Form/fill/seal (f/f/s) systems have always been an essential component of many food manufacturers’ operations. Snack producers rely on them to bag chips, crackers, bars and more, while bakers use them to package cookies, heat-and-eat bread, dessert treats, rolls and many other baked goods.

As consumer demand for single-serve products increases (think portion control and portability), these machines will likely find their way into more food-processing plants and be used to package an even greater variety and volume of products. Therefore, bakers and snack producers in the market for a f/f/s system are determining what they need and want from this type of machinery and making their requirements known to f/f/s system manufacturers.

“The features that a lot of [food] manufacturers are asking for now are greater system integration and automation to help drive down costs,” says Shayne de la Force, group marketing manager for tna, in Sydney, Australia. “By increasing the level of integration and automation between equipment, our customers are able to reduce human error, increase productivity and reduce waste through better operation and line reporting.”

The global food packaging solutions supplier introduced two additions this year to its vertical f/f/s robag Series that address these issues and more. Unveiled at Snaxpo 2012 in March, the tna robag 3ci offers throughput rates of up to 250 bags per minute and, according to the company, provides manufacturers with up to 30% improvement in performance over other systems.

Features include the new tna intelli-weigh omega multi-head scale, which incorporates such innovations as digital lattice filters, individually adjustable collating chutes for high-speed discharge and new high-frequency technology to minimize loadcell vibrations; the tna hyper-detect metal detector, which boasts the company’s patented technology and optimized design; and the tna flo-thru former, which was developed to maximize the area inside the tube for uninhibited product flow with a 30% reduction in weight.

In addition, the tna robag 3ci is completely upgradable to any combination of jaw size or configuration (rotary single, double, triple or rotary flat jaw), giving food manufacturers full flexibility of bag size, type and application on a single system. Other design highlights include a 15-in. screen for easy operation and a simplified film system that allows for easy film threading with more consistent film tension for improved film handling and tracking.

Suitable for high volumes of sweet and savory snacks, confections, cereal, pasta and powder,  the unit can be fully integrated up- and downstream onto existing packaging lines. 

Introduced at PACK EXPO in October, the tna robagFXIS 3ci Series is designed to work with polyethylene film packaging and features the world’s first rotary advanced impulse sealing system for packaging pre-wrapped candy, according to tna. The series has unique rotary jaws that deliver speeds of up to 150 bpm with consistent quality, while new Auto Connect and Unload Assist features allow for rapid former changes and, thus, greater efficiency.

As with all of the company’s offerings, the tna robagFXIS 3ci Series can be added to existing packaging lines and integrates fully with the company’s weigher, metal detectors, date coders and conveyors.

When more is less

“We developed a machine that is easy to maintain with our open-concept framework, off-the-shelf parts and local (U.S.) manufacture and service support,” says Curt Swank, product group manager, vertical and horizontal form/fill/seal equipment and film, Sharp Packaging Systems, Sussex, Wis. “All of these are high on customers’ request lists.”

Sharp’s Hawk Evolution 12, introduced at PACK EXPO 2011 in Las Vegas, is 100% manufactured and supported in the U.S. The vf/f/s machine makes pillow-style, flat-bottomed and simple gusseted bags; can cycle at speeds of up to 125 bpm; and accepts snacks, frozen food, cereals, granular products and more.

The stainless-steel unit has numerous other features that address customers’ requests for maximum uptime, high efficiency and easy operation and changeover, such as a high-speed, stepper-powered jaw and pulldown belts; a self-centering drive system; a photoeye for registered film; an encoder for clear film; and a programmable logic control (PLC) system. The Hawk Evolution 12 accepts rolls of film up to 20 in. in diameter and web widths up to 25¼ in. wide. It can integrate with scales, augers, cup fillers and other infeed devices and interfaces easily with automatic filling equipment from partner companies such as All-Fill Inc., Yamato Corp. and Weigh Right Automatic Scale Co. A variety of options are also available.

Jeff Almond, Heat and Control’s snack industry manager for packaging systems, adds lower life cycle cost and value for the investment to customers’ must-haves when purchasing f/f/s systems. In the past year, the Hayward, Calif., company has introduced two Ishida vf/f/s bagmakers specifically designed for different snack food applications and price points.   

The Ishida Atlas 233 is designed for potato chips and similar snacks packaged in the 80-120 bpm range. “[It’s] a great value proposition for products that do not need the ultra high-speed and accessories found on Ishida’s flagship Atlas model,” Almond explains. 

