We sit down with Dennis Calamusa, president and CEO of ALLIEDFLEX Technologies, to discuss advances in flexible packaging machinery and the direction of the pouch-making industry.
What do you see as the most important recent developments in pouching equipment?
Calamusa: In recent years there has been a set of new expectations put on the manufacturers of all flexible packaging machinery including horizontal form/fill/seal (HFFS), premade fill/seal (PMFS), and vertical form/fill/seal (VFFS).
Many of these popular packaging machinery technologies are undergoing redesign to accommodate the changing needs of the marketplace. These changes include redesigns for improved changeover, both in size and package format. The flexible packaging converting industry has been quite busy in recent years introducing a multitude of innovative pouch and bag formats. These formats need to be accommodated on new flexible packaging machinery either as a premade fill/seal or form/ fill/seal machine platform.
These market demands have been considerable. However, the industry is responding, and many forward-looking machinery manufacturers are stepping up to meet these new expectations.
Some of these new expectations include:
Improved size changeover in minutes vs. hours.
- Push button changeover and automatic adjustments without tools.
- Package format changeover utilizing “quick change” modules that minimize set-up and fine tuning.
- Automatic roll change of packaging material and zipper
- Online seal integrity inspection to ensure seal quality reducing or eliminating risk of leakers.
- Sanitary design to accommodate packaging within a wide variety of plant operational conditions including dusty (allergens) or wet environments.
- Full integration of a multitude of filling systems to accommodate the broad range of products shifting to flexible packaging from other forms of traditional packaging.
The financial impact of these new expectations are considerable for both the manufacturer and the packager. However, the cost in many cases can be justified through increased uptime, reduced scrap, improved efficiency and productivity.
When choosing how to set up a packaging line, what factors should a company consider in deciding to go with premade pouches or form/fill/seal?
Calamusa: I’ve been known as an advocate of both form/fill/seal (rollstock) and fill/seal (premade) technologies. ALLIEDFLEX and others have successfully brought both technologies equally to the market over the past couple of decades. Before we talk about the benefits of each approach, we need to realize that the option to choose a premade approach over rollstock did not always commercially exist. I know that is difficult to fathom, but it was the reality 15 to 20 years ago. Form/fill/seal, either VFFS or HFFS (rollstock) was really the only way forward with very little real possibility of utilizing a premade pouch packaging strategy. Previously the majority of the North American converting industry was keenly focused on producing printed rollstock, not premade pouches. Things have changed. Driven by shifting retail markets and the efforts of a few visionaries, premade flexible packaging has dramatically accelerated the global shift toward the popular stand-up pouch and many other forms of premade pouch and bag packaging.
Following are some of the drivers of that shift:
- Capital investment needed for HFFS or VFFS rollstock machinery could be considerable, creating a barrier for smaller or start-up companies from entering the market.
- Retail outlets and E-commerce demanding multiple package sizes (small, medium and large) and a variety of price points needed to suit new and changing demographics
- Shift toward simplification of the packaging process.
- Shift in workforce challenges with a lack of core competency.
- Replacement of traditional rigid containers (bottles, jars, cans, tubs, bag-in-box) with premade pouches becomes a logical and practical choice.
- Since flexible packaging requires no decorating because it is pre-printed, there is minimal warehousing, improved logics, etc.
Utilization of premade pouch packaging will continue to grow for decades, and more infrastructure will be developed by the converting industry to respond to this trend. We will continue to see flexible packaging become more sophisticated, including the incorporation of new dispensing and convenience features, in addition to new innovative pouch and bag shapes and formats. Many of these will be best produced by in-house by converters and filled and sealed at packaging level.
The major and continuing drive toward form/fill/seal (rollstock) is lower cost versus the premium paid for a premade pouch. This may be a factor when running high-output and high volume dedicated systems. As we are seeing, markets are changing, the workforce is changing and now that companies have a choice due to improved supply and increased competition lowering the cost of premade pouches, more companies are weighing the additional cost of premade. The difference may not be as much of a factor as it was 10-15 years ago. We are seeing a 50/50 split between premade and rollstock machinery projects, and we expect this trend to continue, particularly in the transition from and replacement of rigid packaging applications.
