It may be a function of their companies’ volumes, but respondents to this year’s survey voice a desire for less physical labor, more machine labor and increased automation.

Insufficient work space, inadequate line speeds and less-than-optimum changeovers are among the most frequently cited packaging system shortfalls in this year’s packaging trends survey of food industry professionals. But a more fundamental problem is excessive manual labor and insufficient automation.

Whether identifying packaging line chokepoints or flagging specific improvements needed at their plants, respondents to this year’s survey of food and beverage engineers and managers consistently vent their frustration with the slow pace of technological implementation at their organizations. Their comments cover a wide range of issues and challenges, but one Food Engineering reader speaks for many when he writes, “Management must open their eyes to new developments in the industry.”

Automation gaps may owe more to the respondents’ demographics than the state of the industry: Almost two-thirds work at plants with fewer than 100 employees, compared to last year’s 46 percent. This is the first year in the study’s 25-year history that all data were gathered on line, with no mailed questionnaires.

Nonetheless, the concerns can be heard at food facilities from coast to coast. Inflexible casepacking equipment, time-consuming changeovers, fillers that starve downstream machinery: These are problems faced in many packaging departments. With more package variations being introduced, the deficiencies are magnified. And even when a solution exists, finding space for additional equipment can be a solution-killer.

“Automation could be improved, but many times there is a lack of plant space available,” one reader observes. “Currently, one line is used to package a variety of item sizes,” another writes. “We need a dedicated line for certain items.”

Machine speed and changeover speed long have been purchase considerations for packaging machines, but this year’s survey respondents ranked them as lower priorities than their predecessors did. Asked to rate 20 factors when purchasing new equipment, machine speed ranked 12th, down three slots from 2008 and 2009. Ease of changeover also slipped three spots. Supplier technical support, on the other hand, ascended three positions to become the fifth most important purchase factor. As in previous years, food safety and cost ranked as the most important factors.

Readers were asked to rate 17 factors based on their expected impact on business operations in the next two years. Product tracking and tracing, which has been a legal requirement for seven years, is becoming a much more serious issue with packaging pros. Track & trace only trails material costs in the proportion regarding it to be very or extremely important, up two positions from last year and three from 2008. Better line automation also is rising in importance.

Consumer convenience, on the other hand, is not perceived as a particularly important near-term business driver. Only two in five rate it very or extremely important to packaging operations, dropping convenience to sixth by that measure, compared to fifth last year and third in 2008. RFID technology appears to be descending into material-handling irrelevance, with only one in seven rating RFID as very or extremely impactful.

Sustainably efficient

A quarter of readers indicate their companies reduced primary packaging as part of sustainability efforts, and one in six says secondary packaging has been cut back (see chart above). But almost half say primary or secondary packaging has been redesigned in the last year in an effort to reduce material costs, suggesting different motives are often assigned to similar actions.

One in three says their firms have redesigned primary or secondary packaging in the last year in an effort to wring costs out of the supply chain. Some turned to areas companies traditionally have tapped-larger raw-material lots to realize volume discounts, light-weighting of materials, switching to rollstock from pre-made bags, etc.-but for many, geometry delivered economy. Three-dimensional design is unlocking cost savings in pallet patterns and trailer cubes.

“By reducing carton sizes, more cartons fit on a pallet and therefore reduce freight costs,” a Food Engineering reader writes. “Changed pack orientation to increase trailer cube load-out efficiency,” offers another. “Changed to modules that are easier to pile on a pallet and save space and weight,” another respondent writes.

Package and container designs that reduce material use are popular avenues to cost reductions, and machinery often plays a role. “Added a new FFS (form/fill/seal) machine,” a reader writes. “Automated box erectors that reduced our corrugated materials,” says another. Alternative printing methods, better flow to reduce handling, vacuum packing instead of cartoning and a focus on slashing material waste are other popular strategies.

