Faster, better, cheaper is the packaging machine mantra, and advances in form/fill/seal equipment reflect those objectives. To satisfy them, machine builders are making improvements to meet the needs of particular food manufacturing segments.
Economics drive form/fill/seal: forming a bag or pouch on the fly from rollstock is more cost-effective than filling preformed packages. The format's downside is slower speed compared to rotary fillers, making it tough to compete in the single-serve arena. The wild card for form/fill/seal is seal integrity, and improvements in that area require advances in both machine and film performance.
Foodservice is one of the sweet spots for form/fill/seal. Sealed Air's Cryovac division is taking aim at the No. 10 can with films engineered for Onpack 3002, a vertical form/fill/seal unit with advanced sealing technology from Orihiro Co. Ltd., its machine partner.
"To capture all of the machine's upside, we had to push the sealing materials to new performance standards," explains John Gaston, director-marketing for fluid packaging-North America at Duncan, S.C.-based Cryovac. "We have parity around certain products now in fill speed" compared to can seamers, and improved product quality and supply chain efficiencies are where the packaging delivers clear advantages, adds Gaston.
"I don't see the No. 10 going away; they are sold all over the world, and their sales continue to grow," observes Gaston. "But in certain applications, our goal is to replace them."
Those applications include new lines that produce higher-end products. Onpack 3002 uses a constant heat-sealing mechanism that delivers a high-integrity seal with a lower amount of sealing resin. The shelf life of two-plus years for liquids and pumpable foods with good color retention goes well beyond foodservice requirements and should help the business-to-business segment "manage inventories better," he says.
The machine also features the first application of the supplier's Packformance Insight, a software program that addresses the food industry's track and trace needs for real-time data capture and communication. "We call it a smart machine," says Gaston, "a machine with the capability to read RFID tags, capture traceability data, and shoot it anywhere for viewing on a smart phone. It takes the human element out of capturing data."
Flexible packages formed at the filler have owned some food categories for decades. One example is bacon. And although horizontal form/fill/seal of pork bellies is nothing new, a sea change is occurring in the category.
Curwood is the dominant film supplier, a position it established with a simple strategy: Buy your packaging materials from us, and we'll throw in the machine for free. That strategy no longer is in play, and the older vacuum packaging machines it provided are gradually fading away, presenting an opportunity for other equipment suppliers.
Robert Reiser & Co., Canton, Mass., seized on the opportunity to engineer a new high-speed machine for retail bacon. Built on a stock sanitary frame from Reiser's German partner Repak, the system has been modified to meet the high throughput requirements of the American market and to meet the product flows and space constraints that U.S. processors face, according to Mike McCann, the packaging specialist overseeing Reiser's system.
The goal was to design a machine with simplified mechanical motion and package enhancements to extend shelf life and lower packaging costs, while also enabling processors to upgrade the appearance of their products, says McCann. The new system also allows the use of E-Z peel film.
At most of the 160-odd U.S. retail-bacon lines running, sliced bacon arrives single file at the form/fill/seal machine, he says. Rather than complicate the machine and add cost, Reiser stuck with that presentation format while speeding up the sealing process and adding "a revolutionary bottom registration system" for the film, says McCann.
The precision of the registration system allows manufacturers to preprint graphics on the film and eliminate the carrier board that typically is used. Other registration systems are available, he concedes, but they require slower operating speed. "The new slicers produce 60 1-lb. units a minute, and we can more than handle that," he says.
Advanced controls from Omron keep everything in sync. Electric drives with inverters are used instead of servos to hold down cost. "An AC motor is easy to troubleshoot," says McCann. "With a servo, the solution usually is to replace the motor."
Remote diagnostics are enabled through Skype and simple components are "readily available at Best Buy," he adds, preempting the need for more complicated alternatives, such as helmet-mounted cameras and PCs carried in a backpack.
Better seals, fewer leaks
The sealing system, which McCann describes as "a cross between vacuum and skin pack," may be the bacon system's most important advancement. The machine trims the film to the flange-seal area, resulting in a cleaner look and no wrinkles, where purge typically migrates and nurtures microbial growth. Shelf life extension on a package that typically enjoys three months refrigerated life is less important than the package-integrity improvement.