Simplicity Often Is The Missing Ingredient In Packaging Machinery

Advanced automation is critical for high-volume production, but it can work against small and mid-sized food companies.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

As Mies van der Rohe famously said, “Less is more,” a sentiment some suppliers say is as apt for packaging machines as it is for architecture.

One category where the beauty of simplicity is playing out is sealing machines. Top-of-the-line tray sealers and rotary sealers come with features and benefits that are attractive to large manufacturers but which boost costs above what a small or mid-sized food company can comfortably afford. Superior performance is non-negotiable, but smaller firms could do without the add-ons.

“Big companies build enormous machines for the Hormels and Oscar Mayers that want to gas flush. They come with bells and whistles that drive up the price,” grouses Tom Gautreaux, executive vice president with Maxwell Chase Technologies (, an Atlanta firm specializing in active packaging. Dependable machines that consistently provide a reliable seal are more in line with packagers’ needs, he claims.

Daniel Tein, founder of Teinnovations LLC ( in Warrenville, Ill., seconds that sentiment. Multiple OEMs’ sealers can be found in many plants because manufacturers are dissatisfied with their performance, Tein asserts. “They’re just not built as robust as needed when you’re monkeying with changeovers every day,” resulting in breakdowns, he says.

Gautreaux’s firm primarily supplies trays with chlorine dioxide release cells to kill bacteria and spoilage organisms in fresh-cut produce packages. That led to customer requests for stripped-down tray sealers that could consistently produce a tight seal even in the presence of liquid or contaminants on the tray.

Maxwell Chase’s solution was an oversized 6-in. air cylinder that can flatten out and seal around any contaminants on the plate. A rubber gasket below the seal plate improves the consistency of the seal.

More recently, the company engaged with Atlantic Capes Fisheries Inc., New Bedford, Mass., to come up with a packaging solution for sea scallops. After a year’s development, the Blue Seawell tray was introduced at this year’s Boston seafood show.

Scallops typically are distributed in buckets to foodservice and retail customers, according to Bob Fitzsimmons, Atlantic Capes’ regional sales manager. Perishability limits fresh distribution, requiring air shipment unless the scallops are frozen.

Soaker pads in the Blue Seawell tray’s 12 wells not only remove purge, they provide antimicrobial protection that protects against fishy odors for 10 days, doubling the scallops’ shelf life. Atlantic Capes coupled the packaging solution with Maxwell Chase’s tray sealers, which range from manually fed units to automated machines that seal 36-38 trays per minute.

Tray-sealer sales are a sideline at Teinnovations. Much of the firm’s work involves resolving packaging issues at small and mid-sized food companies. Sealing machines stand out as chronic problems, Tein observes, with seal failures as high as 25 percent when the firm steps in. Simple fixes like metal guides that ensure proper alignment of heater plates have helped manufacturers eliminate 30-min. changeovers “that people think are a necessary evil,” he says.

Bigger bells, louder whistles

Murray Leighton, technical manager for Zip-Pak Systems (, the in-house equipment division of Carol Stream, Ill.-based Zip-Pak, takes umbrage at any suggestion that the company would manufacture stripped-down versions of its zipper-application machines.

“We don’t sell cheap machines,” he thunders. “We’re a zipper company that sells machinery, not a machinery company that sells zippers.”

Reliability, precision and robustness are what food companies demand, he asserts. Uptime performance is becoming a critical requirement as Zip-Pak expands its network of applicators into the developing world, where harsh environments and less-than-optimal facilities are more common.

Zip-Pak typically works with OEMs of vertical and horizontal form/fill/seal machines, horizontal flow wrappers and thermoform machines to integrate the resealable closure module with the bigger machine. As those manufacturers try to reduce changeovers and other production disruptions, Zip-Pak has had to more closely integrate its machines to work seamlessly with splicers and other related equipment.

“They want the machine to run reliably day after day, and they tend to get the whistles and bells as a side benefit,” says Leighton. Remote condition monitoring and “electronics that bolt onto their machines” exemplify the necessary technological advancements.

Precision and reliability informed development of a blowmolding system called SteadyEdge from Sidel (, the liquid packaging division of Tetra Laval Group. The system enables production of PET containers with flat, oval and rectangular bases instead of conventional curved bases. Just as Zip-Pak can retrofit existing machines for newer resealable closures, SteadyEdge can be incorporated into Sidel’s SBO Universal and Matrix blowmolding machines.

Eye-catching shapes with more flat surfaces for brand communication are a marketing advantage, but they require a preferential heating (PH) process. To execute PH, packaging engineers created the base overstroke system (BOSS), which moves a mold up and down during bottle-forming, independent of the opening and closing of the half shells of the mould.

“BOSS is a piston activated in the blowing phase to stroke the base,” explains Jose Andre, Sidel’s technical sales manager. “BOSS provides flexible and versatile production with the option to quickly implement mold changeovers and ensure maximum production and higher bottle quality.”

The resulting containers have a larger standing ring at the base, making them more stable to accommodate higher throughput. Blowing pressures are lower, resulting in up to 20 percent less energy use, and containers can be lightweighted to 20g from 22g.

A more visible sign of increased technological sophistication is the incorporation of more robotics in packaging halls. Cartesian and delta-style robots are most commonly used, but Nigel Smith was able to demonstrate to Finland-based Orfer Oy that a four-axis SCARA robot was a better solution for its robotic casepacker machine.

“The beauty of the four-axis SCARA robot is that it accurately placed packages into cases, while the delta threw them into the box,” says Smith, CEO of TM Robotics Inc. (, an England-based distributor of Kawasaki robots with offices in Elk Grove Village, Ill.

A minimal footprint was a design criterion for Orfer’s machine, which features an automatic infeed for case flats and a box former. The system is approximately 6 ft. tall and 7x7½ ft. in length and width. Suspended from a beam, the vision-guided SCARA’s 2 ft. 2 in. reach was fast enough to pick and place up to 40 packages per minute.

“That’s about the reach of a human,” Smith points out, “and the smaller the robot, the quicker the cycle time.”

Robotic applications are expected to expand significantly in North America, which lags Europe manufacturing. European industry relies more on automation to reduce labor costs. On the other hand, Tesla Inc. recently replaced many of the robots in its Fremont, Calif., plant with humans after the robots struggled to complete some tasks and only achieved 10 percent of the production goal of Model 3 electric cars in 2017’s fourth quarter.

“There are some jobs you just wouldn’t want a robot to do, such as inspections,” Smith concedes. “The brain is a wonderful machine. Sometimes you look at the application and say, ‘That job is best done by the human workforce.’”

The same is true of packaging machines: Sometimes, simple is better … sometimes not.