New-look containers and packages with enhanced functionality are pouring out of R&D labs, but turning them into production-friendly containers is where the rubber meets the road.

Tension bars had to be altered to swap out encoders at Cloverhill Bakeries, but the technology upgrade was an off-the-shelf solution for the Chicago sweet-goods manufacturer. Source: Videojet Technologies Inc.
History is the story of the people who tell it, and engineers don't tell packaging stories. That's as good an explanation as any as to why tales of packaging innovation leap from material breakthrough to successful sell-through. But innovative packaging demands optimized machinery and operating procedures to realize the throughputs that manufacturers must achieve. If an R&D breakthrough is going to make the transition to smooth-running manufacturing process, engineers must scale up systems, fabricate special tooling and devise new controls.

One of the more complicated new-container projects in recent years is the Tetra Recart, the retortable paperboard carton that had its North American debut last year. Production lines at Hormel Foods in Beloit, WI, and at Corfuerte SA's Los Mochis, Mexico, plant started using Recart last summer. There was a three-year lag between the package's European introduction and North American rollout, during which time technical experts resolved both packaging and processing issues. Both manufacturers are using the containers with low acid products: Hormel and Stagg chili in Beloit and Del Fuerte brand potato cubes and other vegetables in Los Mochis. The Recart line, which delivers 20,000 packs per hour, was part of a greenfield project for Corfuerte.

A small army of engineers and food scientists was involved in those implementations. Besides working through form/fill/seal (f/f/s) issues, system developers had to engineer modified retorts, and time-and-temperature processing parameters had to be established and validated. FMC FoodTech provided retort and process authority services, adding more troops.

A conventional steam retort would turn the cellulose-based cartons into soggy wads, assuming they didn't explode first. A modified steam-water spray retort that could process a paperboard carton as well as a variety of other containers was the solution, says Jeff Arthur, application engineering manager at FMC's Madera, CA, pilot plant. "The pressure profile was very unique," he recalls, and extensive modeling and validation work was performed to determine the optimal processing time to achieve product sterility and the highest possible quality.

The Hormel/Corfuerte projects benefited from a formalized stage-gate process for commercializing innovations from Tetra Pak: "define, analyze, make ready and be stable," explains Rich Potilo, director of development and industrialization at Tetra Pak's Denton, TX, pilot plant. "It came about by need. We weren't doing a very good job of managing the commercial transition," he says. "It was an expensive proposition every time we launched a new product, and we were introducing more and more new products."

The first of the four "toll gates" defines the business case for the packaged product. Analysis pinpoints what systems and processes must be in place to make it successful. The ready gate centers on equipment installation, optimization and validation. A formal contract outlining the responsibilities of both the supplier and processor are specified: what performance standards must be met, how the inevitable glitches will be resolved, and the people, materials and time that must be committed to the project. When this toll gate is passed, the innovation is commercial, and technology transfer is complete when stability is confirmed after a specified period of time.

An inter-company group of five can handle simple technology transfers, but simple transfers are not innovations. Copackers handled half the 100 billion Tetra Pak packages filled last year, and those manufacturing specialists increasingly are becoming the company's innovation partners. California Natural Products was Tetra Pak's partner for the Prisma container six years ago. When Boulder, CO-based EAS Inc. elected to use the package for its AdvantEdge body-building nutritional drink, production parameters were set and the parties focused on EAS's primary objective: to be on GNC retail shelves by a promised date.

Turnkey solutions

Packaging suppliers as one-stop solution sources is a growing trend. It wasn't enough for Sonoco to present EAS with a contoured bottle for its Myoplex drink: it had to deliver a copacker, as well. "We can't just make the package; we have to be a solutions provider," says Marketing Associate Grey Moore of Sonoco. Similarly, multi-party collaboration was necessary for the Cap Can end from Dayton Systems Group Inc. to see the light of day. The company developed its reclosable cap for aluminum cans four years ago, but it was technology in search of an application. Serendipity intervened when CJ Rapp of Wet Planet Beverage asked Rexam Beverage Can North America to develop new packaging for Jolt cola. Jolt debuted in 1985 in a 28 oz. PET bottle, and a new look was needed "to rejuvenate the brand and reach new customers," explains Rapp, a principle in the Rochester, NY, firm.

An automated guided vehicle (AGV) delivers a basket of food for retorting in a fully automated batch system. Redesigned retort systems are required for new containers, and that helps major food processors rationalize the capital costs of a total system upgrade, including AGV. Source: FMC FoodTech.
"We came to them with a concept and, frankly, that's the easy part," says Rapp. "The engineering, specialty tooling and process optimization is the difficult part. We envisioned a container with lots of right angles to give it the look of a battery."

Rexam saw an opportunity to marry its 23.5 oz. Monster can to the Cap Can closure, but more than a year of development work lay ahead. Work on graphics commenced at Rexam's beverage technical center in Elk Grove Village, IL, where the company also has a pilot plant. Once the seaming and filling processes were validated, Rexam was ready for field trials. A contract was signed with Pri-Pak, a Lawrenceburg, IN, copacker, in spring 2004. An existing glass- and plastic-bottle filling line was adapted to handle the cans. "There was a substantial investment made in bottle-handling equipment and engineering," notes Rapp. The battery bottle debuted in October.

For Rexam, project payoff will come when the resealable can moves to a mainstream application. "It's nice to develop a dynamic new package, but unless you can fill it, you're not going to change the market," points out Steve Wirrig, marketing director at Rexam. By doubling the capping capacity, he estimates the Pri-Pak line could fill up to 700 24 oz. cans a minute.

