No food and drink business has ever had unlimited space for expansion, and for some, today’s constraints are no worse than they were 10 or 15 years ago.
But when it comes to packaging, it appears that growing numbers of manufacturers are having to provide increased productivity and efficiency, for example, as well as a wider range of formats, on a shrinking footprint.
At equipment supplier Engelmann & Buckham (E&B), md Michael Lindsay says: “Space seems to be having more of an impact, and many companies are now more keenly aware of it. Of course, part of this is the fact that land is more expensive, and expansion less of an affordable option.”
The vexed questions of tight margins and retailers driving costs out of production, which are felt particularly keenly in food and drink, have long made it difficult to justify capital investment in the industry.
“But I wonder if there are other elements to this,” says Lindsay. “We definitely find that, for larger companies, projects increasingly compete for a capital budget not allocated to the one site but across the entire group.
“You need to demonstrate best return on investment.” ‘Best’ will typically mean ‘fastest’, Lindsay claims. “It seems a short-sighted approach.”
Where these factors apply, one result is that fewer existing lines are being replaced wholesale, with the focus more on taking out individual machines and dropping in a more efficient kit.
Not all packaging machinery suppliers believe that space-saving is a burning issue for the majority of customers.
“Frankly, space has always been an issue in the food and drink industry. We have two requirement groups: high-speed with long runs and fewer stock-keeping units [SKUs]; and shorter runs with multiple SKUs,” says James Bedford, product manager for systems at Multivac. “Generally, the higher-output lines require more space, and this stands to reason.”
Equipment effectiveness (back to top)
According to Multivac, it is overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) that continues to be the critical issue for manufacturers, and it will only grow in importance.
“Our customers face massive raw-material [price] increases that they can rarely pass on to the retailer,” says Bedford. “Add to that the impending minimum wage increase, and who knows what else with Brexit, and the conversion cost becomes the single opportunity to increase profitability.
“Our customers will invest in OEE initiatives if there is a clear and measured payback. Automation and integrated lines can massively improve OEE, from the simplest pack-stacker to a more complex, multiple kinematic, multi-axis robot.”
The interplay between footprint, integration and OEE is an interesting one. When Krones introduced its ErgoBloc, which blocks together stretch blowmoulding, labelling, filling and capping, much of the space saving was achieved by eliminating conveyoring, including air conveyors between the blowing and labelling stages.
“But the conveyors also have a buffering function,” points out Markus Zoelfl, product manager for line solutions at Krones. “So when you reduce this, your first thought is that the lack of buffering will mean that line efficiency will suffer.
“In fact, it seems to have made the systems more, rather than, less efficient. This could be because the air conveyors were just another part of the line where failures could occur.”
He adds: “For the customer, the complexity of the line is reduced, and this is one of the features that have helped to drive growth in monobloc systems over the last few years.”
Just as important is the relationship between footprint, integration and lifetime cost. At filling equipment specialist Sidel, director Raffaele Pace says: “For beverage production lines, as in most industries, space efficiency is important as generally, the greater the footprint of a line, the greater the overheads associated with it.”
In other words, even where space-saving is not an end in itself, if a customer is looking for the most efficient, ergonomic and sustainable system, as well as the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO), then the end result is likely to be a compact solution.
As an example, Sidel mentions its Matrix Combi blow-fill-cap solution for polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Pace explains: “It takes up to 30% less floor space than traditional standalone equipment, and requires only one operator.”
Modular approach (back to top)
This modular approach has also allowed the integration of Sidel’s Actis (Amorphous Carbon Treatment on Internal Surface) plasma coating technique into the Matrix and Matrix Combi platforms, for combined blow-moulding and coating or blow-moulding, coating and filling.
One key market here is likely to be single-serve carbonated soft drinks in lightweight PET, where shelf-life has historically been limited by loss of carbon dioxide through the container wall.
There is also something of a convergence between financial cost (or TCO), physical footprint and environmental cost/footprint. In this analysis, those multi-site – often multinational – businesses with what would appear to be the fewest space constraints are often the most concerned about an installation’s environmental impact.
E&B’s Lindsay explains: “The bigger producers are the ones that focus most on carbon footprint, and are more likely to factor in the impact of more equipment fitting into a smaller space.”
Considerations might include energy consumption but also variables such as the distances covered by forklift truck movements. “It is surprising how many companies look in this sort of detail,” he adds.
It is tempting to think that there must be specific technical developments, such as the use of servo drives, which have allowed smaller machinery footprints to evolve.
But Thomas Schuhbeck, product manager for bottling and filling technology at Krones, does not believe this is the case.
“We use a lot of servo drives,” he says. “But I don’t think they’ve had a huge impact on the size of machines. The benefits of servos tend to be more about hygienic design and accessibility.”
The size of a rotary system such as a filler will, for the most part, be determined by unchangeable mechanical elements such as the diameter of the carousel, he points out.
Rather than particular technologies, E&B’s Lindsay believes it comes down to old-fashioned ingenuity and, as he puts it, “need-driven engineering”. In other words, the equipment might have been made more compact before, but there was no requirement for it.
He gives an example from one of E&B’s packaging equipment principals, Spanish manufacturer Volpak. The company has supplied linear pouch-making systems for some time, but has recently been working to standardise a rotary, continuous-motion form-fill-seal machine capable of producing up to 300 large-format pouches (1.5–2 litres) a minute.
This pouch format can be used for liquids, but is increasingly being applied to dry cereals, including mueslis, granolas and oats.
Manufacturers that had previously relied on a bag-in-box combination can now opt for a simpler system, which is faster and more efficient to produce. The pouches are also formed on a single, space-efficient machine rather than two, as in the case of bagging and cartoning.
End users may not need to make radical changes to the materials, pack formats or packing technologies used in order to save valuable factory-floor space.
This is especially the case in those categories where primary and secondary packaging options have proliferated across different customers and routes-to-market.
Krones, for instance, has its modular Varioline range of machines, which combine up to five different multipack options for bottles, from wraparound cartons and sleeves to trays, with different secondary packaging types.
“It offers incredible flexibility,” says Zoelfl. “And everything is done on one machine, so there’s huge space-saving potential.”
Robotics (back to top)
One type of technology that has made a positive contribution to compact design in many areas is robotics. An example, says Zoelfl, is Krones’s Robobox, which orientates cases, trays and other secondary packaging prior to palletising.
Achieving the same effect using laning and other more conventional technologies will probably require a huge footprint, he suggests.
It is the same ability to transfer and orientate packs quickly and easily that is behind Volpak’s use of Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm systems in many installations, says Lindsay at E&B.
Typically, a pick-and-place arrangement lifts pouches from one conveyor into a tray or case on a second conveyor. Even without the added benefit of orientation, a more conventional case or tray-packing system would take up far more space and be much more complex, he points out.
More exceptionally, equipment suppliers will need to customise machinery to fit in spaces that are not only small but also unconventional.
Bedford says: “We have installations where we have provided a turnkey project management function, and redesigned third-party kit and conveying systems to fit into very tight space constraints.
“This has meant working with people to get them to redesign their standard solutions, and also utilise space wherever available.”
Even where these exceptional space constraints do not exist, it seems that industry momentum is behind ever-wider repertoires of operations and broader ranges of pack formats at higher line speeds – all packed into the same space, or less.