The Ishida Atlas 233 uses a continuous-motion, single-sealing jaw that produces tight, wrinkle-free seals and, according to the company, outperforms intermittent-motion bagmakers. It can be ordered as a standalone bagger or direct-mounted with an Ishida multi-head weigher in a single tube format or nested for twin-tube applications.

The Ishida Atlas 223 twin-jaw bag maker, Heat and Control’s second vf/f/s bagmaker introduction, features patented, continuous rotary jaws that produce perfect bags at speeds of up to 200 bpm, even when using films with thin sealant layers. Loadcell-controlled film tension and servo motor-controlled pulldown belts ensure precise film feed for consistently uniform packages. 

According to Almond, all Atlas models offer easily adjustable seal time, pressure and temperature. Ishida’s patented film-loading system requires no manual centering and includes a one-button roll lock and a vacuum splice plate for quick, simple film changes. Other features are automatic film tracking, registration and unwind controls; patented servo-controlled, pulldown belt and rotary back-seal systems; and a color touchscreen remote control.

“Flexible packaging formats are increasingly important to snack manufacturers,” explains Almond. “Heat and Control/Ishida supply upgrade kits for Atlas bagmakers to produce gusseted, block-bottom and four-side-seal (hem) bags. What makes this unique is the ability to convert back to pillow pouch efficiently and utilize all the features required for snack food packaging.”

Sanitation and flexibility

Dennis Gunnell, vice president of sales and marketing for Formost Fuji, Woodinville, Wash., cites sanitation and flexibility as two top considerations among food manufacturers when selecting f/f/s systems. “Those have always been a factor,” he says. “I just think they’re becoming more important.”

He adds, however, that flexibility is “the biggest thing for bakers right now. Everything is being micro-designed for the individual, really, and it’s like that for packaging machines. This bakery might want to run these [products], while that bakery might want to do this. They also want to be able to say, ‘Two months from now—six months from now—a year from now, I may completely change what I’m doing it, so I need flexibility.’ That’s always been the case, but I think it’s being scrutinized even more now.”

But Gunnell says that more bakers are also looking for f/f/s systems with self-diagnostic capabilities. “When they have a problem, they tell you what’s going on—give you an indication of what the problem is, where to look for it and how to fix it,” he explains.

The Fuji-Formost FW-3499Alpha VII addresses this issue very well, according to Gunnell. Shown for the first time in the U.S. at PACK EXPO in Chicago, the high-speed, horizontal f/f/s servo wrapper has a low-maintenance design; a color LCD display; consistent, repeatable wrapping; a USB port for data entry; an onscreen instruction manual and troubleshooting guide; a preventive maintenance scheduler; induction heating; and more.

Optional features include line or robotic integration, packless and cutless functions, attachless infeed, an automatic film splicer and more. Several models are available: standard, wet duty, box motion and top seal.

Gunnell says the machine also has wire film capabilities and a more advanced operator interface and control system that offers more flexibility, as well as intuitive user interface capabilities. “We’re trying to give operators and customers more capabilities and more flexibility, while still making it simpler for the operator to use,” he explains.

The Fuji-Formost FW3400CX, Formost Fuji’s second 2012 PACK EXPO introduction, is the company’s value machine. “It’s not an entry-level machine,” Gunnell says. “We took some of the best features, the frame and the design of the previous Alpha 6 model and basically made a mid-level, entry machine that has a tremendous amount of capabilities. If you don’t need all the bells and whistles that the top of the line Alpha 7 will have, this CX machine will be exactly what you want.”

The user-friendly unit has a servo motor and timing-belt drive, automatic maintenance scheduling and reminders, electronic diagnostic tools, a cantilevered frame design, stainless-steel covers and more.

While the FS3400CX is appropriate for small operations, Gunnell says it will appeal to companies of all sizes. “Some of the big bakers don’t need or want the sophistication of the top-end machine,” he says. “Pricewise, it’s very competitive and, for what you get, it’s going to be the best value out there.”

Besides sanitation and flexibility, Formost Fuji’s f/f/s systems address another issue important to today’s food manufacturers: being green. “Not only do we make machines that use less material, [they] also use less energy, are more efficient and don’t have scraps,” he explains. “You don’t run off a bunch of film onto the floor when you’re setting up. You thread your film, set the program, set a guide, hit the start button, and you’re ready to go.”

Tool-less bag formers

John Dominguez III, vice president of operations, Formers International, adds speed, ergonomics and longevity to the list of things manufacturers are looking for when purchasing f/f/s equipment. “I’m definitely seeing a bigger demand for longer life expectancy,” he says. “That’s been a trend lately.”