Some companies are concerned about line speed when converting to flexible packaging. How are OEMs addressing that concern?
Calamusa: Our experience has shown that this concern is expressed, but not always warranted. Typically, the companies with this line speed concern are multinationals who have built high volume and mature brands over many decades with older-style traditional packaging. These are the very companies that typically are not in any hurry to change from what they have done so successfully over many decades to a new flexible packaging concept that may carry some risk. Marketers are much more skittish regarding change than one may think. We should understand that this transition or reluctance to transition goes much deeper than line speeds. These large companies will generally only make the transition when they are confronted with flat sales growth or when the competition begins to disrupt their sales with a flexible packaging strategy.
Perhaps a more practical or conservative approach is to get started with a transitional strategy rather than to wait for flexible packaging machinery that will match present high volumes and dedicated production requirements. I have met very few companies willing to fully transition to flexible packaging all at once. By transitioning, any company can gradually explore the opportunities that a value-added flexible format can bring and, at the same time, complement their existing packaging format. To do this you do not need super high-speed machinery that may not yet exist. Instead, this can be done now with lower speed, lower output, lower cost machinery readily available running from 50-300+ packages per minute. Those higher machine developments are on the way and when they get here, companies will be in a great position to justify the purchase after a gradual transition to flexible packaging in a realistic way. Companies now know the market, can better predict what actual volume needs and they may find that a blended packaging strategy is more practical than total replacement.
To increase flexible packaging output, developers are approaching this in a variety of ways and packaging companies are adapting based on their particular operating strategy:
Multi-up Intermittent Machinery Formats, with every index producing multiple packages, available for HFFS or premade fill/seal technologies. Outputs 100-300+ ppm.
Continuous motion technology, particularly suitable for liquid product applications. Outputs 100-500+ ppm.
Multiple machines, each running the same size and package with a combined high output. However, each individual machine is also capable of running different sizes, product and package formats providing ultimate flexibility. Outputs 50-250+ ppm.
How are OEMs making their machinery more flexible to handle different types and sizes of packaging, while keeping changeover times to a minimum?
Calamusa: Flexible packaging machinery has always been more flexible in size changeover than rigid packaging machinery. However, due to the popularity of the stand-up pouch and other innovative formats, changeover is a growing and common demand. Most flexible packaging machines offer the ability to provide a broad size range capability, and companies want to take full advantage of this flexibility by reducing changeovers times. The industry is responding by incorporating a variety of technologies to expedite changeover and reduce fine tuning after a size change.
Servo technology has provided the greatest benefit by replacing mechanical mechanisms with motorized accurate adjustments. As a result, we now have a variety of quality manufacturers providing machinery fully capable of providing rapid changeover. This capability and technology certainly comes at a premium. However, many companies can easily justify this added capital expense through savings in increased uptime, reduced scrap and improved productivity.
What types of automation are being added to pouch packaging equipment to make them more efficient and easier to operate?
Calamusa: Machine intelligence features are becoming standard in the manufacture of many quality flexible packaging machines. The ability to provide real-time data to the operator and management is key to an efficient production operation. We see this in the form of operator interface (HMI) which is the operator control system. This interface provides critical information regarding selection of set-up parameters for multiple recipes, fault indication and possible correction, sealing temperature failures, set-ups, production output, as well as onboard operator manual. Production data can also be uploaded to the company information system where all information can be collected including uptime, downtime and production data. With the use of specialized sensing devices, there is the ability to provide predictive maintenance information enabling replacement of critical component before they fail. Remote monitoring and diagnostics are also handy features which can assist in remote troubleshooting by the manufacturer without making a service visit, saving time and money.
Automatic roll change is a popular feature being added to both HFFS and VFFS systems to improve uptime by removing the manual roll change process. Depending upon roll diameter and the production output of the system, as many as six to eight roll changes can occur within a single shift. Even if a manual roll change can be performed in five minutes, that extrapolates into a considerable productivity loss across multiple shifts, days, months and years. Any opportunity to increase uptime, putting more salable goods in the warehouse and reduce packaging scrap and waste should be seriously considered.
