Product differentiation often means a change in packaging, and that can be particularly challenging for snack-food manufacturers trying to strike a balance between throughput demands and optimal flexibility.
Inventure Foods is a case in point. “Gentler product handling, faster changeovers and efficient sanitation by design” are factors that temper the need for higher throughput, suggested Brian Foster, former senior vice president of operations at the Phoenix-based company.
Surging sales of kettle chips prompted the firm to update production and packaging systems at Inventure’s Goodyear, Ariz., facility a few years ago. But given public interest in new flavor varieties, a continuous motion, twin-jaw bag former was deemed to be too much volume, too little flexibility. Instead, a single-jaw, continuous motion bagmaker with a sweet spot in the 100-120 bags per minute range was installed, providing a cost-effective solution in a production environment marked by multiple changeovers.
As with other equipment categories, snack-packaging machines are benefiting from advanced controls that keep complexity under the hood. Packaging materials and the product itself usually change throughout the production day, and the goal is to minimize the number of decisions the operator must make.
When a glitch occurs in the electronics, the fix may be beyond the capabilities of plant personnel, and OEMs are beginning to offer tablet-based diagnostic tools for remote monitoring.
Inventure’s Goodyear installation included an on-machine seasoning (OMS) system, Heat and Control Inc.’s alternative to the traditional in-kitchen tumble drums used to season potato chips. Instead of seasoning the product before it leaves the fryer area, product is conveyed directly to packaging, where proportional delivery to seasoning drums adjacent to weigh scales results in more consistent application without the seasoning loss that occurs when it is applied in the kitchen.
The heart of OMS is the Revolution Gate, Heat and Control’s proportional delivery system that replaces conventional slide gates. Instead of delivering a single product type to multiple vertical form/fill/seal machines, OMS enables a snack manufacturer to simultaneously produce as many seasoned varieties as the number of f/f/s machines.
OMS was included in a new line commissioned in June 2013 at the Snyder’s-Lance chip plant in Charlotte, N.C. Compared to the kitchen seasoners and slide-gate delivery to weigh scales, the system resulted in “smoother transition points and less stress on the product,” according to Andy Blackburn, assistant plant manager. With the old line, inconsistent seasoning accounted for the majority of consumer complaints. The new system cut those complaints in half.
OMS requires tight integration with the weigh scales, and Hayward, Calif.-based Heat and Control’s partnership with Ishida facilitated seamless controls integration, notes Jeff Almond, snack food industry manager. That collaboration is the key to “variable speed packaging,” his term for ensuring packaging activities are closely coordinated so that upstream production never is interrupted by downstream disruptions, such as machine failures and film changeovers.
In theory, packaging machines ramp up and slow down, depending on throughput on the other machines. It requires a different mindset by manufacturers: instead of running f/f/s operations at the highest possible rate, the set point leaves room to ramp up as needed to match fryer throughput. In this scenario, flexibility trumps speeds.
Multiple bag styles
Product diversity is exploding in salty snacks, with new flavors and different frying methods being introduced. To cater to healthier eating trends, some manufacturers install centrifuges to spin off oil as chips exit the fryers, a step highlighted in package call-outs proclaiming “40 percent less fat.” Some processors are using oils without trans fats, while a small number continue to fry with lard.
“Consumers have different tastes, and snack food manufacturers are pretty creative in coming up with new flavors to serve different niches,” Almond observes.
Differentiation also is sought through packaging, and OEMs are responding with components that allow vertical f/f/s machines to transition from pillow packs to stand-up pouches such as doy bags and quad packs. Engineers at HayssenSandiacre, the Barry Wehmiller division with operations in Greenville, S.C., and Nottingham, U.K., designed a cassette unit that lets vertical f/f/s machines form those styles, with pillow packs as the default package.
“Our philosophy is to make machines modular, and the degree of modularity is evolving,” says technology director Jim Gorden. Introduced in 2008, the cassette concept has since been extended to horizontal flow wrappers.
Machine features like the cassette add complexity, and HayssenSandiacre counteracts that with a “QFD approach,” shorthand for quality, function and deployment, Gordon explains. The firm’s approach to value engineering requires design teams to reduce the overall number of machine parts when new functionality is added. Fewer parts mean faster assembly, easier access for maintenance and cleaning, and lower overall cost.
Four OEMs have been consolidated under the HayssenSandiacre umbrella since 2006, and the creation of additional engineering positions has given the organization a deep technical bench. Gordon estimates there are 45 individuals involved in mechanical CAD work alone.
Modularity means designing “a platform on which you can retrofit,” he adds, and that has resulted in “the future-proof bagger.” Manufacturers may not specify a machine that can form quad packs as well as pillow packs, but they can specify that the electronic circuitry for the quad pack cassette be built into the controls panel. If multiple bag styles are desired later, the component can be retrofitted, “and you can be back in production within hours instead of weeks,” says Gordon.
Heat and Control also is responding to snack packagers’ requests for multi-bag capabilities. The firm provides kits that allow manufacturers to retrofit f/f/s machines to produce flat bottom bags with gable tops, gusseted bags and four-corner sealed bags, as well as pillow packs. Premium products demand distinct packages to distinguish themselves, Almond points out. Sanitary design is addressed with interchangeable weigh buckets to simplify cleaning. Buckets can be removed and placed on a wash rack that rolls into industrial dishwashers.
Impulse sales can be as big an opportunity as new flavors. Almond notes an uptick in demand for equipment that can create ready-to-hang strips of bagged snacks. Cracker Jack was a ground breaker in placing a string of single-serve packages at the point of sale, and others are following suit.
Instead of attaching bags to the strip with wire clips, Heat and Control offers two versions of a strip-pack applicator: bags weighing up to 100g/3.5 oz. are fed into the machine and attached to the strip. A perforation allows buyers to remove a single bag without damaging the other bags.
Innovation is evident in the flavor varieties and look of snack products. Equipment suppliers are developing components and systems to support future innovation.