Whether they acknowledge it or not, food packaging professionals are operating lines where the goals of sustainable manufacturing are playing out. 
One measure of the greening of food and beverage packaging is that the manufacturing professionals who work most closely with it acknowledge it more by their actions than their words. 
Participants in this year’s Food Engineering Packaging Trends Survey give middle-of-the-road scores to sustainability and reductions in primary and secondary packaging when describing their companies’ actions and the impact various issues are having on operations. Indeed, green packaging barely rates a mention by readers who describe improvements their firms need to make or areas where packaging activities fall short.
But make no mistake: Sustainability considerations are reshaping packaging operations, taking their place alongside faster changeovers, greater automation and equipment that is more flexible, reliable and precise.
Package material changes were made at two out of five of respondents’ companies in the last year. Most of the changes can be categorized as a switch to more environmentally friendly materials or as lightweighting with thinner containers that cost less to ship and result in less end-of-lifecycle waste. Switches to biodegradable film and recycled cardboard, substituting  recycled cardboard for plastic and using biodegradable polymers instead of HDPE plastic are typical of the green-material changes that are occurring. Lightweighting is evident in switches to thinner board-weight cartons, the conversion to unsupported shrink bundles in place of bottles in corrugated trays and shifts from glass to PET containers. 
Lightweighting is an established trend, and conversions from glass to PET and from paper to plastic film arguably result in less earth-friendly containers. Nonetheless, sustainability is a synonym for efficiency, and companies clearly are focused on more efficient use of resources, regardless of whether the motivation is to save the earth or to save money.
For the fifth consecutive year, reductions in energy inputs were the most common efficiency actions taken at readers’ firms, followed by reductions in waste. In both cases, a majority of food companies are taking action in these areas, in some cases zealously, prompting one reader to grump about “micro-managing waste sources.” On the other hand, only one in four reports reductions in secondary or primary packaging. One third cite increases in recycled content or pallet-load capacities, the same ratio as those realizing reduced transport costs.
Despite the bottom-line impact, respondents believe sustainability efforts will only have a moderate impact on their operations in the next two years. On a four-point scale, ranging from little to great effect, sustainability ranks eighth out of 18 factors. As in past surveys, material cost is viewed as having the greatest impact, followed by product safety.

Anomalies or trends?

Two caveats need to be made about this year’s survey results. The first is a smaller sample compared to last year. Secondly, the proportion of respondents at large companies is significantly higher than in previous years, making direct comparisons problematic. Nonetheless, responses to open-ended questions provide insight into issues of concern, and participants weigh in on several new questions.
The large-company skew provides a context for the priority this year’s respondents place on faster line speeds as a key issue affecting their operations. Line speed ranks as the third-highest area of concern, up from eighth in 2011, when the sample favored smaller firms. The need to address consumer convenience also ranks higher than in previous years. Product shelf life, on the other hand, falls sharply as an operations shaper.
As in previous years, filling operations are the most frequently cited chokepoint on packaging lines and one of the most likely to be addressed in the coming year. “The filler is always the slowest-rated unit,” one reader writes, “but sleevers always have the highest downtime and reject rates.” Label printing and application is the most frequently mentioned bottleneck that respondents say is very likely to be corrected this year. Case packers, bag sealers and high-speed cameras also are on priority lists.
“Carton speeds are reduced due to case packer,” one respondent observes. “Examining specific bottlenecks and machine setups” is another necessary improvement, along with “implementing changeover training due to large number of inexperienced operators.”
Chokepoints that are somewhat likely to be remedied tend to be more complicated, such as transfer points and contamination inspection. Real-estate issues often get in the way of a solution. “The workspace around each line is very narrow, and it is difficult to add new equipment,” a survey participant writes. “Most of the existing equipment is mobile, and any major change can be obstructive.” Predictably, the least-likely problems to be addressed involve the most costly solutions, such as new freezers and integrated pouch- and tray-packing systems.
Reduced changeover time is the most frequently mentioned improvement readers would like to make. Excessive downtime and efforts to boost OEE are related objectives. Insufficient automation and obsolete machinery are frequent gripes. Replacing manual steps with equipment that is flexible, robust and more precise is a pressing need for many. One reader complains about machine tolerances that simply are not capable of  “meeting customer expectations of zero defects.” Another cites pre-1990 technology “with outdated electronics” that could not be updated because of a dearth of qualified mechanics.
Improving overall equipment efficiency remains the top focus of packaging departments’ continuous improvement efforts, followed by increased reliability and faster changeovers. Greater operator involvement in routine or basic maintenance is a priority for one out of 20 respondents, though it is part of the OEE strategy at the majority of organizations. The next-most popular strategy is greater involvement of OEMs in maintenance training, with one in three companies looking for assistance from vendors. Online training also is a popular stratagem. “In-house training of operational team to understand OEE” is needed as well, one respondent writes, if workers are to understand the factors impacting OEE and how to move the numbers.

