Most packaging equipment manufacturers will offer the option of tailoring a machine to the specific needs of a new product. After all, we are continually being told that differentiation through a novel on-shelf presentation will mean better stand-out and increased sales.
That may be true, but even the owners of the largest brands are wary about committing themselves to given sizes, shapes and formats when market requirements are in constant flux. For smaller producers and co-packers, the risks are likely to be even greater. 'Novel' may sound good, but companies need to be careful what they wish (and pay) for.
Cartoning equipment (RETURN TO TOP)
To start with, there is not always a neat distinction between what is 'standard' and what is 'customised'. General manager at cartoning equipment company Kliklok International Neil Fowell explains: "We try to have a range of machinery which is 'standard' in our heads, but will often have the capability to deliver something different." If the machinery supplier aspires towards any kind of expert status (rather than selling, for example, purely on the basis of price), that 'standard' range will reflect the varying needs of its customers.
To take a very different example, food weighing and packing company Ishida Europe points out that, although it rarely sells a multihead weigher without any sort of application-specific adaptation, its RV series includes variants which are already tailored to the needs of different categories, from fresh produce to frozen meat, frozen vegetables and biscuits.
Kliklok, which was recently acquired by Bosch Packaging Technology, grapples with specifics of a different type. "We'll frequently have fancy carton shapes brought to us and be asked if we can accommodate them on our machines," says Fowell. "We're quite good at doing the 'origami' which comes out at the other end."
He adds: "As an overall trend, the requirement for physical complexity appears to be coming back, and has been for at least the last year or so. That is in contrast with a previous tendency for people to seek differentiation through print and other decorative effects."
Smurfit Kappa, offering bespoke solutions through its UK-based machine systems business, confirms a "huge trend" towards differentiation in point-of-sale (POS) merchandising, too.
At Smurfit Kappa Germany, sales and marketing director Andrea Wildies reports that marketing departments are now paying more attention to the impact of shelf-ready packaging (SRP). As with primary packaging, some brands have been using graphics to give existing case and tray formats greater punch, while others are turning to shape and structure.
"Where you have high run lengths, you can develop an automated solution," says Wildies. "We are working with producers in some of themore competitive categories to build in front panels or shelf-stoppers to their SRP. The capability can be retrofitted to existing machines. This makes it easier to promote the brand without paying for a freestanding floor display, for example."
Where food manufacturers are investing heavily in brand image, a machinery company's ability to suggest even a small feature, such as the closing mechanism on a carton, can carry a lot of weight. Detail of this sort can serve to differentiate not only the pack from others on the shelf, but also one supplier (of machinery, materials or both) from potential competitors.
Even where machine adaptations are linked to specific NPD, they will more often than not need to be liberating rather than limiting. "For a co-packer's Easter egg range, for example, we'd look at adapting a machine to suit the range required, using a single core unit with a series of change-parts," says Fowell. "You can do a lot of that with servo drives, but it's still more common with physically interchangeable tooling."
Just for the seasonal market, the co-packer may require, say, 15 different carton shapes and sizes. But it will also want to know how that machine can be employed for the rest of the year, ideally to achieve 100% utilisation.
"That's where customers can balance their investment," he says. "When you're paying, for example, half a million pounds for a line, the additional cost per separate design is not huge."
Multi-head weighers (RETURN TO TOP)
Mechanical changes can offer customised flexibility in other settings. At Ishida, marketing manager Torsten Giese estimates that around one in 10 of the company's multihead installations are mounted on a gantry, so that the same system can be moved to sit above different packaging lines, from vertical bagging to horizontal form-fill-seal or rigid packaging.
In a new installation for Belgian biscuit manufacturer Poppies International, Ishida has a single linear weigher that uses a funnel system to channel pastries such as palmiers to packing lines for as many as six different formats. These span a range of different-sized trays and bags, depending on the final customer. The company may change packaging up to seven times in a single shift, says Ishida.
Whether out of necessity or circumspection, more manufacturers are spreading the load of retail, foodservice and online sales across more customers. This, too, may require tailoring of primary and secondary packaging to suit these different routes to market.
Bespoke machinery (RETURN TO TOP)
Smurfit Kappa is among those reporting greater interest in machinery design that is 'bespoke' in offering numerous options for the future.
"As the power of the discounters grows, there is a hunger for machinery designs which can be quickly adapted if the chain comes up with something new," says Wildies about the German market. "The focus is more on being as productive as possible, and gaining a competitive advantage from that higher productivity."
While the company operating the packing line will most likely be looking for payback within two or three years, the expected life of the machine will be nearer to 12 years, says Wildies. This implies a capability to adapt to a fast-changing retail universe.
Machinery manufacturers, too, need to see return on investment. They will hope that what starts life as a customised machine or a completely new concept answers a wider need and becomes a standard piece of equipment. Pacepacker Services' Mixed Tray Loader (MTL), for example, started as a one-off project to automate a manual packing operation swapping pots of dips from uniform collations to form mixed loads of different variants.
This is clearly a retail trend. The original customer saw demand for mixed trays of dips quadruple over the first year. Pacepacker, in the meantime, extended the original Cartesian pick-and-place concept to one involving a Fanuc articulated-arm robot, and went on to win last year's Processing and Packaging Machinery Association (PPMA) Innovation award.
Paul Wilkinson, business development manager at Pacepacker, explains: "While a supermarket would use an entire tray or case of a single product, for an inner city store the approach is more likely to be to use mixed cases and so not cut back on the number of product variants." Discounters such as Lidl are even tending to use the mixed-trays approach in their mid-sized stores.
Of course, this example underscores the point that, when it comes to robotics, 'customisation' is a fairly meaningless term, given the end-user's ability to reprogramme devices. Even where a bespoke mechanism is required to hold and transfer product, this is likely to come down to the substitution of a different end effector.
Co-packers (RETURN TO TOP)
Pacepacker contrasts the typical machinery requirements of a co-packer with those of in-house brand-owner packing lines. "A retailer may go to a co-packer and say it wants, for example, more 'organic'-looking packaging," says Wilkinson. "Normally, the specification is handed over and the co-packer has to find a solution by working with machinery suppliers."
The co-packer will typically be under pressure to deliver within a tight timeframe and to a specific quality. And of course, there is no guarantee that the final product is going to be a success. But as Fowell explains, with co-packers there is the sense that 'if we don't take on the challenge, someone else will'. If successful, they may then go out and sell the concept to others.
"On the other hand, any changes for a brand-owner are likely to be more considered," Wilkinson says. "They will want to build in future-proofing, too, with some degree of flexibility."
At Ishida, Giese goes even further, warning: "Customisation can be dangerous". For example, a manufacturer may specify an abnormally small bag for a snack product. If the market changes, and the customer wants to switch to larger bag sizes, the line will accommodate that change, he says, but speeds will probably be affected.
Giese concludes: "Customisation can restrict your options and is only really advisable where you can be absolutely sure you can secure your market into the future, either with one customer or with a particular route."