Food Engineering’s 14th Annual Packaging Trends Survey of our readers reveals that concern for product safety, shelf life and consumer convenience continues to fuel improvements in packaging equipment flexibility and automation.

Food Engineering’s Packaging Trends Survey revealed that the top three issues in food packaging are product safety, consumer convenience and product shelf life. According to the survey, nearly 80 percent of the respondents say product safety will continue to be of the utmost importance in food packaging. This was followed by consumer convenience (73 percent), and product shelf life (70 percent). Respondents in the meat sector felt even more strongly about product safety and shelf life; both issues took 85 percent of their vote, respectively.

Although the top three issues remain the same as last year, FE’s survey revealed that some new issues have moved up in importance. Customized packaging including single-serve packages, packaging material microwavability, the cost of primary materials and filling speeds were top trends projected to grow in importance over the next two years.

Food Engineering’s Executive Advisory Panel is comprised of 440 members that have either packaging materials or packaging machinery purchasing influence. Forty-eight percent of the members are in production management positions, while 44 percent are in engineering job functions. Almost half of the respondents (48 percent) have 20 or more years experience in the food industry and 81 percent work in a manufacturing location.

The power and problems of purchasing

According to the survey, those with purchasing power and influence consider many factors when buying new packaging equipment, but typically rate items such as safety, accuracy and ease of use as top priorities. Accuracy ranked as the number one factor considered when purchasing equipment on last year’s survey, but it was beaten out by safety this year as 79 percent of the respondents listed it as a very important factor when purchasing equipment. Accuracy was a close second with 76 percent of the vote, while ease of use and supplier/vendor support were listed as equally important factors to consider, with 72 percent of the vote. Online supplier technical support is a new factor listed on the survey and resulted in 42 percent of the respondents listing it as a somewhat important factor.

As customers demand more flexibility from suppliers, running more products in more sizes and packaging formats increases the need for quick and easy changeover. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents listed easy changeover as a very important factor to take into account when sizing up new machinery. Eighty-one percent of those who list packaging as their job function noted easy changeover as a very important consideration when buying new equipment.

The Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute’s (PMMI) U.S. packaging equipment “Purchasing Plans Study” asked its respondents to list the primary reason for ordering packaging machinery in 1999. The largest number of respondents cited the expansion of production and packaging capacity as their main reason. The remaining top three factors included the increased importance in replacement of older packaging machinery, the continued high rate of new product additions and the installation of automated packaging machinery to reduce costs.

Any planned changes in packaging line machinery within the next year are largely due to escalating customer demands. The need for increased automation for faster, more efficient production and safer work environments, along with packaging that increases shelf life and is microbiologically safe are top priorities.

Automation is an impetus for change, particularly as it relates to either a shortage or elimination of labor and ergonomic issues. According to PMMI’s 1999 Packaging Productivity Trends Indicator survey, 88 percent of the respondents consider ergonomic qualities when purchasing packaging machinery. “Increasingly, we’re seeing more companies embrace robotics to automate their packaging lines,” said PMMI president Charles D. Yuska. “In fact, 21.3 percent of the respondents to our recent Purchasing Plans study reported robotics as the leading advance and new feature influencing order placement decisions in 1999.”

Food safety concerns are also influencing changes made on packaging line machinery and in packaging materials. “With growing food safety concerns, clean visibility of packing machinery is increasingly important,” said a New York plant manager. “We are working with vendors to find the best oxygen barrier available for our bag material for further processed meat, to increase shelf life and improve appearance,” he added. An engineering packaging technologist at a large food company in Wisconsin said she is “adding more barrier to [the] film structure [to] increase shelf life.”

Many changes are being made to satisfy customer requirements. A plant manager at a Minnesota food company said his company is making “packaging design changes…due to customer-mandated bar code requirements.” Another packaging design change influenced by customer and consumer demand includes the move to stand-up pouches. A plant engineer at a chicken processing plant in Virginia said he is “changing from roll stock trays to stand-up pouches to be more customer-friendly and more efficient.” The director of corporate engineering at a major food processor in Illinois said his company is changing to “re-closable and stand-up pouches,” while a staff engineer at a large food company in New York is “changing to [the] pouch for material cost savings.”

