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On the other hand, there is room for considerable improvement, as packaging professionals point out. Asked where their company’s packaging programs fall short, one reader noted, “Waste reduction on film/plastics.” Another wrote, “Environmental impact-make it a consideration on future projects.” A third criticized his company by simply writing, “reduce waste.”
The sustainability bandwagon may be crowded, but it remains a back-burner priority. Asked to rate the importance of 10 factors when developing new packaging, respondents ranked source reduction dead last. Food safety and cost topped the list, with 86% and 76% of readers, respectively, rating them very important. By contrast, only 19% indicated source reduction was very important, less than half the proportion that rated the ninth ranked factor, product differentiation, as very important. One in 10 said source reduction is not important, double the ratio of any other factor.
Sustainability steps-specifically recycling, material recovery and source reduction-didn’t fare much better in another question. Asked to rate 24 packaging issues and their impact on business operations in the next two years, food professionals ranked sustainability 14th, just behind club-store demands. Though a mediocre rating, it’s consistent: Five years ago, environmental concerns such as recycling, material recovery and source reduction ranked 13th out of 17 factors in the 2002 Packaging Trends Survey.
The case for 'botsPackaging sustainability efforts may not be generating much enthusiasm, but the same can’t be said of robotics. Robotic machines were the most frequently mentioned development in an open-ended question regarding noteworthy packaging technology. Robots also cropped up in responses to packaging-line wish lists, with some commenting on the technology’s potential to lower operating costs.Palletizing continues to be the most frequent packaging function for articulated arm robots, with two-thirds of respondents saying their companies make use of robotic palletizers, up from 64% last year. Case packing and carton forming are other strong applications.Robotic depalletizing is being done at 17% of readers’ plants, triple the rate from a year ago. Vision systems and advanced controls that can deal with the variability of incoming pallets of raw materials and supplies are aiding this rapid growth. The technology also is demonstrating its diversity. Only 5% of 2006’s respondents said they were using robots in applications outside of the four listed; this year, 12% cited other applications, including in-line pallet wrapping, filling, pallet storage and retrieval, product placement on cooling conveyors and unit packing.Performance and dependability ratings of robotics remain very strong, with 82% rating performance excellent or very good and 68% giving dependability similar scores. Maintenance remains an issue, with 48% giving robotics a fair rating on this metric and 8% suggesting the technology is poor. As with any new technology, the skills needed to keep robots up and running may be lacking in-house. If maintenance personnel are unable to troubleshoot and repair a system, many packaging professionals will defer robotic installations, rather than jeopardize line operations.
About the surveyFood professionals from a wide variety of production facilities participated in the 22nd annual Food Packaging Trends Survey. Questionnaires were mailed in April to a sample of Food Engineering readers involved in buying or specifying packaging machinery and materials. Usable surveys were returned by 110 readers.
Engineers and operations/production managers are the largest respondent groups, each accounting for 29%. General administrators/managers are 15% of the sample, with purchasing professionals composing 11%. Other job functions include quality control, R&D, maintenance and packaging. A majority are involved in dairy production or meat, poultry and seafood processing (28% each). Beverages, bakery products, cereals and other grain-based products, coffee/tea/spices, confectionery products, frozen foods and canned foods are other major product categories. Facility staffing is almost identical to last year’s survey, with 59% working at plants with 250 or more employees and 29% at plants with 100-249 workers. The remaining 12% are at locations with fewer than 100 employees.