Given the importance of packaging in protecting and promoting products on store shelves, it is no surprise that food and beverage companies are investing more dollars in superior materials and advanced automation to deliver goods to market.
In written comments and weighted responses to Food Engineering
’s 2006 Packaging Trends survey, readers made it clear their organizations continue to increase investments in both packaging style and substance. Almost three-fifths of the individuals surveyed-58%-indicated their companies will spend more than $2 million on packaging materials this year, up from only 49 percent last year and almost double 2004’s 30 percent. Capital investments also are up, with 52 percent saying their firms will spend at least $500,000 this year on packaging equipment, up from 45 percent last year and 29 percent in 2004.
The findings are consistent with other industry surveys. The Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) pegs 2006 machinery spending by food and beverage companies at $3.4 billion, up 3.9 percent from a year ago.
A growing slice of the equipment pie is going to robotics. Food and beverage is emerging as one of the fastest growing industry segments for robotics, with the packaging department home to most of that equipment. Robotic palletizers are being used at almost two-thirds (63.8%) of respondents’ facilities. Case packers are almost as prevalent (60.6%), followed by robotic carton formers. Depalletizing is a bigger challenge for robotic systems, given the variability in incoming pallet patterns. Nonetheless, 6.4 percent of food professionals indicate depalletizing robots are being used at their plants.
In PMMI’s survey, more than a third of manufacturers said they would purchase robotic packaging machines this year, with 39.2 percent saying they would buy palletizing systems, 28 percent case packers and 17.8 percent cartoning units.
Lower costs and faster speeds are luring initial robotics investments, and in-plant performance is paving the way for additional outlays. Asked to rate robotics on a five-point scale, where 5 is excellent, food professionals gave robotic performance an average score of 4.0, including one in five rating performance as excellent. Dependability ratings trail slightly, with a mean score of 3.71. No one rated robots as poor on either metric. Maintenance was an issue for some, with 18.7 percent giving their systems sub-par scores. The average maintenance score was 3.45.
Robotic packaging systems scored high in readers’ citations of noteworthy packaging technologies and techniques. The trend toward shorter production runs and the need for greater line flexibility play to the push-button changeover advantage of robotic systems. Changeover time was one of the most frequently cited areas where packaging line improvements are needed. “Increased demand for different sizes to meet the different distribution channels, faster changeovers,” was one respondent’s written comment to the question, “Where does your company’s packaging effort fall short?” Wrote another, “Changeover time during product changes is much too slow, causing excess downtime and costs.”
Automated case packing, data acquisition and other initiatives to reduce head counts and replace inflexible systems were other frequently cited needs. Vision technology and other inspection and quality-assurance tools appear on many readers’ needs lists. Several respondents fault the QA efforts of package suppliers, blaming them for package failures. “We should have more quality checks at the supplier,” one person summarized.
An initiative launched by Hershey Foods, Masterfoods and other end-users and their suppliers to standardize packaging machinery has a long way to go, judging by food professionals’ comments. Standardization is “a long process,” one respondent concedes; in the meantime, food companies are failing to standardize their own machinery specifications. Manufacturers “need to standardize packaging spec- ifications,” one reader commented. Without standardization, “we lack a formal packaging strategy (and) address packaging options on a project-by-project basis only.”
Survey participants were presented with a list of 24 food packaging issues and asked to rate the importance of each on their business operations in the next two years. Material costs ranked No. 1 with an average rating of 4.18 on a 5-point scale, leapfrogging product safety, which had been the top issue in recent years. Consumer convenience and increased flexibility/ changeover also are growing in importance. Improved packaging line automation rounded out the top-five issues.
Meeting the demands of club stores is a growing concern, based on reader feedback. Almost three-fifths (57%) of survey participants rated club-store demands as having a significant or the greatest impact on their operations.
A hug and a shrug
The demands of club stores may be a growing operational concern, but responses to the demands of the biggest mass merchandiser are a mixed bag. Pilot tests involving RFID tags on pallets, cases and other packaging materials increased slightly to 30 percent of respondents, and in an open-ended question, several people cited RFID as one of the more noteworthy packaging technologies. “RFID sounds great, but we are not using it,” one food professional wrote.
However, three years into the Wal-Mart RFID mandate, the technology’s impact is still perceived as meager. Given a list of 24 issues, respondents ranked RFID technology as the 18th most significant in the next two years, the same rank RFID had in 2004. More importantly, the same implementation issues that dogged the technology a year ago continue to be a problem, and in some cases a bigger issue.
Readability rates were cited as an issue by 51 percent of companies conducting RFID trials, up sharply from 30 percent a year ago. Proper recording at the customer receiving point also spiked, with 37 percent saying it is an issue, up from 29 percent in 2005. Tag application problems also increased, while tag cost and availability issues still bedevil the technology.
Problems that surfaced in written comments included “hardware-antenna issues” and “proper inventory control.”
More recently, the Barons of Bentonville have jumped on the sustainable packaging bandwagon. A representative of Sam’s Club spoke at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition’s spring meeting in Atlanta, and Wal-Mart suppliers were invited to Bentonville, AR, to create a framework for packaging design and material selection consistent with green concepts. The retailer has signaled suppliers that Wal-Mart buyers will begin using a sustainable-packaging scorecard when evaluating products, beginning in mid-2007.
Whether sustainability is a serious objective or a PR stunt, environmentally friendly packaging isn’t on the radar at the food-plant level. Asked to rate the importance of nine factors when developing new packaging, survey respondents judged source reduction dead last. Similarly, environmental concerns such as recycling and material recovery remain mired in the bottom half of issues affecting business operations in the coming years. Environmental aspects of packaging have consistently ranked near the bottom of the list throughout the 21st Century.
Food safety ranks as the most important factor when developing new packaging, followed by cost, product protection and preservation, production throughput requirements and consumer convenience.
In-house automation is both the preferred and growing strategy for reducing time- to-market for new products. Modifying existing packaging equipment is the route taken by two-thirds of respondents’ firms, followed by the introduction of more automation and the addition of a new line. Contrary to manufacturing’s interest in outsourcing, use of a contract packager is the strategy of only a quarter of survey respondents, down from 32 percent a year ago.
Less reliance on copackers also is reflected in responses to a question about this year’s equipment and materials plans. Only 15 percent say outsourcing to copackers is in this year’s mix, down from 18 percent a year ago.
About this survey
Surveys were mailed in May to 1,000 subscribers who buy or specify packaging machinery or materials at manufacturing firms with 50 or more employees, with additional readers invited by e-mail to provide feedback via a web survey. A total of 149 usable responses were received, including a 13 percent response to the mailed survey.
Engineers compose 37 percent of the respondents, followed by professionals in operations & production management (32%) and general administration and management (15%). Meat, poultry and seafood processors represent 23 percent of the sample, followed by dairy (20%), bakery (19%) and beverage (15%). Almost three-fifths (59%) work at facilities with 250 or more employees, with another 30 percent representing plants with 100 to 249 workers.