An overview of the food packaging process to deliver a product into the hands of a consumer—from filler equipment to the kitchen table and everything in between.
Facility and packaging line design is undergoing a significant transformation driven by technological innovation and evolving marketplace dynamics. Today’s food and beverage manufacturing leaders need to consider the following five factors in order to approach their food packaging process with a strategic, future-proof plan.
Five factors in food packaging process design
Adapting production lines to work with fewer people, introducing more space between employees, and adding protective barriers have been essential actions in the face of Covid-19. Automation may have been a short-term fix, but what are the longer term implications of this choice?
A reliable method for knowing what product was made when, where it landed, and who may have purchased it is no small matter, especially in the context of the multiple regulations that govern this essential process.
Bulk buying, as one example, means a line that previously created 6-packs must now be modified to handle 24, often with short lead time. What other consumer preferences may drive change?
Consumer attitudes toward packaging have changed, and buying decisions, not to mention brand reputation, can hang in the balance.
Allergens, government-mandated nutritional information, and healthy lifestyle trends all need space to be read and understood. In a crowded marketplace, the label offers a statement about the product and the company that stands behind it.
Each of these factors, underlined by the ever-present need to decrease costs, boost margins, and protect CAPEX investments, impact every layer of a future packaging line’s design and operation. And they must be considered throughout the process: design, specification, selection of equipment, and development of operating procedures.
We can categorize the food packaging process into six distinct design phases:
- The facility/packaging suite: Owners must think about their packaging line holistically to ensure that every square foot contributes to overall efficiency, safety, and cost control.
- The equipment: With innovations emerging all the time, facility owners must fully identify the advantages and disadvantages of adopting new technology both in the equipment and material to de-risk their investment in new processing technology.
- Packaging selection and design: These decisions have wide-ranging implications, from an internal perspective—facility design, equipment selection, staffing, storage and shipping—to consumer-facing messaging and environmental impact.
- Storage and shipping: The planning process doesn’t stop once you have a pallet of product. Shelf life, temperature and humidity, timing and transport, and retailer expectations are all important considerations.
- Packaging and the consumer: Consumer protection and preferences are becoming increasingly important in a world that has come to rely on companies to protect their interests and tastes. Health and safety and traceability; allergen and ingredient/nutritional information, and marketing are critical factors in the relationship.
- Future trends: Flexibility and future-proofing is the name of the game when building or updating a facility or package design. As you navigate through the myriad of planning decisions, let’s look at what’s ahead for the industry and the trends that may affect your business.
The facility/packaging suite
In this section, we’ll look at the food packaging suite. The space that holds the equipment and the people you need to get your product into a package that can head out the door. To start, we’ll explore the different types of construction projects you might need to undertake to build or update a facility.
Types of food packaging construction projects
Starting from a clean slate makes for a design process with fewer constraints. What kind of projects might require a greenfield build?
- New capacity for an existing product line
- A new product line that isn’t supported by existing equipment
- A novel product formulation that requires a completely new process
When designing a greenfield facility, always look beyond your immediate production needs. Planning ahead for a phase two that would involve constructing an adjacent building or starting with a manual process, but designing the space to allow for the introduction of automation, can pave the way for an expansion that won’t disturb active production. And that saves future time and money.
More often than not, a project involves updating an existing facility. This might be to build capacity or to modify a line to accommodate a new package size, or to update equipment to handle a new type of packaging. It might be to improve a system that’s aging or underperforming, and automating a former manual process to increase run rate is another great example. Working within the constraints of an existing space has its challenges, but often results in novel approaches.
Regardless of whether it’s greenfield or brownfield, an innovation project that involves a brand-new product, packaging material, or equipment is a special challenge. Because it hasn’t been done before—at least not by your company—special care, attention to testing, and challenging assumptions across production is key.
Real-word example: Extending shelf life without preservatives
A company is considering removing preservatives and instead employing an aseptic fill process to ensure shelf life stability. This approach can reap huge benefits because it extends your product’s shelf life under normal conditions. And because you don’t have to manage a cold supply chain, this may open up new markets, even new continents, while keeping your production centralized.
In an aseptic fill process, destroying harmful bacteria, or ‘kill step’, occurs before the product is transferred into the package. This opens up different possibilities for your package design. You might choose a carton, for example, where previously you used a can.
What are the considerations for your food packaging suite
Once you’ve decided you’re going to proceed, there are many factors to consider as part of the food packaging process and line design.
How the room operates
Mapping out how the product, packaging materials, waste, and people flow through the space is the first step. How much space will you need to accommodate the line? Will parts of your line be automated, or will it be a completely manual process? How many people are needed to operate the line and what space do they need to do their work? Where will you store supplies and how will you move them out of storage when needed? How will you manage waste? Will you manage primary, secondary and tertiary packaging in this space? Where will the finished product be stored while awaiting shipping? These are the kind of questions you’ll need to answer at this stage.
