Perfect packaging systems may be unattainable, but that won't keep food engineers from striving for them.

Optimizing packaging -- or any other area of food operations, for that matter -- is a journey, not a destination. The finish line may be in sight, but forget about crossing it. "It's like golf," offers Steve Kellogg, maintenance engineer at Pretzel's Inc. in Bluffton, Ind. "A perfect score would be 18, but nobody's ever going to get it."

To extend that analogy to a packaging ine: if anyone ever did shoot an 18, either more holes would be added or the tees would be moved.

Optimization is a company-specific challenge, and it extends beyond automating manual functions. Labor costs and availability drive calculations of efficiency gains from automation projects. If those numbers don't crunch, there usually are other, less capital-intensive optimization steps that can be taken. "Automation is the second step," advises packaging equipment specialist Jim Pfister of Finished Goods Enterprises Inc. "Once you're comfortable that the mechanical equipment is sound and can do what it was purchased to do, then you can begin looking at automation."

Pfister and other packaging experts aren't Luddites: if the return on automation investment meets a company's hurdle rate, they heartily endorse a capital project. But in the rush to optimize packaging line speeds to match accelerated production line throughput, food processors often purchase new case packers, labelers, etc., tie them together with conveyers, "and the system runs awful because there was little or no upfront engineering done," Pfister laments.

A lot of people don't realize that a packaging line is like a choo-choo train," adds the Mechanicsburg, Pa., consultant. "It only takes one car going off the track to cause a wreck." For example, one client replaced a candy bar wrapping machine that doubled packaging speeds but resulted in frequent breakdowns because the tolerances on the old film couldn't handle the increased speed.

Green, green fields of home

Pretzel Inc.'s Kellogg can empathize. "Before you do anything, you have to think it clear through, and that can be a huge problem with operations people," he says of upfront engineering. "I struggle with that all the time."

Starting from scratch may be the best scenario. Kellogg was presented with just such a green field project in late 1997 when the Bluffton, Ind., snack-food copacker suffered a devastating fire on Christmas Eve. The company immediately began a design/build project with contractor Shambaugh & Son in nearby Fort Wayne, Ind., that enabled it to resume production the following summer in a new 77,000-sq.-ft. plant and 40,000-sq.-ft. warehouse.

Optimizing the flow of materials, people and information was a top priority, which meant creating a linear flow from receiving to shipping. Cross-overs were a particular problem in packaging, recalls process engineer Earl Hopperman of Shambaugh. "By speaking with the staff and eliminating cross-overs, we were able to keep product moving in one direction, with a lot less wasted motion for people and a lot of extra space for expansion." Three packing rooms were consolidated into one, and "that really streamlined crossing over with operators and support people between the two production lines and made things much more efficient," says Kellogg.

Incremental improvements continue to be made as part of a five-year plan to optimize packaging output. Production capacity of 14,000 lbs. per hour of pretzels and extruded corn products can create bottlenecks when it channels into 10-12 oz. packages, particularly when those packages may change several times a day from one private-label brand to another. Improvements to date have boosted efficiency 20 percent, Kellogg estimates, and a new case-handling and palletizing system will mean additional gains.

The new system, which can handle 1,200 to 1,500 cases an hour, will allow the redeployment of 15 to 18 workers and eliminate "a boring, hard job," Kellogg points out. Next step: an automatic case-forming system that will deliver boxes to the point of use on the plant floor, eliminating another time-consuming manual task. "There's room for improvement everywhere," says Kellogg, "and we're constantly looking at automating all that we can."

Green field projects are the exception, of course; the rule is optimizing an existing packaging department. That was the case when Pepperidge Farms' Willard, Ohio, plant retrofitted a Goldfish baked-cheese cracker line. The goal was to improve accumulation and scale distribution from an oven producing 3,600 lbs. of product an hour.

Accumulating and conveying such a fragile product in an area with restricted space posed special challenges, according to operations engineer Matt Gaietto. Design engineers selected an 800 cubic ft. accumulator from Allen Machinery and a horizontal motion conveying system to move the crackers to three Ishida multi-head scales and then to a Hayssen vertical packaging line. Besides moving product more efficiently, the new system minimized spillage and eliminated product build-up, simplifying clean-up.

Installing new automation equipment won't produce packaging optimization if operator training gets short shrift, specialists warn. "Often I'm called in to 'tweak' a line running at 60 percent efficiency," says Pfister. "That's not tweaking."

Management may suffer "sticker shock" when a vendor quotes a system cost including operator training, but poorly executed in-house alternatives represent false economies, he says. Pfister cites one client who is spending as much as $500,000 on training for one packaging line, "and they'll recover that in one year."

Reliance on operator training manuals is a frequent mistake, he says, because "nobody reads anymore. Young people have fantastic visual and tactile skills, but they don't read." Training programs must use a comfortable medium for the operator, and that isn't a manual for today's operators. Additionally, some plants continue to schedule half- or all-day training sessions. "After 50 min utes, people can't retain information, so why have four-hour classes?" Pfister asks.