New lines, new equipment

More than half of respondents’ companies will install new packaging lines this year, up sharply from previous years’ surveys. A majority will modify existing lines to handle containers other than those they originally were engineered to handle. Two out of five will install new material handling equipment. One in four will increase spending on capital projects.
Some of those investments are related to efforts to get new products into distribution and onto store shelves faster. Asked what strategies their organizations are pursuing to decrease time-to-market, half indicate modifications to existing packaging equipment as part of the strategy, and two in five cite new lines. Contract packagers are part of the answer at a quarter of the firms.
Cost is the primary rationale for not implementing new packaging systems or materials, though less so than in past surveys. The need to first realize a return on investment from existing equipment is a factor for one in three. Satisfaction with existing systems is mentioned by a handful of readers, and one respondent cites quality issues as a reason for standing pat.
Indeed, equipment quality is the number one area of needed improvement, according to readers. Presented with six possible areas of improvement, the highest proportion of readers selects “more robust construction.” Better hygienic design and flexibility to handle a range of container sizes scores almost as highly. Only one in 10 indicates “improved operator safety,” though that is twice the ratio of a year ago.
Open architecture and standardized programming have driven down the time and cost required to integrate machines, though a third of respondents believe their lines can still be characterized as “islands of automation.” Two in five indicate they are making headway in controls integration, and one in five says complete line integration has been achieved. A handful of facilities either order equipment without controls and install their own standardized solution or control their lines from a central location. One reader’s plant is migrating to the PackML standard.
For information about the survey methodology, please see the October 2012 issue of Food Engineering on www.foodengineeringmag.com.


Who provided feedback?

Information in this report is based on responses to e-mailed invitations to participate in a web-based survey for the 28th annual Food Packaging Trends Study. Invitations were sent in May to Food Engineering subscribers who influence purchase decisions for machinery and materials at their food and beverage companies. 
While the majority of respondents in the 2010 and 2011 surveys worked at facilities with fewer than 100 workers, only one in five of this year’s group works at a similarly sized plant. Almost two-thirds are employed at plants with 250 or more employees, including one in three at facilities with 500 or more workers. More than a quarter of this year’s sample spend over $1 million annually on packaging machinery, double the prior year’s ratio.
The product mix at respondents’ plants also was a departure, with more than a third representing manufacturers of baking and snack foods, cereal and other grain-based products and dairy and frozen novelties. Processors of meat, poultry and seafood products, on the other hand, dropped to one-tenth of the sample, and beverage makers constituted one in 13. Protein products were the most common product category last year, as they typically are in Food Engineering reader surveys.
Engineers provided more than a third of the feedback, with operations and production management professionals accounting for more than a quarter. The proportions of R&D and QA specialists both doubled; together, they account for a quarter of responses. Other job categories include general administration (17 percent), purchasing (5 percent) and packaging (2 percent).