Your line rate goals will influence much of your decision making; this drives thinking around equipment types, automation needs, and how the space works to ensure maximum efficiency of line operators. It’s a good idea to look ahead and have a plan for growth: what is the maximum output for your design and how long will it take until your business outgrows it? Have you built in flexibility to change lines or introduce automation?
Luckily, there is simulation software available to support decision making during the design process. Modelling allows you to compare the relative efficiency of different equipment models and can help you forecast volume and determine shift lengths between change over. Feed in procurement information like delivery schedules and volumes for raw materials, and you’ll be able to foresee potential bottlenecks or downtime. Modelling software is inexpensive, and with the right inputs, the information it provides will guide you to confident decisions and, importantly, save time and money in the long run.
Health, safety and maintenance considerations
The goal of manufacturing is to optimize output. A key to minimal downtime is good maintenance. This should be built into your planning as well. If you have unplanned shut downs of the line to give an electrician or HVAC specialist access to do their work, you haven’t been thoughtful during your design around maintenance and accessibility. It should go without saying, but employee safety is paramount, not only related to the equipment but of overall operations within the area. Designing in steps for employee hygiene and equipment sanitation in the operation of the facility will mitigate food safety risk. Of course there are code considerations for fire safety and use of hazardous materials, but you must also factor in good ergonomics to keep employees healthy and reduce absenteeism and churn.
Food packaging facility planning factors at-a-glance
- Space: walls; flooring drainage; HVAC; storage
- Maintenance: mechanic/electrician access; sanitizing/cleaning: chemicals, water quality
- Operators: ergonomics and staffing
- Materials: components; waste flow
- Safety: operator protection; egress; PPE
- Hygiene: plant uniforms; plant shoes; hand washing; boot scrubbing; vectors; harborage
As you consider the design of your food packaging process facility and suite, understand how materials move through equipment and how market changes will impact your future packaging needs. Identify equipment that supports the growth of your company as it meets that change.
Food packaging equipment
Selecting the right equipment is a bit of a dance. With so many variables at play, you’ll find it easier to start with the more obvious decisions that will trickle down to influence others. And what’s most important for one line will not be the same for another. Consider your unique food packaging process needs.
Selecting your food packaging equipment
The properties of your product will influence your equipment selection and the materials of construction of that equipment. The filler for a gel will be radically different than one for a powder or solid. Thermal considerations for your product are also important to understand as it relates to flowability or microbial control. You should also think about the sanitization needs and the method to verify sanitization must be determined to support the safety of your product. The form of preservation for your product must also be considered so a compatible primary package can be selected to work with the equipment, the packaging material of construction, and the shelf life targets.
Primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging
Primary packaging touches your product. Secondary may house individual product packages—think a plastic pill bottle in a paperboard carton—or it may bundle together the primary packaging into a multi pack. Tertiary packaging is key for storage and shipping. You’ll need the right equipment to handle your packaging material types, shapes, and sizes.
Your business needs will determine the volume and speed that your line needs to deliver. Different equipment and how various pieces of the equipment on the line work together, will impact the ability to meet these needs and the space needed for your packaging line.
Your facility size and configuration will play a big role here. You may need to investigate a number of vendors’ options if you’re trying to nestle a line into a restricted space.
Maintenance and cleaning
Mapping out the maintenance and cleaning process is essential. Do you plan to have the whole line in a wash down room? Do you have space for cleaning and storing parts to change out as needed? Having adequate space to access equipment for cleaning, maintenance and calibrations is also on the list.
Understanding how often you may want to run a line before a changeover or if you will need to switch out for different sizes frequently is another consideration. Multiple SKUs that need to run on the same line may require the selection of equipment to handle multiple adjustments. Additional costs for tool-less or high-speed changeover may be justified to support flexibility and minimize changeover durations.
Cost is an overarching issue that plays into the whole planning process, as is capital planning—protecting your investment by building in flexibility for the future. Again, modelling software will be incredibly useful here.
When to go automated?
- Safety and sterility: equipment is easier to sterilize than humans
- Consistency: avoid under or overfilling a package
- Space: small facilities make it difficult for staff to maneuver
Choosing food packaging process equipment vendors
Although many vendors may offer a full suite of equipment to build out a line, most specialize in a specific type of equipment. The advantage of working with a food packaging consulting engineer is that they are not tied to any one vendor. The CRB team can investigate all the options and find the best combination to meet your needs, and chances are we’ve seen the equipment at work in multiple clients’ facilities. Understanding how different manufacturers’ equipment integrates is an incredible advantage for your food packaging process line.
