Throngs of food and packaging professionals flocked to Chicago for Pack Expo 2000, the biennial showcase for the machines shaping the industry's products

Name a packaging challenge, and vendors with solutions were on hand in Chicago in November during Pack Expo, the biennial event that drew an overall attendance of 75,920. The bigger the challenge, it seemed, the more exhibitors with an equipment or materials answer.

The second and final trade show combining Pack Expo, the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute's (PMMI) showcase, and IEFP, the Food Processing Machinery & Suppliers Association's complementary event, managed to make America's largest exhibition hall feel claustrophobic.

The five-day show set a new physical record with more than 1.2 million square feet of exhibit space, up 7 percent from 1998. Larger average booth sizes depressed the number of exhibitors slightly to 1,530. Also down slightly was the crowd: at 48,833, the number of visitors was 1,158 fewer than in 1998 and about 3,000 off from the all-time high in 1996.

Several factors affected attendance, organizers say, including mergers that reduce the number of client companies and cannibalization from PMMI's off-year show in Las Vegas, which had a 21 percent attendance surge in 1999. "Some of the packaging engineers are being left at home, but we're very confident we're getting senior level people," PMMI spokesman Matt Crosson says. "Is this show or the industry dying? No, that is not the case."

The number of leads generated at the show's booths showed "a slight increase," Crosson adds, bolstering PMMI's contention that Pack Expo is a buying show. Whether it is indeed a buying show or more of a showcase can be argued, but Pack Expo is inarguably an idea bazaar and one-stop venue for state-of-the-art packaging materials and machines. Visitors came as much to spot packaging trends and discuss efficiency opportunities as to see the latest equipment, and that was reflected in record attendance at the conference portion of the show.

A third of Pack Expo's visitors are connected to the food and beverage industry, so it was appropriate that a Kraft Foods executive delivered the conference's keynote. Pointing out that packaging materials and machinery absorb a significant proportion of food companies' revenues, Kraft's John Gregg said, "With all the stainless steel and other materials we invest in, the return on assets is a key concern for us.

"How much better does something have to be before you can justify recapitalizing and rebuilding for (greater) flexibility?" asked Gregg, vice president of research & development. "It has to be pretty darned good. Extremely flexible. Super fast. In other words, how do you make the new technology flexible enough to accommodate even newer technology as it develops?"

The answer, he suggests, lies in implementing a "glass pipeline" of information- and idea-exchange between all parties in the "supply-chain community." That will spur the innovation needed to drive out costs and produce new packaging and products with consumer appeal.

A glass pipeline can't exist without mutual trust and confidence between trading partners, and the industry's traditional "close to the vest" operating procedures pose a challenge. "I see our mentality changing," Gregg said, despite occasional breeches in the discreet treatment of partners' trade secrets.

Next-generation packaging machines

An example of the glass-pipeline cooperation he advocates is the joint supplier-food manufacturer effort to set guidelines for open modular architecture controls (OMAC) for packaging machinery. Five members of the OMAC group addressing digital motion controls for packaging spoke as part of Solutions 2000, the conference portion of Pack Expo that drew 937 attendees.

Packaging equipment and materials represent a big part of manufacturers' costs and the largest portion of labor costs, according to Keith S. Campbell, director of automation & integration at Hershey Foods Corp. and chairman of the OMAC motion control group. Much of the cost can be attributed to higher equipment prices from suppliers who have to incorporate the end-user's control standards. The cost of controls represented 5 percent of the selling price in 1990; 10 years later, it accounted for 30 percent. The cooperation of both equipment buyers and sellers is needed if the food industry is to realize the higher speeds, faster startups quicker changeovers and other benefits at an affordable price.

Underpinning the OMAC initiative is mechatronics. Intelligent servo drives are replacing mechanical components such as clutches, cams, kingpins and gearbox synchronizers. Mechatronics requires replacing PLCs and the costly and complicated programming they entail with motion controllers that take advantage of standard programming languages such as IEC 1131.

"Common programming language would aid both OEMs and users," Campbell emphasized. "Application programming interfaces would speed integration and reduce engineering time. Development of either requires a thorough understanding of the packaging problem." The OMAC group's first priority is to make the business case for open architecture before dealing with the technological issues.

A six-step approach to integrating packaging machines and systems regardless of whether motion controllers or PLCs are driving them was presented by Patrick J. Helm, senior manager of packaging for Lockwood Greene. Using Helm's approach, the actual bid and contract-awarding steps don't occur until the fourth phase, when the groundwork for successful integration already has been laid.

Single-serve fluid milk has been a packaging-driven success story for U.S. dairies, but consumer response north of the border has been lukewarm. In a panel discussion featuring experts in the technology for extended shelf life (ESL) dairy products, Natrel Inc.'s Kelley McGregor-Gillispie, marketing vice president, described the dairy's use of a high temperature, short time process to produce ESL milk products designed to reverse a 20-year slide in Canada's per capita milk consumption.

As in the U.S., teens are the target for Canada's ESL milk, McGregor-Gillispie explained. Despite more than $1.5 million in ad spending, Natrel has been unable to leverage more sales through channels other than supermarkets. Another challenge is getting people to experience the "fresh-like taste," which is far superior to the "cooked taste" consumers associate with aseptic filling processes, she said.

Besides improved flavor, Natrel's ESL milk is packaged in regular PET bottles, which are 30 percent cheaper than heat-set PET or glass, according to Marc Binet, president of Serac Inc., Carol Stream, Ill. Regular PET is ideal for heat-sensitive products and does not degrade product quality, he adds. Natrel's line is essentially aseptic, but consumer expectations for chilled milk and the fact FDA has not validated the Serac system as aseptic prevent dairies from marketing the 40-day shelf-life products as aseptic.

More space needed

Given the soup-to-nuts nature of the exhibition, generalizations can be dangerous. More than 300 manufacturers of volumetric filling machines were on hand, for example, and the IEFP section featured 40 suppliers of heat exchangers alone. Still, trends in food packaging dictate certain equipment and material purchases, and McCormick Place was filled with suppliers eager to meet those needs.

Form/fill/seal machines have been the fastest growing equipment category in recent years, and zipper-style closures are an added convenience in a growing number of food products' packaging. It was therefore no surprise that a large number of horizontal and vertical f/f/s units that also attached resealable closures were displayed at the show. Traceability for food products is a high priority, and laser coding systems were much in evidence as those systems become more cost competitive with ink-jet printers. Case-ready meat is poised for dramatic growth, and suppliers of systems and film featured some new names, including Honeywell and Marlen Research.

Examples of technology transfer also were evident. The petrochemicals industry has used nuclear magnetic resonance for five years to perform in-line analysis of a liquid's components. APV is bringing the same technology to the dairy industry to improve ingredient measurements such as butter's fat content to slash excess content and the need for rework.

Pack Expo's focus on food is understandable, given the food industry's prominence in packaging equipment purchases and the show's visitor profile. Based on registration card information, 34 percent of attendees were involved in the food and beverage industry, up from 31 percent two years ago, according to Nancy Janssen, show manager of the IEFP portion of the event. Unfortunately, there was less in the way of food processing equipment for those attendees to see: IEFP occupied 129,000 square feet of McCormick Place, about 20,000 square feet less than in 1998, Janssen says. A similar decline in net exhibit space is expected with 2002's venue change.

More than 90 companies were frozen out of Pack Expo because of space limitations, PMMI's Crosson notes. To ease the supply squeeze, the IEFP show will move to Chicago's Navy Pier, with all of McCormick Place dedicated to Pack Expo. The shows will run concurrently, Nov. 3-7, 2002.