There’s an old proverb from French novelist Alphonse Karr that states, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” As American industry and the economy have been on a free-wheeling ride during the past few years, the beverage industry has done nothing but change. Beverage manufacturers have gotten leaner, they’ve reigned in spending and they approach new ventures and ideas with caution rather than certitude.

For case wrapper and packer equipment manufacturers, this has meant that they, too, are on a path of change, although it’s a path that at least seems familiar. With reduced spending from beverage bottlers, the equipment manufacturers’ paths have been those of innovation and upgrading on what they already have, rather than reinventing existing offerings. From flexibility to greening equipment, case packer and wrapper equipment hasn’t changed radically in the last year, but the innovations and improvements that have been made are helping to point beverage manufacturing in a good direction.

Automation nation
As beverage companies continue to innovate and roll out new products, case packers and wrappers also have to keep up on the production side of the industry. Flexibility has been — and continues to be — one of the most important qualities manufacturers can have, and case packers and wrappers that can be used in a variety of ways are a part of that.

“Gone are the days when many of our clients had dedicated lines or change lines over once or twice a week,” says Scott Smith, global director of market development, for Hartness International, Greenville, S.C. “Today, many of our clients change their machines over once or twice a day. Quick and repeatable changeovers are more valued than ever.”

Smith also notes that a machine’s ability to handle lightweighted primary and secondary packages is critical to a machine’s flexibility.

“From a shrinkwrapper perspective, we are seeing a great interest in innovative multi-packs, such as Hartness’ ‘stagger’ and ‘off-set’ packages,” Smith explains. “These packages enable soft drink and water manufacturers to eliminate pads and trays for lightweighted PET multi-packs, while maintaining package and pallet integrity.”

Additionally, increasing speed and reducing downtime in changeover remain key qualities that manufacturers look for in case packers and wrappers, and more recently, reducing the cost of materials has become a top priority for manufacturers.

“We’re seeing our customers try to reduce material costs by reducing the corrugate,” explains Ed Orick, director of beverage sales for Alexandria, Minn.-based Douglas Machine. “And you would do that by going from trays to packs, or going from bags to fill-only. Then there are some cases where people are attempting to go to thinner film. Those are the main things we see.

“It’s a win-win, because if you reduce costs, at the same time you’re able to reduce the amount of trash and waste. That’s good for everybody,” Orick notes.

Going ‘green’
Creating innovative and eco-friendly equipment is about reducing waste and energy on all aspects of the machine.

“We are working toward [the goal of being more eco-friendly] in two ways — packaging source reduction and energy conservation,” says Bryan Sinicrope, vice president of sales and marketing for Tarpon Springs, Fla.-based A-B-C Packaging Machine Corp. “We offer packers that reduce corrugated consumption and all A-B-C machines are available with energy-saving features that can significantly reduce bottles’ energy usage and resulting carbon footprint.”

Orick notes that Douglas recently introduced a gas-powered shrink tunnel as opposed to its current electric offering. The gas-powered shrinkwrapper replaces the electric heaters that previously were used in the tunnels.

“For the most part at this point in time, gas is a lot less expensive than electricity, so it saves our customers a ton of money on the energy cost,” Orick says.

Sustainability also is affecting requests at Hartness, Smith says.

“Our clients certainly seem to be more concerned than ever around both wear parts and utility consumption of packers and wrappers,” he says. “We do find many clients requesting ‘not to exceed’ guarantees around consumption. These requests are especially prevalent in Europe, but we are seeing it more and more domestically. However, most clients are more concerned with our ability to enable them to meet their sustainability initiatives around lightweighting and elimination of packaging materials. So, in that way, case packers and wrappers are enabling eco-friendly solutions.”

The plunge of the economy didn’t necessarily halt innovative rollouts of new equipment, but manufacturers aren’t exactly running full-steam ahead with new ideas.

“We have seen more caution in spending,” A-B-C’s Sinicrope says. “Packagers are buying new equipment but are also spending to keep older equipment in service longer. As far as innovations, if a machine offers cost savings, speed advantages or other production benefits, the interest is there.”

At Pack Expo 2010, A-B-C introduced a partition opener/inserter for the beverage industry. The machine has been well-received for its higher speeds, more flexibility and faster changeover compared to other machines on the market, Sinicrope says.

The up-and-down economy might have caused some consternation for companies that thrive on stability to continue along the path of profitability. But the “down” part of the economy, while bleak, also can be seen as a positive.

“In some ways, the economy has been beneficial for segments of our business,” Hartness International’s Smith says. “Both robotics and shrinkwrapping have seen growth despite some of the economic challenges of the last three years. Much of that success is due to our clients’ desires to not only ‘do the right thing’ relative to sustainable packaging, but also due to their desire to reduce the cost of packaging materials. Film packaging continues to gain popularity for both of these reasons. The desire to reduce labor and requirements for increased flexibility has driven the growth of robotic solutions.

“People certainly seem to have been making due with current equipment; however, capital does seem to be freeing up,” Smith continues. “Also, there does seem to be pent up demand from the last two years. One of the biggest changes is that clients really have to demonstrate a strong return on investment in order to justify end-of-line purchases.”

The future is now
Case packer and wrapper manufacturers will move forward as beverage companies continue to come out with new and innovative products. As the industry moves toward a successful path, part of that future success will be to keep in mind not only qualities of equipment that will be important, but also those that are important now.

“On the horizon, I see a continuation of aspects such as updating automation, ease of changeover, and ease of access to all points of the machine by the customers and operators,” Douglas’s Orick says. “If you have a jam it needs to be easy to fix and the machine needs to be back up and running quickly.”

Hartness sees demand for machines that keep up with growing beverage portfolios.

“Flexibility will continue to be a critical consideration when making case packing and shrinkwrapper purchases,” Smith says. “SKU proliferation does not seem to be slowing.”

Flexibility also is on the radar at A-B-C Packaging, Sinicrope says.

“Ultimately, our customers, beverage bottlers, must serve their market, so they are looking for innovations that will make their products more appealing to consumers,” he says. “Machine flexibility is important because it allows them to run different bottle and package styles without buying new equipment. Eco-friendliness will continue to be a big factor, and the focus on line speeds and efficiency has always been important for our customers.” BI