Getting supervisors out on the shop floor, talking to operators and documenting when and where problems occur is another optimization strategy. "Downtime data collection is hard work," allows consultant Jerry Claunch of Claunch and Associates, "but it's time well spent."

The Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based consultant advocates placing managers or video cameras at strategic points along the line to record jams at unscramblers, case packers and other pinch points, then creating a Pareto chart to identify the handful of causes that account for the bulk of downtime. "After you've got those problems solved, you probably have to collect data again because some of the corrective actions will have affected another area," he suggests.

Lack of precision is a frequent source of packaging snafus, and Claunch uses a laser-beam device to fix equipment settings to within 1/10,000th of an inch on filling equipment, for example. In beverage plants, operators often use an empty blow-molded plastic bottle to set filler height in relation to the package. If the bottle was molded to the upper tolerance of the specs, leakage inevitably will occur when bottles at the other extreme are filled, ultimately leading to downtime.

Lane dividers and rails set at less-than-optimum angles or that aren't straight are other frequent trouble spots. "I think in terms of packaging lines set at 0.001 inches, but set-up people using tape measures can be off by a quarter-inch," he laments.

It's the schedule, stupid

Rethinking the way the workforce is matched to operation needs can boost output without capital investment, believes Richard Coleman, president of Ross, Calif.-based Coleman Consulting Group Inc. "Schedules are too often based on shifts instead of the hours needed to operate each packaging line," Coleman says. Simply rethinking scheduling to match workload can optimize packaging throughput.

Food plants and other manufacturers often are bound by tradition when it comes to scheduling, he adds. "Refineries and utilities have to run around the clock, but food plants run in shifts. It's not surprising that they don't have a continuous production mentality, but that means sanitation becomes an eight-hour shift instead of a two-hour process. Capacity is reached much sooner, so they're buying equipment when they don't have to."

Reconfigured schedules in a Kraft Foods project enabled one plant to go from six production lines to four while producing the same volume. Even more impressive was a project for Anchor Food Products in Appleton, Wis., where $30 million in capital projects were canceled thanks to reconfigured sanitation and scheduling procedures. In both cases, packaging optimization was only one part of the production overhaul.

Anchor, which produces Poppers and other frozen snack items, was "on the verge of putting in more lines" when management decided to try another alternative, recalls Jim Bakos, director of engineering. "We had tapped out the plant," but more capacity wouldn't address an employee-relations issue. Unscheduled stops and starts meant workers had to juggle unscheduled overtime and cancelled shifts with child-care arrangements. "You can't fool around with the single working mother or she won't work for you," Bakos observes, and the region's tight labor market demanded that Anchor offer an appealing work environment.

Nontraditional schedules not only eliminated the need to operate the plant on Sundays, it enabled Anchor to meet production needs Monday through Friday. "We call it fixing Monday first," says Coleman. Individual schedules sometimes ran longer, but they were more flexible, more dependable, and included more days off.

Employees must buy into such a change, and much of Coleman's work focuses on winning their approval. Typically, his team secures management's okay of five options for achieving production objectives. Staffers then are presented those models and are asked to indicate their preference. "This comes after 'rumor-busting' meetings where we answer every rumor honestly, identify the business reason for change and involve the employees," he says. "If the goal is to cut O-T and that's the rumor, we say, 'You're absolutely right.'"

Scavenged parts launch industry

A packaging procedure that occurs after product has been bagged and palletized is stretch wrapping for load containment. Until 25 years ago, manufacturers stabilized loads with steel strapping or shrink film that had to pass through a tunnel oven. Stretch film didn't even exist until Pat and Bill Lancaster, inventors of the first stretch-film applicator, convinced film manufacturers to make it.

The brothers literally worked out their concept at the kitchen table before building the first stretch-wrap machine in a garage, using a Harley Davidson shock absorber and a Ford Falcon brake assembly. Cereal companies were the first to embrace the technology in the 1970s. Today, U.S. manufacturers use 12 billion pounds of stretch film to stabilize virtually every boxed product shipped on a wooden pallet. Film costs between 25 and 50 cents per pallet, and significant reductions in product damage are among the benefits.

Although the film was developed to support the machine, many small manufacturers rely on manual labor to apply it. The availability of semiautomatic units is changing that, according to Ric Lee, sales director at Lantech Inc., Louisville, bringing this packaging solution within the reach of food companies producing as few as 15 pallet loads a day.

"Wrapping a load is probably the dirtiest, most injury-prone job in the plant," notes Lee. "A pre-stretch machine costing $10,000 or less not only eliminates that, it typically provides a payback within a year, if you include labor costs, reduced film use and reduced product damage."

Packaging optimization takes many forms, and it is not necessarily synonymous with automation. Whether it involves taking what's available and making it better or upgrading an operation with superior equipment, packaging optimization is a never-ending quest for food engineers.