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Improving Throughput in Food Packaging Processes

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By Emilie A Lachance - January 21, 2020

Consumers are becoming increasingly more demanding when it comes to food products. They expect a wider variety of options for virtually every type of food product. Food products now have a wide range of perceived healthy or sustainable options such as organic, vegetarian, vegan or are made with alternative raw materials such as protein sources that include ingredients such as hemp or almonds. Consumers also demand that food be packaged not only for safety, but also for convenience, with food manufacturers delivering a variety of serving sizes, bulk provisioning for whole food stores or delivering food in ready-to-eat packages.

This proliferation of food options is also coming at a time when food outlets tend to be consolidating, with retailers such as Walmart, Costco and Amazon grabbing increasing market-share. This consolidation inevitably leads to increasing price pressure.

According to Food Dive, “manufacturers are adding more products, adding to workload at processing and packaging plants. Four out of five already deal with more than 100 product SKUs. The majority of them predict that number will continue to increase, so the lines will need to change more often.” and “factories are getting busier, with 77% of the total value of products coming from 12% of the nation's processing and packaging plants that have 100 or more employees.”

This means that food manufacturers, like technology companies are embracing ‘agile’ delivery systems. Food packaging lines often must be able to efficiently deliver multiple SKUs with little loss in efficiency. Food manufacturers are also having to deal with fast product launches with some products reaching scale and others not. This means that the time to streamline and optimize food packaging processes is becoming compressed as new products are launched and failed products are ended.

Food manufacturers responding with automation, with a recent survey indicating that “94% of packaging operations are using robotics". Food packaging lines are consistently a source of frustration for food manufacturers. While automation has the potential to  increase food packaging line throughput, it’s not always a panacea. With the need for many lines to constantly change over from one product to another, even automation can only do so much to increase packaging line throughput.

Savvy food manufacturers are implementing OEE measurement systems in order to maximize the value of their capital investments in food packaging lines. OEE takes into account the Quality of product produced, the Efficiency (speed) of the production process and the Availability of scheduled production machinery. Measuring OEE is a great way for food manufacturers to optimize the throughput of their food packaging operations and Worximity TileBoard is the ideal way to gain visibility into your packaging process OEE.

Food packaging lines have nuances however that food processors have to take into account as they seek to measure and optimize throughput, including when using OEE methods.

As if to make things complicated, according to Manufacturing Magazine

“Packaging doesn’t just refer to the box that contains the product. It is a coordinated system of preparing goods for efficient, safe and cost-effective movement through the entire supply chain."

This means that optimizing food process packaging systems requires taking a holistic view of packaging decisions and processes.

Improving throughput in food packaging processes starts with packaging design. A review of food packaging design includes looking for unnecessary materials including too much protective material encasing the product. Using standardized package sizes for multiple products means that standardized equipment can be used and change-over times can be reduced. For film wrapping stations, film gauge is an important consideration. Too thin a film can lead to film feed breakages and to too many rejects due to holes being torn in wrapped packages. Using pre-printed packaging may reduce packaging steps, changeover times and rejects due to mis-printed packaging after filling being avoided.

Evaluating palletizing and warehouse systems can reduce rejects due to damage after packaging and can reduce the steps in getting packaged goods to market.

Recognizing that packaging lines operate within a larger system as noted above, food packaging process throughput is often dependent upon everything that happens in the value chain before the line itself. For instance, an article in Operation Excellence discusses the concept of ‘moving bottlenecks’. In one example they note a cereal bag / box filling process that had an OEE of 75%, below the goal of most manufacturers of 85%. This packaging line takes the full output of two production areas, one being cereal flakes and another being formed cereal, so the assumption was that this line should be at running at full capacity at all times. However, through deeper analysis it was found that the storage silos were becoming over-full, leading to either production line going down...meaning that the downstream packaging process had no product to package. In this case, the bottleneck had ‘moved’ from the production line to the packaging area. Simply measuring OEE of the packaging machinery would have lead to a faulty analysis.

Similarly, in a bottle filling line, OEE appeared to be erratic. It was found that because the line shifted from large to small bottles and back again, the throughput of the packaging process varied dramatically, as the fill times were very different between large and small bottles. The product being packaged in this scenario was salad dressing. Smaller bottles filled at a much faster rate than larger bottles. When filling small bottles at a faster rate, the labeling machine became a bottleneck, requiring the packaging area to be slowed down. When larger bottles were being filled, the labeling area had extra capacity, leading to poor OEE of that area.

To make things even more complex, food packaging lines tend to fall into two broad categories, Filling and Wrapping.

Filling processes include solid or semi-solid (think yogurt) products going into bags (including form-fill or ‘shaped’ bags and standard film bags) or solid / semisolid products going into other packages such as thermoformed PET containers.

Wrapping includes using film to wrap products (such as meat) that may be on a foam container or L-Card or include an Interleaver with the film being wrapped around the product and heat sealed.

Each of these packaging processes comes with its’ own productivity and throughput challenges. For instance, bag lines are well-known for being a bottleneck. Depending upon the product being packaged, manufacturers may use a VFFS (Vertical Form Fill and Seal) or HFFS (Horizontal Form Fill and Seal) process. Both types of systems have to be managed to prevent waste (overfilling) and to clear package jams. Wrapping lines often have issues with the film being fed to the wrapping operation tearing or packages being punctured after wrapping, leading to rejects.

Optimizing throughput through packaging lines then requires taking into account the type of line being optimized as well as the overall value stream from product being delivered to the packaging process to the warehousing and shipping of the product.

With multiple product changes comes complexity as well. According to Food Processing Magazine, the single greatest cause of downtime in packaging lines is the time it takes to change over rolls of packaging film as the film runs out. Their calculations show that in an average food packaging process, an increase in changeover time from 1-2 minutes to 3-5 minutes can decrease product yield equaling hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

The next biggest throughput losses for food packaging processes are related changeover times including equipment changeovers (such as adjusting equipment for a new package size), cleaning, setting up and waiting for product. 

As noted above, while there are standardized recommendations for improving food packaging process throughput such as evaluating packaging design, implementing automation, looking at warehousing steps and evaluating finished product production capacity and trends, in reality with a wide variety of products being packaged across a wide range of package types, each food packaging process is unique.

According to Food Processing Magazine

“For packaging line operators and managers looking to increase line efficiency and throughput by minimizing downtime, gathering accurate information about their packaging line is the first step. By committing to the measurement of the numerical performance of the line, operators can fully analyze the performance of the line and note where improvements can occur. Measuring and tracking performance can on its own help to improve performance, especially when people on the factory floor are engaged in the process. Employees who are encouraged to benchmark and objectively analyze their performance, as well as that of the line, become energized to find ways to create efficiencies. In this way, a culture of measuring and gauging emerges, to the benefit of the entire operation."

For food manufacturers to be truly agile, and to continue to compete on cost while delivering an ever increasing variety of products, the ability to generate and analyze core packaging process analytics is essential.

Perhaps more importantly, with existing lines being tasked with taking on newly launched products, there’s no longer an extended period of time to ‘dial in’ throughput. Real time machine analytics is essential to the fast response times required to be a truly agile business.

Worximity has extensive experience delivering the food packaging process machine data that you need to drive OEE and improve profitability as you learn to become an agile food packaging business.

Reach out to connect with us today to learn more!

 

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