The Pasadena, Texas-based company manufactures bag formers for packaging machines, including the patented EZ Align bagforming assembly, its most recent introduction. The unit was developed in response to customer demand for bagforming assemblies that are easy to install and change in manufacturing plants and offer no-tool installation. It features a two-piece construction and does not require support posts or washer.

“We had a ton of customers who, for sanitation purposes, would take their formers apart and not know how to put them back together, so we wanted to make it a tool-less process that was simple and easy,” Dominguez explains. “You can take [the EZ Align] apart—it doesn’t matter how experienced you are with formers—and put it back together. There’s only one way it pieces back together.”

Dominguez adds that once a manufacturer owns one of the f/f/s machines for which Formers makes bag formers, it can replace just the bag former to change the bag size or seal configuration.

To buy or not to buy

When it comes to bakers and snack producers eeking out another year of service from their existing f/f/s systems, the equipment manufacturers participating in this article report mix findings. 

De la Force says tna hasn’t “experienced this trend of our customers ‘making do.’ They are in a very competitive environment, so where there is an opportunity to gain a competitive edge—in terms of throughput, quality or product flexibility—we generally see our customers taking the opportunity.”

“Each customer is different,” adds Almond. “Some are expanding with new lines and going after new business, while others are maximizing profits with current assets.”

Swank concurs: “Some are [making do], but others are investing in new equipment. There comes a point when you just cannot rebuild a machine because it becomes obsolete. If we continue to get government tax incentives to buy new, then companies will continue to reinvest in updating their equipment.”

“A lot of companies have made a good living by keeping things running as long as they can,” Gunnell notes. “Other companies see the value in the latest technology—let’s replace it and get something new that we can really count on. I guess it’s difficult to put a hard number on what it costs to be down and what it costs to be spending all your maintenance time on something versus spending it on a new machine that you don’t have to spend [time fixing].”

Dominguez says that some manufacturers hang onto their existing system because a lot of packaging equipment is versatile and component parts can be easily refurbished or replaced without having to replace the entire system. “[However], technological advancements will continue to lure customers to better, faster machines,” he maintains.

Buyer’s guide

Bakers and snack producers ready to heed the call of technology and invest in a new f/f/s system undoubtedly will research and compare the latest equipment on the market and solicit input from friends and colleagues in the industry. F/f/s equipment manufacturers can also be a good source of information. After all, it’s not in their best interest to sell machinery to a company that doesn’t meet its needs.

Heat and Control’s Almond suggests bakers and snack producers seek a single source for their packaging system and field support services. He adds they should also keep cost and ease of operation in mind.

Sanitation, off-the-shelf parts, uptime and cost of ownership going forward are several things Swank recommends food processors consider when buying f/f/s equipment.

Cost of ownership tops de la Force’s list, too. “At the end of the day, they are running a business and need to minimize their cost per bag,” he explains. “Therefore, a very good understanding of the cost of ownership of the equipment is critical when buying f/f/s equipment.”

For Dominguez, speed, good quality and versatility are important buying considerations.

Gunnell, on the other hand, recommends that bakers and snack producers look at a system’s history. “Look at the capabilities that are brought to the table,” he says. “Even though they’re new models, these machines are built on the frames of models that have withstood the test of time, you might say. They’re proven as industry leaders already, so we’re just taking something that’s already shown to be a very high-quality piece of machinery and making it better.”

Machinabilty, maintenance factors

Gunnell also recommends that food manufacturers look at the equipment’s design to see how it facilitates accessibility and adaptability and whether it’s operator-friendly. “Our adjustable forming box—most companies don’t offer that,” he says. “[It] allows for a great deal of changeover. With a competitive machine, you may need to change the forming box.”

A machine’s design also determines whether it will require regular maintenance and how easy it will be to service. “Fuji wrappers are designed with steel bearings, for example, so I don’t have to lube them,” he explains. “Over the years, we’ve reduced the number of moving parts that can wear out. They need to look at the design to see if it’s superior and will give them that ease of maintenance and cleaning.”

Gunnell also reiterates the importance of knowing how “green” a machine is before buying it. “We use induction heating in the fin seals, which greatly reduces energy usage and also makes the heaters much more efficient—it uses them better, and they have longer life,” he says. “It also keeps the temperature reaching the film much more stable. It’s just a win-win-win.”

To keep pace with consumers’ ever-changing dietary trends and keep their bottom line strong, bakers and snack manufacturers must make sure they have the equipment they need to safely and efficiently get their goods to market. For many companies, f/f/s systems are the key