Food manufacturers and processors face many challenges. Retailers have very high expectations for the quality of food that they sell; consumers too are becoming more and more sophisticated in their tastes and equally demanding in their quality expectations, while the growth in social media platforms has given them a much louder voice and plenty of opportunities to share any dissatisfaction with others.
At the same time, competition in many markets is extremely fierce with brands vying for space on retail shelves. Products that do not sell can be quickly delisted, so creating a premium image and an attractive appearance on shelf are vital—anything less than a perfectlypresented product and pack can deter consumers and affect sales.
High levels of competition, coupled with the increasing sophistication of consumer tastes, means manufacturers need to constantly come up with new product ideas, which can then involve the need for different pack formats. And with many companies producing for own-label retail as well as their own brands, this means production runs are becoming shorter and changeovers more frequent.
Competition also inevitably puts pressure on prices. It is not easy for most businesses to have any influence over raw material costs so their focus has to be on controlling the cost of their own operations and achieving the best they can from both their employees and their equipment.
Efficiency A Key
All these factors have put increasing pressure on food companies to maximise throughput and efficiencies. Today there is a great deal of focus on line performance and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Much has been written about the best way to calculate OEE but most commentators agree that the overall principle involves three main criteria: availability, performance and quality.
Getting these correct is a major step to minimising costs and maximising profitability. And one of the most important elements in delivering all these is that packing lines work seamlessly, with interfaces between different machines being almost unnoticeable and stringent attention to detail at every stage of the operation.
The challenge is that, for the majority of packing lines, equipment may come from a variety of suppliers. As a result, the process of getting a product into a pack will involve a number of different systems.
The danger of this approach is that it can lead to too many contact arrangements and too little directly accepted responsibility. Put simply, if a line is not working as expected or develops a fault, it is all too easy for different suppliers to blame each other’s equipment for the problems. There is no one with the overall responsibility for the entire installation and therefore for putting it right.
Just as important are the implications of trying to combine all these different machines. It is not simply a case of linking them together and expecting them to perform at their best. Even if a company purchases top-of-the-range models throughout the line, the process of combining them can inevitably result in a loss of efficiency. If all machines are operating at around 95 percent efficiency, just the act of putting them together will lead to significantly reduced overall line efficiency.
Another barrier to complete line integration and optimisation has been the widely differing steps and skills needed to achieve a packaged product that looks good, is perfectly sealed and labelled and can deliver or exceed the specified shelf-life. In the past, it was almost impossible to find such wide ranging levels of expertise within just one company.
Moving Towards A Single Comprehensive Line
These are issues that the packaging machinery industry has been addressing in recent years, which has led to the introduction and growth in project management services. This approach means that one company takes the entire responsibility for the installation and commissioning of the packing lines.
Working with the customer, objectives and requirements for the lines are discussed and agreed, and the supplier then tailors a solution to meet these precise needs—sourcing all the necessary equipment and supervising its installation to create a unified line, where smooth and seamless interfaces between units remove efficiency barriers and help to maximise profits.
For the food manufacturer, this has numerous benefits. In particular, one company now takes full responsibility both for the installation and upkeep of the line, and to meeting its performance and efficiency targets. This means that there is just one point of contact for any problem or issue that may arise.
There are several important factors to take into account when designing a complete packing line. With factory space often a critical consideration, lines need to be as compact as possible with minimal use of floor space. Ease of operation is also vital, with centralised control and set-up, along with faster product changeovers. Safety, hygiene and ergonomics are other areas that need to be considered.
Nevertheless, the modern packing line is becoming ever more involved and complex to meet the needs of increased flexibility, different pack formats, high speeds and efficiencies and stringent quality and hygiene standards. Products may have to be filled into bags, trays, pouches, cans or pots, just to name a few. This may involve the use of tray denesters or other pack feeding equipment, and bespoke feed and distribution systems to transfer product to the weighing system and from there to the pack. In the meat and poultry sector, grading and styling of cut ups may be required. Many lines may have to deal with different pack formats.
Integration of Systems
Effective quality inspection is vital to avoid issues such as costly recalls, retailer fines and the loss of brand reputation. X-ray systems and metal detectors will ensure that products are free of contaminants; checkweighers not only carry out an important final weight check but can also provide a wealth of valuable production feedback; seal and leak testers confirm pack integrity, and vision systems will monitor packs to ensure that labels are present, contain the right information and are correctly orientated.
And at the end of the line, robotic ‘pick-and-place’ packing systems are now available to automate this process, covering everything from filling cartons and euro-crates to automatic palletising.
It is for these reasons that many packaging equipment manufacturers are seeking to widen their product portfolio in order to be able to provide a truly single source solution for food manufacturers’ packing line requirements—so not only are they responsible for line design and installation, all the equipment is also manufactured in-house rather than some elements having to be sourced externally. Such a fully integrated, single-source approach will provide unrivalled reliability, efficiency and consistency to help food manufacturers reduce costs and maximise profits.
One obvious benefit is that all the machines have been designed with integration in mind. This ‘modular’ concept means for each bespoke designed line, individual pieces of equipment are specified which can then be seamlessly fitted together without the requirement for any modifications. This enables lines to be designed as compact as possible for a space-efficient solution that maximises return on floor space.
Sourcing equipment from the same manufacturer also means that all software is fully compatible from the start. This ensures sophisticated yet easy to use set-up and control from a single human/machine interface. It also provides advanced remote supervision and fast collection and assessment of all relevant production data.
Line Optimisation For Performance
Similarly, aspects of machine design such as hygiene and ergonomics have a unified approach, delivering a throughout-the-line approach to easy access and fast and effective cleaning. The use of common technologies from a single company that also provides full service back-up and support will also further enhance reliability and minimise cost of ownership.
In selecting the best single-source supplier, food producers should focus not just on the machines but also the level of knowledge and experience of their particular sector that the equipment manufacturer is able to demonstrate. Look for a supplier who fully understands the requirements and challenges of packing your product.
In most cases, the final solution will not be best-served by using standard machines but may require an element of tailoring of the equipment. For example, special surfaces may be required to keep the product moving through the weighing process, or to protect fragile items from damage. It should also be ensured that the supplier has the capacity to provide the necessary levels of service support and back-up once the line has been installed.
Above all, an effective two-way working partnership with the supplier should be established. This may also involve other parties, such as the film or tray supplier. Everyone should fully understand all the requirements from the outset and then meet regularly to review progress and discuss any issues. This way, potential problems can be identified at an early stage and preventative actions taken. This will help to avoid unnecessary delays and keep the project on time and on budget.
In the drive for maximum production efficiency, line optimisation plays a vital role. A single-source solution will help to ensure food manufacturers get the best levels of performance from every piece of equipment on their packing line. Fast throughput of consistently high quality packs will deliver a fast payback on investment and protect not only the image and reputation of the food manufacturer but also that of the retailer or food service provider. This provides peace of mind in the production and retail environment, a vital success factor in competitive food markets.