A look at new products illuminates trends in meat, poultry and seafood packaging. The quest for convenience continues unabated, with microwaveable sandwiches in susceptor pouches, breakfasts in paperboard cups, ready meals in self-venting bowls, meal components in easy-open/reclose pouches and single-serving protein snacks.

As a result, the global market for microwave packaging is expected to expand at a 4.4 percent compound annual growth rate through 2023, according to “The Global Microwavable Foods Market” report from Allied Market Research.

Beyond convenience, other attributes influencing packaging choices for meat, poultry and seafood include sustainability, transparency, food safety and reduction in food waste. Sustainability is driving interest in recyclable and recycled-content packaging as well as plant-based packaging. Some brand owners are moving away from plastic packaging, especially difficult-to-recycle black plastic trays, toward plant-based cups, tubs and bowls. A new option, a formable paper with excellent barrier properties, reportedly is suitable for lunchmeat and portion packs and reduces plastic use by up to 80 percent.

Consumers also want clean labels and to know what’s in their food and where it comes from, prompting use of technology such as QR codes that can link consumers to product information through a smartphone.

Demand for clean labels and food safety concerns are driving interest in and development of new high-pressure processing (HPP) technology. With the installed base of HPP equipment growing at a rate of approximately 17 percent per year since the mid-2000s, the global HPP market was valued at $120 million in 2016 and projected to more than triple to $430 million by the end of 2026, according to Future Market Insights and its report High Pressure Processing Equipment Market: … Global Industry Analysis and Opportunity Assessment, 2016–2026. Exposure to high pressure inactivates pathogens without negatively affecting the product’s appearance or texture. The process also inactivates spoilage bacteria to double, triple or even quadruple shelf life and reduce food waste. As a result, risks of foodborne illness plummet along with the possibility of a food safety recall.

Foods undergoing HPP rely on flexible packaging, an increasingly popular choice for meat, poultry and seafood products. In fact, flexible packaging is projected to experience a 3.9 percent growth rate globally through 2023, according to the Flexible Packaging Market Assessment, a report from PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. The food industry remains the largest user of flexible packaging and is likely to retain its No. 1 status due to the proliferation of ready-to-eat products, snacks and frozen meals and the convenience, sustainability, safety and barrier properties it can deliver. The report also notes pillow pouches continue to dominate, but stand-up pouches are gaining favor with retailers due to better shelf impact. This is prompting products traditionally associated with cans, such as processed meat, to transition into pouches.

The convenient, sustainable, safe, clean-label products consumers want depend on packaging lines that are efficient, flexible and hygienic. For processors, cost savings is always top of mind, but with labor in short supply, automation is receiving careful scrutiny. Automation supports running multiple sizes, reduces labor requirements, accommodates short runs efficiently, minimizes changeover time and measures line efficiency to maximize uptime, according to The Evolution of Automation, another infographic from PMMI. Automation also reduces handling and associated chances of product contamination and eliminates hazardous or repetitive tasks for personnel.

One form of automation, the robot, is moving onto food/beverage lines in unprecedented numbers. In fact, robot sales for food and beverage applications now represent the second-largest sector of robot users behind automotive, according to the infographic Rapid Growth Ahead for Industrial Robots in Food and Beverage Processing, also from PMMI. Technological advances in artificial intelligence; end-of arm-tooling (grippers) capable of gently handling irregular shapes; washdown-compatible, hygienic designs; flexibility; and simplified programming and setup along with the introduction of collaborative robots (cobots) make protein processing a prime growth area for robots. Cobots, which can work safely side by side with human operators without the guarding needed by conventional robots, are favored with 55 percent of the consumer packaged goods firms surveyed planning to use cobots vs. 43 percent for conventional robots, according to the The Evolution of Automation infographic.

As processors move toward Industry 4.0 and the Smart Factory, several other technologies will assume growing roles for packaging, particularly for packaging equipment. Approximately 44 percent of the respondents in the Evolution of Automation survey will invest in Big Data Analytics to collect and analyze data to maximize uptime and schedule preventive maintenance. “Every day that companies delay implementing automation and Big Data solutions is a missed opportunity as those that are using it are finding immediate and profitable success,” warns Bryan Griffen, director of Industry Services at PMMI and former group engineering manager at Nestle.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are already being used to streamline the design process, simplify training and support maintenance. AR merges digital elements with the actual environment and can zoom in, present a virtual image next to a machine, identify parts and part numbers and provide visual step-by-step instructions for an operator or maintenance person.

VR creates a virtual environment in which design teams can simulate action and optimize controls, mechanical designs and machine/operator interaction. Much of this simulation occurs before construction begins and continues throughout the build to fine-tune the design. As the machine is completed, the VR environment can serve as a training aid for operators and maintenance personnel, in effect providing a “learning by doing” experience actually touching the machine and disrupting production. A VR training program also ensures all operators receive the same instruction.

Although remote equipment access technology has been available for some time, adoption has been slow. To help consumer packaged goods companies benefit from remote access, the OpX Leadership Network has developed a Remote Equipment Access: Options Analysis software tool. Based on the collective experience of the OpX Leadership Network’s Remote Equipment Access Solutions Group and available for free download, this discussion tool helps production teams consider approaches for enabling access to equipment for diagnosis, potential repair and performance improvements. It also enhances understanding of the skills, costs, reliability and security associated with safe, secure remote equipment diagnostics. NP