Case Closed
Bigger pack sizes, faster line speeds and marketing factor into case packing and wrapping choices
Getting beverages from the plant to the shelf safely depends on the way cases of product are packed or wrapped for transport. Beverage-makers must consider a number of critical factors in choosing a case packing or wrapping method.
First, manufacturers must choose a material base, which depends on the filling line speed and the type of beverage packaging used; popular options include fiberboard or paperboard cartons, corrugate cases and corrugate trays or pads wrapped with shrink film.
To pack or wrap beverage cases, two types of equipment are typically used by U.S. manufacturers: lower-speed, intermittent-motion equipment, also called indexing equipment, which packs approximately 30 cases per minute or less; or continuous-motion equipment that runs at higher speeds. Lower-speed equipment is often used for juice, milk and small-batch beverages. Higher-speed equipment is used for high-volume beverages such as carbonated soft drinks and beer.
“In making that selection, you have to go back upstream to the bottle or can filler and determine what that filler rate is,” says Sales Engineer Don Swanson of Douglas Machine Inc., an Alexandria, Minn.-based paperboard, corrugated and shrink-film packaging solutions provider. “Then, you divide the number of bottles per minute by how many bottles or cans are going be in each pack pattern. That determines the machine speed needed.”
Packing and wrapping considerations
While speed has a major impact on how cases are packed, marketing is also important, as it factors into packaging design and consumer perception of the beverage.
“A major factor is marketing and whether the consumer will buy it,” says Steve Sonderman, director of pack and palletizing technology for Franklin, Wis.-based Krones, Inc., a global filling and packaging equipment and systems provider. “If you have a specialty application, from a marketing standpoint, you’re trying to present an image of quality. For example, in the beer industry, it’s been difficult to introduce film bundling and tray packing. The breweries want to stay in the full corrugated case because anything less begins to give the impression of less quality.”
The distance a product must travel and whether the product is single-serve or multi-pack also factors into case packing and wrapping, as does determining whether the end consumer will see that packaging. Larger, single-serve products, such as 64-ounce bottles of juice, are usually packed in shipping containers used solely to deliver the bottles to the store. However, smaller packs, such 12-packs of soda, are typically placed directly on store shelves.
“A lot of the decision has to do with how far and in what mode the product is going to be transported from the point of manufacture to the ultimate point of consumption,” says Douglas Machine’s Director of Beverage Sales Ed Orick. “If it’s a store-door-delivery product, it doesn’t go very far. The manufacturer delivers it themselves, as opposed to the product going to a warehouse and being handled several times, in which case it would need more protection.”
Cost is also a major consideration, as most beverage-makers strive to keep material costs down. “Cost is definitely a factor,” says Paul Burdick, director of marketing and sales for Schneider Packaging Equipment Co., a provider of case packing, robotic palletizing and systems integration, based in Brewerton, N.Y. “Beverage manufacturers often look at HSC cases vs. wraparounds vs. the machinery cost to handle the case size as they evaluate long-term operating costs.”
Reducing the cost of the end package is critical for most beverage-makers, as well. “The margins in bottled water are very small,” says Sonderman. “There’s not a lot of money to be made per bottle, so bottlers try to save wherever they can. Many times the packaging comes into consideration from that standpoint.”
Case packing and wrapping machines are affected by the packaging type and size used for a beverage, and as such, changeover speed is critical. Both intermittent and continuous-motion equipment have to be able to adapt quickly to different pack sizes.
“Customers today are looking for as much flexibility as possible because marketing trends change so rapidly,” says Swanson. “The machines have to be able to easily adapt to those changes. Plus, manufacturers tend to warehouse less, so they do flavor and pack pattern changes more often and need fast changeovers.”
Packaging trends
Two important packaging trends affect case packing and wrapping. First, demand continues to rise for refrigerator packs, the narrow 12-packs of soda, beer and bottled water designed to slide onto the bottom shelf of a refrigerator, which have been widely embraced by consumers.
Second, club stores are requiring beverage-makers to provide larger pack sizes. “Across the food industry in general, club stores are definitely having an impact on what we’re doing in packaging,” says Burdick. “We see larger sizes and more multiple packs. With juice and milk products, there is demand now for multi-packs with handle perforations, which is the kind of thing that wasn’t around a few years ago.”
As pack sizes get larger, packaging integrity challenges can surface, particularly with shrinkwrapping. Today’s films are thinner and stronger, but manufacturers still work to perfect the bulls-eye, the open end of a shrink-wrapped case, which is often used as a handle by consumers, affecting a case’s performance and appearance.
“Today, there is a greater demand for a higher quality of package,” says Swanson. “We like to form an even bulls-eye with smooth corners so the film is not wrinkled because much of the film used today is printed with high-resolution graphics. Customers want minimal distortion, so a lot of effort has gone into redesigning heat tunnels to create a higher quality package.” BI