Cost of labour is not the only factor driving automation of filling and sealing functions. Arjun Ramachandran writes for Packaging on how this machinery is contributing to product integrity and brand promotion.
The factory worker that would sit alongside a production line painstakingly dispensing a product into a small packaging capsule is fading fast from the modern day manufacturing plant.
Faced with the cost pressures of a global manufacturing market, many Australian manufacturers are now opting for automatic filling and sealing solutions to bring together their products and packaging.
Developments in filling and sealing technology are making this transition easier for manufacturers.
According to TNA Australia sales manager (eastern region) Barrie Edgar, increased speed has been a key development in filling and sealing equipment in recent years.
HBM Plastics & Packaging Technologies managing director Gary Brown agrees, and says demand for faster packaging machines reflects the pressure on today’s manufacturers to achieve greater production outputs.
“As volumes have increased the machine speeds are getting faster, particularly on form-fill-seal equipment,” he said.
However, speed is not solely responsible for driving demand for filling and sealing equipment.
Advances in quick changeover components have seen a greater ability of machinery to handle various product shapes and sizes.
According to Brown, this is encouraging more manufacturers to adopt machines to automate the filling of products previously considered too difficult to do so. This is particularly evident in the food industry.
“Filling has typically been labour intensive, but as the market has increased volumes it has looked towards greater levels of automation,” he said.
“Ready-made meals are an example where companies dealing with products that have been difficult to automate, such as diced vegetables and pastas, are now having success.”
Responding to trends
Heat and Control (HAC) business team manager (packaging) Robert Marguccio says manufacturers are now aware they need to have greater concern for the integrity of their products during the packaging process.
“There is more due diligence now as companies look to ensure that their products are free of contamination,” he said.
HBM’s Gary Brown says automated filling and sealing solutions fit neatly with this trend.
“Safety is an underlying driver of the demand for filling and sealing solutions,” he said.
“The more a process is automated the less the chance of contamination occurring through human intervention.”
Brown says filling and sealing equipment can also aid brand integrity by ensuring that quantity claims on the product label accurately reflect what is inside the packaging container.
“Manual systems could never really guarantee an accurate weight measurement,” he said.
“Manufacturers are increasingly opting for automated filling because they can guarantee consumers will get what the packet claims.”
The need for accurate dosage from filling and sealing equipment is just part of a growing trend of customer and regulatory focus on the labelling claims made by food manufacturers.
Another consumer trend that filling and sealing technology is helping manufacturers meet is the demand for fresher foods.
“Manufacturers are always chasing increased shelf life which can be achieved by removing as much air as possible from the bag and replacing it with gas,” HAC’s Marguccio said.
“As a result, there is greater interest in Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) and it is becoming an optional accessory on more filling and sealing machines.”
These changes in filling and sealing equipment reflect willingness from equipment manufacturers to continually understand and respond to the trends faced by manufacturers.
Another example of this is the impact of the probiotic dairy drink. These increasingly popular ‘daily-dose’ drinks have driven a need for filling and sealing machines capable of handling smaller 60 to 100ml bottles.
Development of new capabilities, such as this ability to work with smaller packaging forms, has also seen manufacturers consider new ways of presenting their products.
“Airlines are now taking advantage of this technology in the way they serve their passengers,” Brown said.
“Rather than a screw-top bottle of water, they now offer the foil-sealed tub of water which is much more cost-effective, and an ideal solution for a single-serve liquid consumed with a meal by a captive audience.”
Help with marketing
The growing use of marketing by manufacturers to help promote their products poses its own challenge for filling and sealing equipment.
“An increase in the various packaging designs used to attract end-consumer users have influenced developments in the equipment that produces and seals this packaging,” TNA’s Edgar said.
“Companies are looking to differentiate their product and increase their sales through unique pack styles,” HAC’s Marguccio said.
“For example, in the area of vertical-fill-form-seal machines companies are opting more for the stand-up pouch, or block bottom, rather than just the standard pillow-pack that hangs off supermarket shelves using the hanging eye.”
In addition to contributing to the marketing of products through the creation of different shapes, some filling and sealing machines also decorates the outer packaging.
“In the form-fill-seal market there is a sleeving option that allows the package to be formed and decorated at the same time as it is being filled and sealed,” HBM’s Brown said.
“This means there is no need to put on a label after the filling process is done - it’s all carried out in the one process.”
According to Brown, this additional functionality on filling and sealing machines is also quite flexible.
“Not only does it allow companies to fill and decorate on the one machine, but to also quickly change from one flavour to another and at the same time change the label on the container appropriately, such as from ‘Chocolate’ to ‘Raspberry’.”
Australian manufacturers in particular would welcome the flexibility of manufacturing equipment.
“In America one production line can run one product 24/7, so they can look to machinery that can focus on one product,” HAC’s Marguccio said.
“But with the size of the Australian market you definitely need to have shorter runs and versatility in changing over the machine from product to product.”
The rise of promotional marketing has also added to the incidence of shorter, ad hoc product runs.
As a result, TNA’s Edgar says, manufacturers want filling and sealing equipment that features simple and quick methods to change formers, bag sizes and film.
In addition to this functionality, HAC’s Marguccio brings another perspective to the manoeuvrability of filling and sealing equipment between production runs.
“Companies have always wanted to make sure that changeover time is minimal, but sometimes it is necessary to wipe the machine down. That’s an important issue too, especially in light of the issue with peanut allergies,” he said.
“It’s important to know how many contact faces there are in the machine and what needs to be cleaned down to get the next product on.
“What this all comes down to is how easily components on the machine can be disassembled to be put into a washing system.”
Marguccio says filling and sealing equipment is also being improved by greater sophistication in process control.
“Machines are getting smarter due to increased memory, better technology, and greater use of sensors and logic control,” he said.
“Previously if a succession on a conveyor was missing a product the machine would produce an empty little pack. With these improvements, the machines now know not to run if no product is present.”
With this constant innovation and improvement, filling and sealing equipment remains a significant investment for manufacturers.
While the smaller footprint of newer models may provide some relief in terms of floor space costs, the capital cost of the equipment nevertheless remains.
“The equipment can be expensive by nature - it has to be well engineered, is often made of food grade stainless steel, and must be capable of withstanding automated clean-in-place processes,” HBM’s Brown said.
“Additionally, the components and seals can also be expensive and these machines aren’t typically mass produced.
“A manufacturer must be confident that the market they operate in and the volumes they produce justify the outlay for machinery.”