Packaging trends continue to be driven by consumers. Functional features sell products. 

According to an online survey of 2,135 adults ages 18 and older by the Harris Poll for the Flexible Packaging and Extrusion Division of TAPPI International, in Peachtree Corners, Ga., 50 percent of consumers give preference to resealable flexible packaging when making a purchasing decision. The Consumer Flexible Packaging Preference Survey also reports 39 percent will grab an easy-to-open flexible package first, while 32 percent prefer microwavable to non-microwavable, 20 percent look for packaging that’s easy to store, 24 percent want packaging that extends product freshness and 17 percent seek recyclability/sustainability symbols.  

These attributes are even more important to consumers who think they will purchase more products in flexible packaging in the future. In this group, the top three influences are resealability (65 percent), convenience features such as easy to open and carry (58 percent) and longer-lasting fresh products (44 percent). A significant portion of this group also wants to save money (41 percent), view the product through the packaging (26 percent) and choose options that are better for the environment (23 percent).

These preferences and a growing demand for products that make meal preparation easier are driving adoption of pouch packaging. Demand for pouches used in meat packaging is forecast to climb 5.3 percent per year to $220 million in 2021, with unit gains expected to advance 3 percent per year to 1.6 billion units, according to Meat Packaging Market in the U.S., a market study published in February 2017 by the Freedonia Group, in Cleveland, Ohio. 

Interest in flexible packaging translates into demand for films that provide barrier, peelability, microwavability and dual-ovenability, as well as in functional features that include zippers and easy-open notches and pull strips. 

There also are a growing number of active packaging options such as time/temperature labels, which change color to provide a visual indicator of product freshness. This type of freshness indicator could eliminate premature disposal and reduce food waste. 

Another type of active packaging moves beyond traditional passive barrier resins such as ethylene vinyl alcohol in multilayer structures to active scavenging and/or freshness-preserving technology. Today, active packaging reportedly can protect meat color better than modified-atmosphere packaging and has the potential to increase display life up to 30 days, halve the number of markdowns and past-sell-date units and cut food waste. It also can offer the advantages of case-ready packaging: hermetic seals, attractive graphics and lighter weight. 

Lighter weight exerts a positive effect on transportation costs and is seen as enhancing sustainability. But lighter weight isn’t the only more sustainable option. Biodegradable films and packaging with recycled content are experiencing rising demand. In fact, the desire to convert to biodegradable dual-ovenable films is helping fuel overall demand for dual-ovenable lidding films, according to a report from Future Market Insights (FMI), in Valley Cottage, N.Y., Dual-Ovenable Lidding Films Market: Frozen Food and Meat Products … Global Industry Analysis and Opportunity Assessment, 2017-2027. Demand for biodegradable lidding film also is growing due to the popularity of packaging in trays and specialty containers, modified-atmosphere packaging and retort packaging, according to another FMI report, Biodegradable Lidding Films Market: Global Industry Analysis 2012-2016 and Opportunity Assessment; 2017–2027.

Polyethylene terephthalate trays and vacuum skin packaging can contain levels of recycled content near or at 100 percent. Trays combine clarity with recyclability. So the trays not only serve as a market for recycled material, but can themselves be recycled and converted into new trays or other products. 

On the packaging line, quality control technology continues to advance as does the use of robotics. Metal detectors and X-ray inspection systems continue to evolve with multi-signal systems boosting sensitivity. Systems using dual X-ray signals, one high-energy and one low-energy, detect contaminants as small as 0.4 millimeter and significantly improve detection of low-density or soft contaminants such as bones. It also can inspect overlapping pieces like chicken nuggets. 

Metal detectors also use multiple frequencies to overcome “product effect,” a longstanding challenge to effective inspection of conductive products like meat, poultry and seafood. The latest multi-frequency systems not only reduce false rejects due to product effect, but also enable inspection of products packaged in metallized film. Units are available in pipeline, gravity and aperture configurations.  

A robotic system overcame tight space and budget constraints when Nortura needed to optimize palletizing. The agricultural cooperative headquartered in Oslo, Norway, produces processed and cured meat products for national distribution. It needed a system that could stack boxes of different sizes and weights at different heights. It also needed to be able to use the palletizing space for other purposes. A six-axis collaborative robot with a ceiling-mounted vision system occupies one-fifth of the space occupied by typical palletizing robots, which reside in a large fixed cell with safety caging.

A collaborative robot, or cobot, can work safely alongside human operators, automatically stopping if it runs into anything. In standby mode, it occupies only half a cubic meter of space. Its work area is a painted space on the floor, which marks the spot where the empty pallet is placed. When no pallet is present, the space is free.

The National Provisioner 2018 State of the Industry Report Survey

The cobot is easy to program for different stack patterns and runs with minimal supervision. As soon as the vision system detects a pallet and boxes moving on the conveyor, it begins palletizing. It also checks weights to ensure all boxes are properly filled. Nortura estimates the payback for the palletizing system at less than one year for a one-shift operation, faster if they run two or three shifts.

As with robots, digitalization is assuming a larger role, changing how packaging lines are designed and operated, as well as how operators are trained. Digital flows are beginning to receive as much attention as physical flows. Combining CAD with actual operational logic creates a Digital Twin of a machine or process, allowing it to be fully tested and optimized before it’s built. This streamlines construction, installation, commissioning and ramp-up and eliminates conflicts between physical systems and controls that could cause a failure to meet performance objectives.

Virtual environments also are assuming a growing role in operator training. Costs of virtual reality (VR) hardware and software have dropped and the visual quality and interactivity of the environments is better than ever thanks to technology advances for gaming. Using CAD information from the machine, the training program allows the operator to zoom in and out, circle the machine, operate the human/machine interface and perform functions such as changeover. It also can graphically demonstrate safety dos and don’ts. Operators enjoy VR training, and it has the potential to shorten the learning curve and training time. Even more importantly, VR training can take place anywhere and doesn’t affect production. NP