Why and how to choose a supplier

As a possible outcome of the robust economy, capital expenditures are up in larger sized companies as 57 percent of companies with 500 or more employees plan to spend $2 million or more on packaging equipment. This is a sharp increase compared with last year’s survey which found only 28 percent of companies with more than 500 employees planning to spend as much. On the other end of the spectrum, about a quarter of the respondents (23 percent) working for companies with less than 100 employees plan to spend $50,000 to $100,000 on equipment and 34 percent of those companies plan to spend under $50,000 on packaging equipment.

When planning to make an equipment purchase, FE asked respondents to rate the importance of selected factors when choosing a supplier. Product quality was the overwhelming number one choice by 90 percent of the total respondents who listed it as a very important factor. Eighty-eight percent said competitive pricing was very important, while 76 percent said technical support was also very important. Only 37 percent said that new technology updates were very important factors in selecting suppliers.

When purchasing resins, materials or equipment, nearly half of those who responded (44 percent) said that ISO 9000 certification is an advantage, but not necessarily a priority. Thirty-two percent indicated that ISO 9000 certification is not important. Although 62 percent of the respondents rated compliance with environmental standards as a very important factor in purchasing packaging machinery, the environmental certification ISO 14000 is still not of major importance to their packaging operations. Less than a quarter of those who replied (17 percent) said that it is somewhat important, slightly down from last year when 22 percent felt it was important.

Even the slightest adjustment or improvement to packaging lines can reap enormous benefits in terms of increased overall output. Respondents were asked to name one specific improvement to their packaging line that would significantly improve their productivity and efficiency. Again, quick changeover and improved flexibility sprung to the minds of many respondents. A process engineer in Texas said an improvement on his packaging lines would be “quick changeovers to fill, and labels and daters to accommodate the just-in-time atmosphere.” A packaging system engineer at an Iowa food plant noted that he would like to see “faster size setups — most changeovers are ‘on the fly’ and it is a challenge to be back packing before [the] process has to shut down.” Flexibility goes hand in hand with changeover and was also heard as a requested improvement. A Wisconsin plant manager said an improvement to his packaging lines would be “if our form/fill/seal machine could handle [a] greater diversity of fill weights and package sizes.”

Along with more flexible equipment, the need for more accommodating packaging films and materials was also voiced as a concern. “Having non-defective packaging materials available at all times would allow for the most consistent running of machinery without [the] need for constant adjustments,” said a project manager at a Midwest food company. The vice president of manufacturing at a major vegetable processor in California also would like to see “films that are much more tolerant to temperature fluctuations in the sealing process of flexible films.”

Impacts on packaging decisions

The retailer consolidation trend both in the U.S. and Europe is having an impact on packaging decisions, as larger supermarkets flex their muscle. While only 31 percent of the respondents inFE’s 1998 survey felt supermarket chains had some impact on their packaging decisions, 50 percent now feel they have some impact. Club stores continue to affect packaging decisions — 41 percent of the total respondents say they have some impact.

Meanwhile, Internet or online supermarkets have not made a huge imprint on the food industry — yet. Over 75 percent say Internet supermarkets have no impact on their packaging decisions. Slightly less than half (45 percent) of the total respondents say that convenience stores have an impact on their decisions, although this number decreases in the beverage sector, as 25 percent of respondents there say convenience stores have had a major impact on their packaging decisions.

While more than half (57 percent) of those respondents in the cereals/grain products market said that mass merchandisers have had some impact on their packaging decisions, only 39 percent of the total respondents indicated they have had a major impact. Forty-four percent of the total respondents noted that just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing had some impact on their packaging decisions.

Developing a new package

Package innovation and differentiation is extremely important as the retail shelf gets more and more crowded. Respondents were asked what factors food and beverage companies consider when developing a new package. Not surprisingly, cost won out over all other factors, as 70 percent of the respondents said it was a very important factor to consider. More than half of the respondents listed environmental concerns, consumer convenience and brand image as important factors taken into account when developing new packaging.

When it comes to getting support to test market a new package idea, 59 percent said that objective is “somewhat difficult” to achieve. The larger the company, the harder this is to accomplish; 74 percent of respondents working for companies that employ 500 people or more said this was somewhat difficult to achieve, while 50 percent of those at companies with less than 100 employees said the same. Almost 60 percent said that it is also somewhat difficult to turn a marketing concept into a functional package. Sixty-three percent of those in the meat and bakery sectors said that purchasing the perfect packaging material for a new product was somewhat difficult.

