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Q&A: End-of-Line Packaging and Automation Trends

By Jesse Osborne, Editor, Food Manufacturing

Food Manufacturing recently had the opportunity to correspond via email with Neil Weisensel, Brand & Marketing Director for Muller LCS, about trends and topics regarding end-of-line packaging and automation in the food industry.

Q: What are the current trends for end-of-line packaging of food products?

Neil Weisensel: The biggest trend we are seeing is in the optimization of packaging operations — meaning companies are constantly looking for products and equipment that offer greater reliability and seamless integration with up and downstream production. In addition, while the term “sustainability” has appeared to take a back seat in packaging industry rhetoric as of late, the trend has not been lost — it exists in the need for manufacturers to continuously do more with less. In other words, end-of-line packaging solutions must be able to properly secure loads while lowering costs, footprint, consumable use, and, at times, labor. ,

Q: What obstacles are you seeing food product customers faced with in terms of end-of-line packaging?

NW: We are seeing a growing demand in the food manufacturing industry to incorporate innovative automation through to the end of line. The first obstacle in doing so is ensuring automation performance aligns with the customer’s vision. For example, if a manufacturer has many SKUs and pallet configurations, simply obtaining a standard automatic machine won’t solve the need. Standard stretch wrap equipment, especially typical rotary arm or turntable style machines, can’t handle great variety. In this situation, it’s important to look for a solution that has the ability to change wrap patterns quickly and efficiently to handle variation is SKUs.

Another obstacle is the lack of centralized purchasing and support. From film and equipment to conveyors, most manufacturers need to purchase their end-of-line packaging solutions from multiple vendors. In some instances the distributor will act as the central point of contact but even then problems arise as they too are sourcing from multiple providers. This can cause delays when needing support for any part of the system and further complicates purchasing as multiple orders are needed to suffice packaging demands. Muller LCS is one of the only manufacturers of both consumables and equipment in the business., We act as a single source for end of line packaging needs which greatly reduces this common challenge for food manufacturers., ,

Q: What new technological developments are changing the way food is being packaged for delivery? What is the future going to bring?

NW: Advancements in technology are allowing manufacturers to package products more effectively and efficiently. With “going green” being as much about the actual dollars than the environment, manufacturers are continuously striving to reduce both primary and secondary packaging. The results are a more cost-effective solution that happens to also be more environmentally sound. Packaging walls are literally becoming thinner and more compact. As the market demand continues to shift towards a more environmentally conscious society the blend towards “doing more with less” will go even further.

Automation is playing a big role in this shift as well. New technology advancements allow manufacturers to control the amount of consumable use while simultaneously achieving greater throughput. Muller LCS’ Octopus rotary ring stretch wrap machines are a great example. The Octopus machines inherently save users over 25% in film usage. It also comes equipped with film tension control settings and varying wrap patterns to account for pallet load diversity. Another example where technology allows for less waste is with a solution like Lock n’ Pop — a water-based adhesive that forms a chemical bond with package surfaces that holds firm until it’s time to un-stack the pallets. Unlike other adhesives, Lock n’ Pop does not leave a sticky residue or harm package surfaces. It is invisible upon package separation and the application is easy and requires low maintenance. Solutions like Lock n’ Pop are creating even less waste and changing the way pallet loads are secured. The future will continue to drive more innovation with the goal of creating packaging solutions that are safer, stronger, produced faster and “green” for the wallet and the environment.

Q: In terms of end-of-line automation, what advancements are available to food manufacturers? What are the advantages over more “dated” offerings?

NW: From cold and hot environments to HACCP requirements, food manufacturers must meet more standards than traditional industrial manufacturers. Some of the more “dated” offerings still pose a challenge in these situations. For example, applying stretch film entirely around a load can suffocate product — for hot or cold applications this could mean product damage during transport as certain products must be able to breathe (like dairy or produce). Those looking for greater pallet wrap automation may have also turned to rotary arm machines only to discover that the lubrication points are at the top of the machine and have a tendency to leak on loads creating contamination risk.

Muller LCS offers a variety of methods for preventing these scenarios. For one, the Octopus rotary ring machine has no lubrication points. In addition, Octopus is available with multiple options and retrofits such as Flexi-Rope, which enables users to automatically apply ventilation between stretch film rotations. The system ropes film from both sides of the web, creating a thinner yet strong band of film as it secures the load. The rotary ring technology also allows food manufacturers to start and stop their wrap pattern anywhere on the load. This unique feature allows for a new dimension of stretch film application. Users can add more or less film where needed and ultimately reduce waste and create more stable loads. As mentioned earlier, solutions like Lock n’ Pop are making big impressions in food manufacturing too by allowing for heavy reductions in traditional packaging — stretch film, slip sheets, dunnage bags, corner boards, etc., can be virtually eliminated while maintaining proper load security.