Packaging / Form, Fill, Seal

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

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.

Besides adding AutoPro, Matrix incorporated flexibility into the basic design of its three Morpheus machines (Standard, AB and XL), which can form and fill as many as 200 bags per minute in widths of up to 12 in. or 15 in., depending on the model. (Higher speeds are possible with smaller bag sizes.)

Claimed to be “the world’s fastest bagmaker,” delivering up to 250 bags per minute, according to the manufacturer’s website, the rotary motion VFFS Inspira series by Ishida Co. (www.ishida.com/ww/en) also boasts enhanced versatility and ease of use through a number of automatic rather than manual adjustments, including film roll centering, positioning of printer, bag air volume and nitrogen gas setting.

Compared to the manufacturer’s earlier VFFS machines, the Inspira series also offers more bag size and film reel weight options. In addition, 500 presets are available for programming “instant” product or film changes, Inspira’s U.S. distributor, Hayward, Calif.-based Heat and Control, states in a brochure on its website (www.heatandcontrol.com).

“To maximize efficiency, operators can alter a preset to bring all integrated Ishida equipment automatically into line, resulting in even faster changeovers,” Heat and Control points out.

In the HFFS realm as well, faster changeovers are coming to fruition with programmable and replicable automation of machine configuration adjustments. Robert’s Packaging, a subsidiary of Des Plaines, Ill.-based Cloud Packaging Solutions (www.cloudeg.com), for one, offers a machine platform called CloudTrac Auto Change that is now available for HFFS as well as fill/seal standup pouch applications, according to Calamusa of AlliedFlex, which distributes the equipment. The new auto-configurable, servo-driven, fully automated CloudTrac machine, which has both FFS and fill/seal modules, is capable of three-dimensional changeovers in less than 2 min., he says.

Reiser, which supplies HFFS machines made by Dutch manufacturer Repak (www.repak.nl) and German manufacturer Variovac (www.variovac.de/en), emphasizes the increasing flexibility of newer equipment models in the complex and demanding domain of meat, poultry and seafood processing.

These machines “are all capable of web-width and die-stroke variations to accommodate our customers’ specific requirements,” McCaan says. “We provide versatile tooling and cutting systems capable of economical, fast and ergonomic changeovers to go from flexible to rigid, and from vacuum to MAP [modified atmosphere packaging] to VSP [vacuum skin packaging], all on one machine platform.”

Diverse solutions

With U.S. consumers appreciating the light weight, simplicity, convenience and vivid graphics of flexible pouch packaging for more and more applications, the demand for pouch producing and filling systems continues to grow. To maximize the number of solutions it can provide customers, AlliedFlex offers 16 different HFFS machines in the H-series manufactured by Barcelona-headquartered Mespack Machinery (www.mespack.com), as well as Mespack’s new SC series for premade flat or standup pouches.

For short runs and for pouches with elaborate closures or dispensing valves, it may be sensible financially to use a premade pouch fill/seal system rather than form/fill/seal, Calamusa suggests.

To customize solutions for its own diverse clients, Matrix, in turn, distributes HFFS packaging machinery manufactured by Girona, Spain-based FLtècnics (fltecnics.com/website/eng/index.asp) and premade pouch fill/seal equipment made by Tokyo-headquartered Toyo Jidoki (toyojidoki.com/?lang=en).
“Somebody might buy a fill-and-seal machine if they’re selling a variety of products, then realize that one of their SKUs has exploded,” Willden observes. “For that particular SKU, it may make sense to dedicate a horizontal form/fill/seal machine.”

It’s no coincidence that so many FFS machines are manufactured in Europe, as opposed to the U.S. “Pretty much across-the-board in terms of packaging, Europe tends to be five to seven years ahead of us,” Willden notes. “For the past three decades I’ve been in this business, I’ve always looked to Europe to get a sense of where the market is going.”