Once a package design has been approved and test marketed, getting it to market quickly can be a challenge. Many of the respondents (62 percent) said their company will modify existing packaging equipment to get product out the door. Forty-two percent said they add a new packaging line and 35 percent use a contract packager, up five percent from last year’s survey in which 30 percent said they resort to contract packagers. More companies are using contract packagers to help with their increasing workloads. PMMI’s 1998 Customer Purchasing Plans study reflected that fact: nearly 56 percent of companies said they use one or more contract packagers for a portion of their packaging requirements.

Plastic fantastic

Choosing the appropriate and best packaging material is crucial to overall package success. “It is important to have a plan during the implementation phase of qualifying new materials,” said Scott J. Thomas, senior manager, Manufacturing Services, Nabisco Biscuit Company atFE’s Plant Tech conference held earlier this year. “A package may satisfy marketing requirements and provide the necessary shelf life and distribution protection, but if it cannot meet manufacturing standards, operating inefficiencies and quality issues will offset any benefits.”

Thomas stressed that the packaging material selection can make or break the success of a product. “With the proper planning and execution, the right packaging material selection can lead to increased line efficiencies, improved quality and positive sales impact,” he said.

The need for source reduction, recyclability, high impact graphics and package design all call to the flexibility offered by plastics. Both the food and beverage markets continue to see more conversions to plastic from more traditional packaging materials such as glass, steel, aluminum or paperboard. The overcapacity of plastics, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in particular, in the market makes it a wise choice financially as well. Sixty-two percent of those polled in the survey said that pricing problems are not a disadvantage with plastics.

Recent technologies are making numerous new applications for plastics possible, including using plastic packaging for such items as beer, applesauce, pasta sauce, jams and jellies. Ninety percent of those who responded said that these new applications are still exciting. Although 89 percent think more products packaged in glass will eventually be converted to plastic, 76 percent disagree that plastic will dominate glass or cans for beer bottling. According to the survey, despite new advances and applications for plastics, only 27 percent foresee their company considering a total conversion to plastic materials or containers.

Ninety-three percent of those polled see room for improvement in plastics. When asked what these improvements or “dream” characteristics of one specific material would be, many cited a material that would eliminate product leakage and actively kill bacteria. The president of a Miami food company said that his dream material would have “seal-through product capability without leaking — this is our largest packaging problem.” The director of engineering/environmental at a northeastern pasta company said he would like “a film that provides vapor barrier, [is] resistant to puncture, has a clear appearance, seals easily, stays sealed and is cheap.” A plant engineer at a Wisconsin cheese company would like a packaging material that provided “great cost, clarity, super barrier, terrific handling on equipment [and] is able to seal through product.”

Beyond barrier films, respondents said they would like to see packaging material that plays a more active role in limiting or even eliminating bacteria. A plant engineer from Virginia would like a packaging material that would “kill bacteria for food safety.” A plant manager on the West Coast dreams of a “compact plastic — a film with exceptional barrier properties that results in longer shelf life.” A plant manager at a turkey processing plant in New York said, “Food safety is our primary concern. Packaging that acts to limit bacterial growth beyond current packaging strategies would find wide acceptance.”

A process engineer at a Texan food company simply said “flexibility — customers are demanding more applications that are all over the spectrum and we cannot afford custom materials for each one.”

Forecasting the future

WhenFEasked its Executive Advisory Panel to list a packaging development that will have the greatest impact over the next three years, responses pointed to more customized packaging, greater film barriers and more “active” films for food safety, more stand-up pouch applications and more consumer acceptance to irradiation. “New films which are ‘activated’ during packaging to reduce oxygen in the package are very exciting,” said a New York plant manager. An engineering packaging technologist in Wisconsin agreed that “oxygen scavengers built into flexible film [for] improved product protection and shelf life” is an exciting development. A Texan process engineer says, “In the meat business [we] are really watching barrier and anti-microbial technology for obvious reasons.”

A staff engineer at a large northeastern food company thinks “flexible pouches for source reduction” will continue to have a great impact in the future. As retailers continue to consolidate and dictate packaging sizes and formats and distribution channels are reaching beyond the typical supermarket retailer to club stores and convenience stores, the need for customized packaging increases. A purchasing agent in Connecticut sees “custom packaging” as a packaging development that will grow in importance — “more people use prepackaged foods in their busy lives,” she said. The executive vice president at a large food company in the Midwest also feels that more single-serve, prepackaged foods will be an upcoming trend. He sees a “move toward combination of items in a single packaging unit” as a packaging development that will continue to have an impact.