Three degrees of innovation

Though there are many shades of gray, packaging machinery can be lumped into three groups, suggests Dan Finazzo, manager of Lockwood Greene's manufacturing systems group in Cincinnati: The simplest is off-the-shelf, extensively engineered equipment. "That's what everyone wants," he says. "But only about 15 percent is Type One."

Type Two constitutes three-quarters of the packaging equipment universe. Most of the engineering has been done, and modifications to address the end-user's speed requirements, size range and other specs constitute engineering fine tuning. "Since it's the most competitive segment, documentation suffers and the quality of training materials often is poor," Finazzo says. The most dazzling innovation occurs with Type Three machines, "and there's high risk and cost in the development," he continues. "You must have a robust engineering process in place if you're going to successfully manage cost, performance and reliability capabilities."

Delivering a copacker was just as important as delivering the container Sonoco supplied for EAS’s Myoplex beverage. Source: Sonoco.
Checkweighers, metal detectors and encoders typify Type One systems. A year ago, Videojet Technologies Inc. in Wood Dale, IL, began to wean processors from ink-jet printers to thermal transfer units. "Ink jet is very finicky technology," points out Ralph Semyck, a Videojet sales engineer. Uptime for a dozen printers at Cloverhill Bakeries in Chicago was less than 93 percent. Semyck replaced them with thermal transfer units to encode flow-wrapper film for individually packaged pastries. It was no-brainer technology transfer: maintenance was slashed, operator training was minimal and thermal printer up-times of 98.7% resulted in quick paybacks.

Perdue Farms' addition of a zippered package for precooked Short Cuts breast meat strips qualifies as a Type Two project. "This was more of an application engineering job," says Robert E. Hogan, vice president-sales & marketing for Manteno, IL-based Zip-Pak International. Zip-Pak came up with a new flanged zipper, and Curwood engineered a compatible film, but Triangle Packaging Machinery, Chicago, did the heavy lifting.

Triangle has built f/f/s machines that attach zippers to cheese packages since the late 1980s, but those zippers were on the side of rectangular bags. The chicken bag "is almost square, the zipper is wider, and it's attached across the top," explains Hogan. It also had to withstand a post-packaging pasteurization process using high pressure. Once line speeds, package sizes and other parameters were set, "Triangle spent about four months developing a prototype and another couple of months fabricating a machine," he recalls. Plant installation was a matter of swapping out the old f/f/s machine with the new one.

Uniqueness, not time, defines a Type Three solution. Finazzo remembers a project involving a vial with a flip-top to dispense candy-coated milk chocolates. "The confectioner's internal engineering department said it would take 18 months to build a machine; we did it in six," he says. The key was sourcing a machine builder from outside the food community. A Canadian firm that built rotary assembly cells for the automotive industry transferred that technology to a machine in which unscramblers deposited different colored candies in a puck that allowed the system to open, fill and close eight containers simultaneously.

Speed to market is always an advantage. So is raw speed, and the absence of it is slowing adoption of retortable pouches. Clear films, improved adhesives and better graphics have helped these alternatives to cans enjoy strong growth in recent years, but turtle-like filling speeds give pause to volume-oriented processors. Former food engineer Bill Rogers has been addressing that shortcoming and hopes to build a prototype machine called TASPS (totally automated stand-up pouching system) that can form, fill and seal up to 1,000 pouches a minute, about five times faster than existing fillers.

Rogers developed his concept since joining AMEC in Minneapolis as a project manager. Speed, ease of maintenance and other priorities of food and beverage manufacturers were uppermost in his design considerations for TASPS. Controls integration is his focus, and Rogers designed around the capabilities of component fabricators. "We put all the players together at the start to develop a four-lane, continuous-motion machine that can fill a variety of pouch sizes with liquid, powder or both," he says.

The pouch former is the machine's choke point, and Rogers cites a number of machine builders in food and pharmaceutical that can produce 1,000 pouches per minute in the 200 to 330 milliliter range with zero leakers. In TASPS, robotic arms will feed discharged pouches into a chain-clip system that swings the pouches into a vertical position for filling. If desired, a fitment is then inserted. "From rollstock to the pallet, nobody touches the pouch," he says. "From the outside of the machine, you're only nine inches from any component, which is important for maintenance and for vision systems.

"If you can add fitments cheaply, it opens up many possibilities," he says. Maintenance and engineering professionals grasp the benefits, but opening the eyes of sales, marketing and upper management will be the challenge. The emergence of the manufacturing specialist should help: "When you make 19 different products in different packages, you get out of the box," Rogers points out. "Copacking of stand-up pouches has been growing 40 percent a year. In two years, 65 percent of all stand-up pouches will be done by contract packers."

Simplified relationships are one way to boost packaging innovations; turnkey solutions are another. In either case, production issues must be addressed if container breakthroughs are to realize commercial success, and anyone who thinks resolving those issues is a slam-dunk is dead wrong.

For more information:

Bill Rogers, AMEC,

Jeff Arthur, FMC FoodTech,

Dan Finazzo, Lockwood Greene,

Steve Wirrig, Rexam Inc.,

Grey Moore, Sonoco,

Rich Potilo, Tetra Pak,

Ralph Semyck, Videojet Technologies Inc.,

Robert E. Hogan, Zip-Pak International,