and efficient,” Mr. Gunnell said. “There’s obviously something to be said for doing it in person, but it’s the next best thing and sometimes the only solution.”

Whether through augmented reality (AR) glasses, smart phone applications or virtual reality, remote maintenance and training is becoming the new normal. BluePrint Automation (BPA) has taken a simple step to provide easy access to digital assistance.

“Similar to how restaurants have been using QR codes to replace menus, BPA has been adding QR codes to our operator interface, allowing plant personnel to access training videos at the machine,” said Jason Hogue, southeast sales manager, BPA.

To get the full benefit of these remote and web-based tools, bakeries have to be outfitted properly to support them. Often in today’s bakeries, there is still limited WiFi access on plant floors, which diminishes the access for many remote maintenance benefits.

“We’ve done some work with AR goggles,” said Ron Cardey, senior vice president, customer engagement, for Kwik Lok. “One of the limitations today is the WiFi availability on the plant floor in some bakeries. Today not every bakery has strong WiFi capability on the plant floor that would allow for their technician to have goggles on and to communicate with our engineer. The technology is coming and will continue to gain momentum.”

In the coming year, look for the accelerated rate of adoption of these technologies. The future, pandemic or not, depends on them.

This article is an excerpt from the December 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on packaging innovations, click here.