Need for Versatility Drives Form/Fill/Seal Innovations

Packaging equipment must be flexible to meet diverse customer needs in an ever-evolving market.

By Carolyn Schierhorn, Contributing Editor

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Albert Einstein once said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” Adaptability is also a key measure of sophistication in the form/fill/seal (FFS) arena.

The convergence of several consumer trends is driving demand for more flexible FFS machines. First, shopping patterns have changed. Today, Americans are making more frequent trips to buy groceries and often prefer smaller stores over supermarkets, warehouse club stores and mass merchants.

Second, consumers are snacking frequently rather than having three square meals, with young adult consumers, in particular, prioritizing convenience and portability. Third, Americans now have more adventurous palates and are demanding personalization in the products they consume, which has led to an explosion of quirky flavor combinations and ethnic-influenced SKUs.

What’s more, consumers seek simpler, less-processed “clean label” food products, as well as local ones, prompting many entrepreneurs to enter the market with unique creations that have limited retail distribution and are sold predominantly online. As a result, food processing companies, including contract manufacturers, face a proliferation of shorter product runs and the need for frequent equipment changeovers, and form/fill/seal machines are an ideal solution.

“Customers today, especially smaller processors, demand a versatile machine capable of producing a variety of package styles,” points out Mike McCaan, a packaging specialist with Canton, Mass.-based Reiser (www.reiser.com), a provider of packaging solutions for the meat, seafood, prepared foods and baked goods industries.

“The ability to change the machine over is really becoming more and more important to customers because of the changing market that we’re seeing today,” adds Dennis Calamusa, president/CEO of AlliedFlex Technologies Inc. (alliedflex.com), a Sarasota, Fla.-based supplier of flexible pouch packaging machinery. “You have a whole gamut of different market outlets, as opposed to the high-volume markets of the past. Now we’re starting to see niche markets come about.”

Consequently, “The days of having a dedicated machine that’s just running and running and running are over,” maintains Calamusa, whose company offers horizontal form/fill/seal (HFFS), vertical form/fill/seal (VFFS) and premade standup pouch fill/seal solutions.

Most food processors nowadays desire greater flexibility in the equipment they buy, agrees Marc Willden, vice president and general manager for VFFS system manufacturer Matrix Packaging Machinery (www.matrixpm.com), a subsidiary of Covington, Ky.-based ProMach Inc. “They don’t want to have one machine dedicated to small bags at high speeds and another machine for larger bags that might run at lower speeds,” he says. “Customers want machines that can handle a whole array of bag sizes and allow for quick changeover.”

Streamlining changeovers

Though prized for their high speeds, small footprint and relatively low cost, continuous motion VFFS machines traditionally have not been very flexible, Willden notes. Even though the same piece of equipment, because of adjustable and exchangeable parts, could potentially be used to create a variety of bag sizes and formats for a range of food processing applications — from brightly colored pillow bags of potato chips to block-bottom transparent bags of cookies — VFFS machines have historically been time-consuming to set up and change over. That’s why food processors commonly would dedicate individual VFFS machines to specific tasks.

“Once you get them running,” says Willden, “people love them. But they usually don’t want to mess with the setup once they get a machine going.” This approach is becoming less and less feasible, however.

Named for the Greek god of dreams (as well as a character in the film series The Matrix), Morpheus is the latest and most versatile VFFS machine series manufactured by Matrix. Although debuting in 2016, the continuous motion Morpheus series has undergone significant upgrades over the past two years. One major improvement, according to Willden, has been the introduction of the AutoPro fully automated changeover system, which minimizes the need for operators to make adjustments between runs.

“Rather than having to do a lot of manual adjustments when you go from one job to the next, this [fine-tuning] is now automated,” Willden explains, noting that AutoPro automates adjustments as fine as .025 mm (.001 inches) on each of nine mechanical axes. The automation feature not only speeds up changeovers, but also increases accuracy, helping to prevent the scrap that can accumulate quickly whenever an operator makes even a slight mistake in setup.

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