By Dan Malovany
In the end, it’s all about the impulse purchase. For dieters, cookie producers began cranking out 100-calorie packs a few years back, and in the end, everyone followed suit. Even Hostess Twinkies Bites now come in a portion-controlled package.
For the wine and cheese crowd, specialty cracker manufacturers are rolling out a number of new premium items in multi-colored, stand-up pouches. Baked snack companies, likewise, are going after the health-conscious with whole grain crisps and multigrain pretzels in resealable bags.
Like fashion designers searching for the next craze, bakers and snack producers are dressing up their products for the deli, snack aisle, convenience stores, natural food grocers, high-end retailers and every eating occasion by using a plethora of packaging formats, and they’re designing them with eye-catching graphics that jump off the shelf.
The only challenge is on the production floor where plant managers want to do all of this on one machine to streamline costs and reduce overhead.
“The trend that we see over the last 18 to 24 months involves a continued request to do different bag formats on a vertical form/fill/seal (VFFS) machine,” says Jeff Almond, industry manager of snack food packaging for Heat and Control, Hayward, Calif.
To get placed in the produce section today, for instance, croutons need to come in block-bottom bags. To get special treatment, Almond adds, these products need to offer something beyond the ordinary, or they’ll get relegated next to the bottles of salad dressings and bacon bits in the middle of the store.
“The trend that we’re spending the most time on recently is trying to do different package styles on a conventional machine,” he explains. “The reason it’s important to these companies is the investment is significant to go to a horizontal machine where you have a certain style of pouch. It’s about three times the cost of a [VFFS] machine. Anything that we can do on the vertical side to help them with their existing assets and give them different types of packages is what we are working on.”
Willing to Pay More
Although the economy has slowed, the typical U.S. consumer during the past couple of years has been willing to pay a price for custom products, many of which come in specially designed packaging, says Matt Stanford, vice president of Bettendorf Stanford, Salem, Ill.
“With so many baked goods in the market today, we find lots of small- and medium-sized bakers differentiating themselves through new portioning and packaging materials,” he says.
The constant rollout of new products and brand expansions require faster changeovers, increased machine versatility and a greater number of packaging styles, notes Michael Green, vice president of tna North America, Coppell, Texas. At the same time, he adds, bakers and snack producers are striving to reduce the cost of their operations, specifically in the price per bag area.
Moreover, he says, rising energy costs are fueling the drive toward sustainable machine design.
“The pressure for ‘more from less’ is what is challenging packaging departments,” Green says. “Reduce labor forces, reduced engineering department staffing and support, and fewer hours for operator and maintenance training are the tenants of today’s packaging operations.”
Intelligent Problem Solving
Whether they’re the challenges in maintenance, sanitation or operations, Stanford notes, companies need to find practical solutions to reoccurring problems in day-to-day operations.
“We have been able to address these concerns by using self-lubricating parts and components, by creating open designs and by providing additional services and inspection on an annual and sometimes semi-annual basis,” he says.
To lower the overall cost per bag, Green adds, the tna robag 3 combines increased versatility with high-speed packaging. Specifically, tna’s ‘kanga jaw’ technology for VFFS packaging systems can produce a variety of specialty bag formats without the need for custom-designed or dedicated systems.
“The ‘kanga jaw,’ powered by a linear servo motor, adds a vertical motion while maintaining the benefits of tna rotary jaw technology,” Green says. “This additional movement of up to 120 mm allows jaw path control so the jaws approach each other on a horizontal line and at zero relative motion to the film travel.”
One challenge involves producing the quad or four-sided seal bag on a VFFS system. Some companies have developed retrofits as well as new systems to produce these specialty bags on continuous motion machines instead of intermittent motion machines as in the past.
“What that gives us is a little more speed,” Almond says. “Before, the sacrifice you had with an intermittent motion machine is that it made a nice square bag, but you reduced the speed. We don’t get the speed that we get on pillow pouches, but we get 15% more speed than we’d get on an intermittent-motion machine.”
Specifically designed for snack foods, the Ishida Atlas-202 flexible bagmaker from Heat and Control can produce pillow, hem seal, gusseted and flat bottom bags without having to buy several dedicated systems. Single button call-up of multiple bag formats simplifies changeovers. For increased versatility, the Atlas-202 is available with automatic film splicing, banner attachment, hole punch, tear notch, perforated and zig-zag cuts and nitrogen flushing.
Marketing departments, Green notes, love the look of Quattro-seal, block-bottom bags, which can be run at faster speeds on systems like tna’s robag 3. Still, he stresses, these systems need to run pillow pouches and other packaging styles that pay the bulk of the bills.
“When you’ve run your one shift per week of these important but niche packaging formats [such as the four-seal format], you can run those reduced-pack-size bags at the blazing high speeds that a rotary double-jaw tna robag is renowned for,” Green says.
Sealing the Deals
Yakima, Wash.-based Arr-Tech’s inline bag sealer can produce up to 60 bags per minute with sizes ranging from 5 in. to 14 in and heights up to 4 in. in one motion. However, the latest update is the no-seal function, which allows the system to run almost completely trouble free, the company says.
Once the photo eye sees a product out of spec, it sends a signaler to fire the seal bars to keep them clean of foreign material and minimize sanitation. The product simply passes down the line and can be pulled off and sent to another location for packaging.
To minimize labor, Heat and Control offers the Ishida Flexible Strip-Pack system, which automatically puts bags of snacks on ready-to-display hanging strips.
“They’re putting six bags on a strip and their sales people are putting them in places where they couldn’t sell product before as an impulse by a channel like Home Depot or Lowe’s where you normally don’t sell a bag of potato chips,” Almond says. “You can hang a strip on an aisle or in a convenience store by the check-out stand where consumers can make a last-minute impulse purchase. It’s a good opportunity for customers to get new product trials in places where people look for new products.”
In the end, innovation doesn’t always have to involve something revolutionarily new.
“Nine times out of 10, our processes are not new,” Stanford says. “It is just how those processes are integrated into the machinery. As you look at the machines today, it is not a new process, but new, more reliable technologies and the integration of those technologies that allow bakers to accomplish their goals more efficiently and effectively. Our goal is to provide practical technologies, which can give them better returns on their investment.”
In other words, snack food and wholesale bakery companies need to rely on innovation and integration to develop systems that are designed to run a variety of packaging formats, but still fit the process to a T.
Editor’s Note: For more information on these companies and the latest developments in automation and technology, visit www.snackandbakery.com and check out our new online Buyer’s Guide. While you’re at it, see the new online digital edition of our magazine as well.
Photo courtesy of Arr-Tech, Inc.