Food manufacturers are under pressure to balance multiple challenges in how they package their products to remain competitive in a world with so many product choices. According to The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI), the food packaging machinery could grow by approximately 14% from 2014 to 2019.
A key reason for this growth is a phenomenon known as ‘SKU proliferation’. SKU or stock keeping unit refers to a distinct item for sale at the retailer level. The number of distinct items for sale, or SKUs, has grown dramatically in recent years.
North American retailers are leveraging their significant purchasing power to demand packaging that appeals to consumers and decreases storage space and distribution costs. Another factor is the growth of private-label food products, which has spurred manufacturers further to differentiate their products by modifying content, packaging and portion sizes. Consumers also demand more variety of product proportions and variants. They also want packaging that is considered environmentally sustainable, in terms of its ability to be recycled and by minimising the amount of packaging material required. These factors drive the need for an upgraded or new machinery.
Boosting flexible processes
Considering the rise in SKUs of food and beverage products, it’s not surprising that food manufacturers also want packaging machinery that they can easily modify to package different SKUs on the same line. As per Glen Long, Senior Vice President, PMMI, “Many end users now want modular machines that can be readily adjusted to handle multiple tasks, which prevents them from having to buy a whole new machine for every new product.”
At the basic level, OEMs should employ pneumatically driven systems to automate packaging machinery adjustments that previously were performed manually, thereby, improving changeover time. Even pneumatic components themselves can be selected because of their ability to be easily adjusted or indexed for different applications.
To help provide this capability, OEMs have a number of tools at their disposal. When it comes to pneumatically driven equipment, OEMs can select and configure pneumatic cylinders to serve as variable position systems. This allows a single process design to accommodate different packaging configurations. The end user has the ability to change start and stop points either electronically or manually via indexed cylinder adjustments. Incorporating modularity, by way of ‘plug-and-play’ components and assemblies, is another way with which OEMs can build more flexibility into their packaging machinery.
Automating processes and adding speed
End users increasingly expect OEMs to both design and install their packaging machinery faster. They also expect that the ongoing maintenance required for these new systems will be less time-intensive as well. Additionally, end users expect their equipment to perform reliably and be more productive in terms of increased throughputs. The focus on speed also remains clear, even as end users work to add new product variations to the mix. Fortunately, for OEMs, there are a number of ways to provide this added speed. Three major approaches are streamlining overall system development, speeding up install time, and automating more tasks to achieve increased throughput.
Design and installation speed
End users are increasingly interested in how fast OEMs can design and install their packaging machinery. They also expect OEMs to provide equipment that doesn’t slow them down when it comes to service, replacements and maintenance.
To address these concerns, OEMs can cover a lot of ground by incorporating modular components that can be configured in unlimited ways to serve a variety of applications. The equipment vendor’s ability to design, prototype and validate assemblies also shorten the design cycle, leading to faster implementation overall. Washdown speed is another area where OEMs can help end users save time, because cleaning time during changeovers is one of the most timeintensive aspects of the changeover process. A further speed consideration that offers significant impact is partnering with suppliers that offer strong and broad global distribution networks.
The automation of a process that used to be done manually is one of the top reasons for US food manufacturers to invest in new equipment. Particularly helpful equipment investments here center on systems that handle flexible packaging as well as secondary packaging processes.
Some of the specific packaging functions where OEMs will find opportunities to automate manual tasks include multi-single use packaging, such as for meats and poultry, carton erecting and palletizing systems.
When it comes to increasing throughputs by speeding up a process that has already been automated, OEMs should consider specific pneumatic refinements to boost packaging speeds. Non-traditional valve-actuator combinations may be another way to increase processing speeds. OEMs should consider using decentralised, distributed valve-actuator combinations located at the points of use, as opposed to centralised multiple-valve manifold configurations.
Sustainable packaging machinery
End users continue to seek packaging process machinery that promotes sustainability, both in terms of the packaging material itself and by way of the equipment they install. Besides, food companies also are working to reduce packaging weights and reduce waste of packaging materials.
Pneumatically-driven components are vital in this area, allowing for upgrades of older pneumatically-driven machines built for rigid or heavier packaging materials. By upgrading these lines to handle lighter or more flexible materials, equipment costs can be reduced in comparison to wide-scale replacement, while, at the same time, filling the end user’s demand for more sustainable packaging options.