Real-world example: Reviewing all the parameters
Surprisingly, it may not be simply the specifications that determine the equipment selected. In a recent case, our team identified three capable tank vendors. The one that we selected had a favorable lead time on delivery and a better warranty arrangement than the incumbent vendor
Factory Acceptance Tests and Site Observations
Equipment manufacturers are located all over the world, so what happens when travel is difficult or time/cost prohibitive? Answer: Virtual factory acceptance testing and remote observations. Through the clever technology of Smart Glasses and a secure video conference connection, your team can see the equipment you’re considering working in-situ, and avoid making a purchase with a less-than-desirable outcome.
Packaging selection and design
As discussed, there are multiple categories of packaging, typically we look at three, but not all products need or are limited to the following:
- Primary packaging: This has direct contact with the product.
- Secondary packaging: Encloses the primary packaging. This could be a small carton, a shrink wrap that bundles a set of primary packaging together, or even display packaging.
- Tertiary packaging: Refers to the bulk or transit packaging that holds multiple units for shipping. The tertiary packaging unitizes and protects the primary and secondary packaging and may include tier sheets, wood pallets, and stretch wrap.
Each layer performs specific purposes, and selecting the right properties is key. Let’s take a look at the elements involved in selecting the right packaging.
As primary packaging is in direct contact with your product, here are key things to consider:
If your product is affected by exposure to light, temperature, oxygen, or moisture, then your primary packaging needs to protect it from degrading while in transit to the consumer.
For example, a plastic container that holds headache tablets is a great solution when paired with a silica gel pack to absorb moisture. And since coffee beans are packaged immediately following roasting to preserve the delicious aroma that’s so important to the customer experience of the product, its packaging includes a one-way release valve. This allows the gas to escape as the product cools down inside.
Identifying the location of date lot code may seem like a small concern, but it must be located in such a way that the code is legible and will not be abraded or removed during storage, transport, or when used by the consumer. It needs to be readable for the entire life of the product.
Package materials and construction requires research, development, and verification of performance. Without thorough planning, you may run into issues. For example, your product may have lipid ingredients that bind with the polymers that line the inside of a package, which affects the product’s flavor. Alternatively, the product can absorb odors or flavors from outside of the package if it has no barrier properties. This scenario may drive you to line the inside of the material with a coating or select a different package altogether.
How do you want to dispense the product? Will it spray, squeeze, pump, or pour? Will all the product dispense out? The mechanics of these are more complicated, than say, a twist of the lid on a jar of peanut butter.
Real world example: All that and a bag of chips
Individual serving sizes of chips include a dose of nitrogen for two reasons: to keep them fresh and flavorful and to protect them through transport. Here’s another twist: chips that are destined to be stored and served on a flight must have less nitrogen than those that will travel in the back of a transport truck and wind up on a shelf in your local 7-11. Why? At altitude, the gas will expand and the bags will burst. Staying on terra firma? Not an issue. So the destination becomes part of the calculation.
The decisions you make here will depend on the role that your secondary packaging plays. For example, how will it sit on a shelf, or how does the secondary packaging play a part in tamper-proofing? Does the size need to be such that it reduces the risk of pilfering? Perhaps you need it to be a certain size to house multiple languages’ worth of ingredients or instructions for use. How you construct this layer and what materials you use are based on its purpose and the rigours it will have to undergo.
It is generally desired that when selecting secondary packaging equipment, that it be flexible to support multiple bulk sales pack configurations as consumer trends change.
Storage, handling, and shipping all place demands on products and packaging. Understanding the journey that is ahead, the storage, mode of transport, distance, temperature and humidity changes, and vibrations will all affect the choices you make here.
Needless to say, R&D testing is essential to any packaging exercise. Putting the individual and combined layers through rigorous testing for things like shelf stability, product/package interaction, and the ability to handle shocks, drops, vibration, temperature, and humidity will help inform your decisions—and hopefully avoid any surprises.
Protecting the environment is top of mind for many companies these days, and an important goal. With packaging, it’s a balancing act: a choice that reduces material quantity, for example, using fewer layers in a cardboard box, may have a knock-on effect of increasing loss and damage. It may appear less wasteful, but having to ship more boxes to replace damaged goods can quickly eat up any gains. Reviewing and testing different options to ensure that any limits you introduce are compensated for in equally sustainable ways, is the way forward here.
Storage and shipping
There are many factors at play in making decisions around storing and shipping a product. Where and how long is it stored? How will it be transported and how far will it travel? What happens when it reaches a retailer? Let’s take a look at some of these variables now.