How are pouch packaging machines being modified to accommodate closures and fitments?
Calamusa: Over the past couple decades, both HFFS and VFFS machine manufacturer have been working on perfecting the integration of closure systems, particularly press-to-close zipper. In particular, the integration of zipper profile or other roll / strip fed materials were much simpler on the horizontal (HFFS) machine format due to the space to accommodate multiple stations to suit the workflow of the feeding, sealing, zipper side seal crush and multi-stage cooling process. These same process functions are much more complicated on VFFS machinery due to the lack of space and time available to produce quality seals and zipper orientation while optimizing output. However, great strides have been made due to technology advances including the use of servo and ultrasonic sealing methodologies.
The incorporation of spouts and fitments into pouches has also come a long way, particularly for higher output applications in the HFFS process. Vibratory bowls feed and orient pre-assembled spouts and caps and are placed onto the pouch after filling. Spouted pouches are sealed and cooled multiple times to ensure quality seals.
Handling premade spouted pouches is considerably less complex since the spout is preapplied by the converter and most of these prespouted pouches are loaded on rails which feed the pouches individually into the machine for filling and capping. On these fill-and-cap machines, the pouch is filled through the spout and subsequently capped, similar to a bottling system.
The incorporation of zipper, slider zipper, hook and loop, tapes, label, spout and fitments have all had a very positive impact on flexible packaging, accelerating growth and revolutionizing the functionality of all flexible packaging formats and in particular the popular stand-up pouch.
What kind of challenges do lighter weight, recycled or bioplastic films present for OEMs?
Calamusa: The industry is forward-thinking and has been fully engaged in this challenge for the past few years. Many companies are working closely with the material supply chain to ensure that new materials and substrates can be run on the machinery. The challenge is not only the ability to run these newer materials, but also maintain the package integrity and quality to which we have become accustomed to with traditional laminated materials.
These newer materials are generally thinner, non-supported and more extensible. As a result, special technical considerations must be incorporated into the process of the HFFS or VFFS packaging, including strategically placed servo controlled feed rollers to minimize and balance web tension to reduce film stretch and maintain registration control. Also, improved seal temperature controls and additional cooling minimize stretch and reduce wrinkles. In addition, downstream after the pouch-making section, additional considerations are needed in the pouch opening, filling and sealing stations to accommodate these material characteristics. All this is being done while maintaining production output and packaging integrity. Some of this technology may be retrofitted, but older mechanically operated machinery may struggle to meet the requirements. The key is to invest in equipment that provides flexibility and the technology to not handle only the materials of today, but also for what’s next.
Have there been any recent advances in sealing of flexible packaging?
Calamusa: The greatest advancement in sealing technology has been the incorporation of ultrasonic sealing into HFFS, VFFS and fill/seal machinery. The greatest advantage of this technology has been in improving or eliminating leakers due to seal contamination. Traditional resistance heat systems work great when the proper amount of time, pressure and temperature is applied to a clean seal area. However, when a product is filled into the package, it increases the possibility and risk of product contamination in the top seal area prior to top sealing. Seal contamination is particularly prevalent with certain applications including dusty, oily and liquid products. Ultrasonic sealing actually seals through these contaminants and dramatically eliminates potential leakers.
The addition of ultrasonic sealing can be expensive. However, this wise investment is justified to eliminate leakers if you are packaging one of these high-risk product applications. There is also a trend in package downsizing to reduce material consumption and headspace above product level. Ultrasonic can once again be a valuable tool by sealing through product that is closer to the top seal zone.
Aside from these questions, is there any other issue you’d like to address regarding flexible packaging equipment?
Calamusa: The flexible packaging machinery industry will continue to collaborate with the flexible packaging converting supply chain to support the needs of our mutual clients, consumers and the market worldwide to provide ongoing solutions to continue the growth and maintain the enthusiasm toward the multitude of benefits of flexible packaging.