More compact equipment designs also greatly promote sustainability, because they translate to reduced surface area, which leads to reduced use of cleaning agents, water and the energy needed for washdowns. Equipment solutions that naturally lead to more compact design, include tubing and hoses constructed of materials that provide a tighter bend radius, allowing OEMs to design greater utility in less space.
Lower cost machinery and design
Packaging machinery companies continue to place a high value on engineering maximum performance into their designs, but they’re often forced to compromise some performance during the negotiation phase.
According to PMMI, competition for new equipment sales in the US often comes from machinery providers who can offer food companies lower cost equipment, but in many cases, this lower cost comes with higher risk in terms of postsales service and support.
This means OEMs committed to building loyalty and trust with end users should find ways to help them manage their costs and prevent the loss of performance at the same time.
An example of this value strategy is incorporating longlife, premium quality cylinders into pneumatic machinery. Low-cost cylinders are notorious sources of failures and downtime, which end up increasing maintenance costs as well as downtime over the long run. Using dependable, highperformance cylinders then becomes a lower cost, higher value proposition.
The strategy of compact equipment design will also help control costs, because it allows OEMs to maximise their use of space. Packaging machinery designed to fit within an end user’s existing space constraints eliminates the need for renovation or new construction, which may be costprohibitive. Selecting modular components such as pneumatic cylinders, valve systems and connectors is a key tactic, leading to more efficient space utilisation through greater design flexibility in constricted spaces.
Another innovative cost-cutting measure, which some OEMs might not have considered, is harnessing efficiencies simply by reducing the number of vendors they work with. Two immediately apparent benefits relate to purchasing and warranties. By narrowing the field of suppliers, OEMs can issue fewer purchase orders, which in itself costs both time and money. They also may be able to secure better overall warranty coverage on their builds, based on the premise that equipment suppliers are more likely to stand behind systems and assemblies that use only their parts and assemblies.
Ensuring food safety
There is an intense focus on traceability called FSMA in the US. This group of regulations requires food manufacturing companies to document their work at all steps in the process to protect consumers. OEMs are being called to help automate the traceability process surrounding such issues as identifying the individuals that performed certain processes. They could help automate this sort of documentation with components like modular-style solenoid valve systems designed for integration with advanced HMI and PLC systems that require user registration and login.
Two other food safety concerns for OEMs and end users are the drives to prevent contamination and to enhance food freshness. OEMs can help end users on both counts by maximising designs for both hygienic standards and for product preservation. When it comes to hygienic design, OEMs must continue to select FDA-and CFR-compliant components constructed of materials that stand up to both harsh washdown procedures and high operating temperatures. Component design also must come into play.
Leaching and corrosion are additional concerns that are addressed by components. Hoses and tubing used for food and beverage transfer should be selected based on their ability to stand up to harsh chemicals without corroding or leaching chemicals into products. Food-contact-grade fluoropolymer and thermoplastic tubing answers this call in many food and beverage applications, and is available in various grades each offering specific attributes, such as increased clarity, long lengths and increased strength.Specially treated antimicrobial tubing can be employed for its ability to resist cracking and degradation from mildew, algae, fungi and biofilm.
Stainless steel, FDA-compliant push-to-connect fittings are ideal for use in food packaging applications, because they withstand corrosive chemicals, while offering a smooth, easy-to-clean external design that is less likely to harbour buildups.
Improving packaging operations
The use of lead-free fittings, connectors and valves is another innovation opportunity for OEMs, who should make use of fittings, connectors, valves, and cartridges that, in addition to being NSF- and FDA-approved, also conform to the latest lead-free standard required by the Safe Drinking Water Act. In some cases, OEMs can also incorporate pneumatic system fittings that conform to this lead-free standard.
Even the compressed air that powers food packaging operations is increasingly under scrutiny because of the risks of contamination it poses. OEMs can minimise this risk by partnering with equipment vendors offering comprehensive and modular air drying and filtration systems, along with air quality maintenance and monitoring programs, designed to meet the ISO 8573 standard, defining compressed air quality for food and beverage packaging operations.
A related opportunity area is making use of these same compressed air systems to cost-effectively generate modified atmosphere packaging (MAP), which eliminates the need for specialised tanks and removes price variability of gases such as nitrogen. MAP improves food quality by eliminating oxygen, moisture and other contaminants within packages and extends product shelf life. ☐
Article authored by Ted Moyer ,Global Platform Manager, Fluid Connectors Group Parker Hannifin Corporation