Advice to Food Processing Suppliers: Adapt to stay innovative in the marketplace

Tom Egan, vice president, industry services, Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute, discusses key challenges and opportunities for suppliers.

By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor

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FP: Have end users changed their approach in addressing processing and packaging on the line?

TE: The line that divides the processing and packaging operations has increasingly blurred over the past few years. End-users are taking a more ‘big picture' approach to new product introductions. Rather than saying, ‘I need to flavor this product while it's still being cooked, put it into this container while it's hot, cool the container and put it into a six pack,' they are saying, ‘I want to introduce product X to the marketplace as a club pack and with these characteristics and ingredients.' The major difference is that the latter approach doesn't distinguish each step in the process. When you have to get new products out as fast as today's consumers are demanding them, there's no time to make those distinctions. End users have to bring their suppliers in –for both the processing and packaging steps –during the early stages of product development to not only ensure their idea is feasible, but to make sure it is manufactured as efficiently as possible

This integrated approach for consumer products prompted PMMI to integrate processing technologies into the Pack Expo shows. The Processing Zone, which was introduced in 2010, will be featured for the first time in Las Vegas this September. Recognizing that the processing and packaging teams are increasingly working together, we wanted a forum where manufacturers could find whole-line solutions.

During a past show, four PMMI members united in a single booth to clearly demonstrate that their technologies could work together seamlessly. Their approach was: When you need to package a product, we have a coding solution, a product handling solution, a filling solution, and a cartoning solution. So spend a few minutes talking to us about what you are trying to achieve, and we can present an integrated solution to make that happen.

FP: How does the total systems approach impact the purchasing process?

TE: As purchasing teams seek more complete solutions to their manufacturing challenges, they are adjusting their manner of working with their suppliers. They are bringing suppliers into the product development process earlier than ever before, as several of our members can attest to. In some cases, end-users are calling them in to discuss how making a small change can impact how a piece of equipment handles the product or how much the end-user can save in terms of material usage. Suddenly, that small change has led to major cost savings, higher speeds or increased output, all of which positively impacts the whole line.

Things are moving faster today; there's so much more data and information available to help CPGs enhance their operations. Many will recall when packaging and processing lines could be left unchanged for two weeks -- all you had to worry about was one SKU. Now, it's not uncommon to talk about a packaging line that is set up once, twice a day –even four or five times each day. Companies need to adapt; to do that, they need to work fast.

FP: What are the toughest challenges for your members?

TE: End-users always require more flexibility to accommodate faster changeover and more product or packaging types. Additionally, equipment needs to hit the ROI targets of end-users more quickly. End-users expect certain rates of return, and those hurdle rates in their business must be met to have a successful project. It's a challenge, not because we can't do it, but because what one customer needs is very different from another. The ultimate need is to make the line as individualized and specific as possible for one customer, and be able to make a change when the next customer comes in.

FP: What opportunities do you see for processing equipment manufacturers?

TE: Rapid changes in consumer demand and the end-user need for flexibility will also continue to impact the makers of processing equipment. What we see in the marketplace today could be drastically different in 18 months. Our members on the processing side are trying to adapt quickly.

This is one of the discussions we want to encourage at Pack Expo Las Vegas. A little knowledge can go a long way. The more open brand owners become to innovative solutions – from both inside and outside their market segment – the more likely they'll find the solutions that will help them adapt to the changing marketplace.

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