Slightly more respondents’ plants continue to use conventional equipment and materials as opposed to those that have switched to modern solutions in recent years (54 percent vs. 46 percent), with cost the principal deterrent. Almost two-thirds cite cost as the reason for sticking with the tried and true, with a third mentioning the capital investment in existing systems. Customer acceptance is another factor: Almost one-quarter indicate uncertainty about customers’ reactions as a reason for not making changes. Slower fill speeds, particularly with flexible packaging, keep one in eight on the sidelines, slightly more than those who reason it’s “easier to do nothing.”

New product introductions present the opportunity for introducing modern packaging. When it comes to switching materials for existing products, only 38 percent did so in the last year. In many cases, a simpler solution was the result, either to lower costs or to lightweight containers. Sustainability also was a consideration, as typified by the respondent who cites a switch to “green packaging” from containers that didn’t use any recyclable material. Another made a switch from full cartons to recycled chip trays.

High & low priorities

Fillers are the most frequently cited bottleneck in respondents’ packaging lines, though baggers, case packers, transfer points and labelers also are singled out. Packaging professionals were asked to indicate the likelihood those chokepoints would be corrected in the next 12 months, from very likely to very unlikely.

“Most lines have the filler as the bottleneck,” one reader observes, adding it is somewhat unlikely his company will address the problem in the next year. Failure to address fill speed is more the exception than the rule; however, with three-quarters of respondents indicating filler issues are very likely or somewhat likely to be corrected.

Labeling and coding problems also are more likely to be fixed than tolerated. Manual casepacking and even bag filling are likely automation projects for several respondents, while pallet wrapping and bottle-handling are unlikely to be automated at plants relying on workers to execute those functions.

Asked what supply-chain improvements they had implemented in the last year, 52 percent say “better control,” and 48 percent say “reduction in damage.” One in four cites “better monitoring of location,” while 22 percent say temperature-monitoring tools were upgraded. Reusable secondary containers were put into play by 11 percent. The use of 2D codes to verify products were being placed in the correct container also was mentioned.

Equipment combining mechanical and robotic motion is becoming the norm for new machines, though cost tends to limit applications to large companies. Robotics in palletizing, case packing, carton forming and depalletizing dropped off sharply in this year’s survey; almost two-thirds of respondents indicate there are no robotic systems in their plants.

Asked where their companies’ approaches to packaging fell short, many respondents simply write, “Automation.” Palletizing systems and changeover time also are identified as needs, along with coding and labeling improvements, modular equipment and more flexible designs.

Greater attention is being paid to sanitary design, and some readers are critical of equipment that is not easy to clean and has harborage areas for dirt and microbiological colonization. “This is not just a meat industry concern any more,” points out one respondent, suggesting most wrappers, baggers, cartoners and case packers don’t comply with sanitary-design standards such as BISC and the American Meat Institute principles.

“We need automation for speed, reliability and consistency,” a respondent writes, adding, “the improvements that need to be made are somewhat irrelevant, since they will not be made for at least four or five years.” The consensus for less grunt work is clear, but people will drive substantive advances. “We need to develop a person who works exclusively on improving our packaging concepts,” a reader suggests.

Who provided input?

This year’s Food Packaging Trends report relied entirely on web-based responses to e-mail invitations for input. E-mails were sent in April to Food Engineering readers involved in packaging.

One-third of respondents are engineers, with almost as many (29 percent) involved in operations and production management. Another 16 percent work in general administration or management. The remaining 22 percent represent a range of job functions, including R&D, QA, maintenance and purchasing.

These professionals bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the subject, with almost three-fifths aged 50 or older (37 percent are 50-59 years of age; 20 percent are 60 or older). Another quarter is in their 40s. Most work at plants with fewer than 100 workers, including 44 percent with fewer than 50 employees. At the other end of the spectrum, 17 percent work at plants with 500 or more employees, with half of those at plants with 1,000 or more.