The amount of warehousing space you have available is tightly linked to your throughput and shipping schedules. What is the time lag between coming off the line and into the warehouse before it’s shipped to its destination? If it’s in and out quickly, of course you’ll need less space. The size of your tertiary packaging is also a factor; and how it is stored. Do you have shelving that reaches the roof and requires moving forklifts to access? Do the containers need to be stacked? How heavy are they?
Refrigerated, frozen, or temperature sensitive products introduce another element into storage and shipping planning. Humidity plays a role in label adherence and longevity, which may also be affected by cold (or hot) temperatures. Will the product be exposed to altitudes during transport that could impact package integrity?
In some cases, the product or packaging may degrade if exposed to light. Chances are, you’ve accounted for that with primary packaging, but the product label may also be exposed to light once it reaches a store. How will the ink behave?
Product shelf life may be temperature dependent, or limit storage and transport options. Your choices for storing and shipping milk will be vastly different than for tins of soup or vacuum sealed pet treats.
Will your products travel a long distance? Via truck, train, plane, or ship? How rough is the ride likely to be and how long will it take? Will the packages go through drastic temperature changes? How many times will they be handled between facility and consumer? If the secondary packaging is damaged, will it affect the saleability of the primary package?
Real world example: A cold drink on a hot day
Beer distributors store products at temperatures just above seasonal dew point levels in order to prevent condensation on the primary package from damaging secondary packaging during transport, affecting saleability.
Again, a packaging engineer has been through this process many times and can offer invaluable advice as you work through the implications of your options.
Food packaging and the consumer
These days, consumers are more thoughtful about the products they consume than ever before. Trends toward plant-based eating and clean label products are a good indication that your target consumer is an important factor in your product and packaging design. With a goal of zero landfill, some food companies may pursue plant-based packaging to be more recyclable or compostable.
Health and safety regulations are becoming more stringent as well. These dictate everything from tamper-proofing and traceability requirements to communicating allergens, nutrition information, and ingredients. Keeping consumers safe is a priority for any manufacturer, and the potential of a product recall is on the top ten list of ‘what keeps me up at night’ for many companies’ leadership teams. Consider proactive controls and policies you can put in place to prepare for a food recall.
Real-world example: What’s on the label?
Product regulations have a huge impact on label size as they cover everything from ingredient listing and nutrition information to communicating potential allergens and accessibility/legibility of copy on the label. Your sales and marketing team will also want ample real estate for branding and consumer messaging. That’s when you discover the bottle you had selected as your primary packaging is no longer suitable to host the label you require.
Future trends in food packaging process design
What’s ahead for this fascinating and complex industry? What will drive food packaging process and line design into the future?
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has shifted the focus of regulation from responding to food safety issues to preventing them. For some processors, FSMA meant added attention to how food was processed and packaged. For example, dry food products like snack foods and cereals now require preventative measures to eliminate microbiological hazards on packaging lines. Other industries, like meat and dairy, were well-accustomed to combating microbiological growth, but for dry food processors, this may have been a new critical element in their food packaging process and line design. Additionally, FSMA mandated improved traceability to follow the movement of products and its ingredients through all steps in the supply chain, both backward and forward. This is captured in the date lot code applied to primary and secondary packaging.
Increased regulations also placed greater emphasis on preventing cross-contamination in the packaging process. Careful packaging line design and facility layout can mitigate risk and address segregation and isolation requirements for control of allergens in food manufacturing.
Automated inspection is a growing trend as lines become faster and the reliability of the inspection equipment has improved at higher speeds.
The drive to more environmentally-friendly processing and packaging continues. Consumer demand and corporate responsibility are driving sustainability efforts in food packaging, with processors developing proactive solutions to reduce environmental impact. From comprehensive waste-stream management plans to compostable and biodegradable packaging, food processors are rising to the challenge with new innovations.
The pandemic led many to re-think how a line can work with fewer people, more spaced apart. The result is an increase in automation that may be here to stay. Automation provides several benefits: reducing manual labor, decreasing operating risks, and lowering operating costs; but is not without its challenges. A food packaging consultant can assist processors to carefully weigh these benefits against automation’s challenges, including a significant upfront investment, the necessary skilled labor to maintain and operate, and potential limitations in flexibility. Don’t just think about if automation is right for your facility as it operates today. Think years into the future.
The short story is…this isn’t a short story. Food packaging is an incredibly complex field that requires know-how, planning, and an understanding of the cascading effects of every decision along the way. Whether you’re looking to build an entire greenfield facility or update a food packaging line to accommodate a new size, a food packaging engineer armed with simulation software can be invaluable to meeting the challenge of this balancing act. We’re here to help.