In the song “Everybody needs a Thneed” from the 2012 animated film “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” community members descend upon the Once-ler highlighting all the uses that the knitted item can fulfill: a super trendy hat, a tightrope for an acrobat, a net for catching butterflies and daily use for exercise. When it comes to case packing and wrapping systems for the beverage market, operations managers also are in search of highly versatile and flexible equipment to quickly handle today’s diverse portfolios with unusual shapes and more.

“Flexible packaging machines are a must-have to react quickly to new market requests and to stay competitive,” says Stefan Hoffmann, sales account manager at Schubert North America LLC, Charlotte, N.C. “A packaging machine must be capable of running a lot of different formats with a minimum of changeover time.”

Eric Miller, western regional sales manager for Brenton, Alexandria, Minn., explains how the need for flexible machinery is influencing original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) latest innovations.

“For many beverage manufacturers, the key to efficiency is flexibility in their equipment,” he says. “Flexibility in terms of fast, efficient changeover times is important. We offer an automatic changeover option, which allows operators to pre-select changeover recipes right off the HMI screen, and the parameters of the new changeover are accomplished automatically. It really cuts down on the guesswork often associated with changeovers.”

A division of ProMach, Brenton systems use robotics and automation advancements to bring cost-effective solutions to end-of-line packaging applications, the company notes.

“Flexibility is helpful to the customer because your overall equipment and line efficiency is effected by your line availability ― and your line availability is higher the quicker you can changeover your machines,” Miller says. 

In the mix

With flexibility being a must-have among packing and wrapping operations, OEMs and their partners are keeping an eye out for the consumer trends driving this need state.

“The flexibility impact on case packing equipment is that we are providing most of our proposals for today’s format needs while at the same time, including provisions for future format considerations,” says Peter Fox, senior vice president of sales for SOMIC America Inc., Wytheville, Va. “For SOMIC, this means building machines with both wraparound case capability as well as [a] premium tray with cover retail-ready formats, which often requires a high end display tray (paperboard or e flute retail quality) with a craft corrugated cover for distribution requirements.”

Fox notes that packaging evolutions have helped contribute to the need for case packing and wrapping systems that can adjust to these diverse needs.

“Small format packages with unusual shapes and configurations are driving many beverage companies to highly engineered solutions, compared to traditional standard platforms,” he says.

However, beverage packaging is not the only contributor to this multi-faceted machinery market.

“The proliferation of craft beers and seltzers is resulting in a lot of unstable, mixed loads with multiple SKUs,” says Pat Pownall, director of sales for Alexandria, Minn.-based Orion Packaging, also a ProMach division. “This is influencing the development of both conveyors and stretch wrappers that can accommodate these varied loads. Features like Orion’s InstaThread film carriages with load stabilizing film force-to-load ensures the film is applied evenly to all surfaces. Smoother conveyance for these same unstable loads is equally important as the unwrapped random size cases shift and topple.”

Heiko Burkhardt, a consultant for Schubert-Consulting, a unit of Schubert Packaging Systems GmbH, Crailsheim, Germany, also highlights the diversity across the beverage category in combination with packaging trends.

“As the trend is going into a wider product diversification, e.g., several flavors, the batches are getting smaller and smaller. Therefore, the flexibility regarding fast changeovers and small buffers in between the packaging steps are elementary for fast ramp-down and ramp-up,” he says. “A second trend is to produce mix-packs by combining several flavors in one packaging to enlarge the consumer experience ― this requires disruptive kind of flexibility in packaging for producers which are used to packing their bottled products subsequently.”

Another wrinkle that has shifted the balance throughout the case packers and wrappers’ market is the proliferation of eCommerce.

“eCommerce has greatly increased the need for corrugated cases as most shipping companies are not going to send shrink film packages through the traditional supply chain,” explains Dan Altman, vice president of sales and marketing for St. Paul, Minn.-based Delkor Systems Inc. “At the retailer, point of purchase packaging has increased and providing products in high quality, high graphic print registered film has increased.

A sustainable drive

Much like primary packaging, secondary packaging and the equipment used to produce it are seeing a growing influence from sustainability.

“The use of films to produce totes is viewed critically by customers,” Schubert-Consulting’s Burkhardt says. “Innovative ideas to reduce the use of film are in demand [as well as] sustainable packaged containers in cardboard.”

Michael Graf, director of consulting for Schubert-Consulting, highlights that sustainability movements also can provide benefits to brand owners.

“Rising from the challenge, sustainable packs give more opportunities for marketing,” he says. “Cardboards are used as a display of the brand message on six-packs as well as a transport carrier for multiple bottles.”

SOMIC’s Fox notes that sustainability trends have seen a rise in the use of corrugated solutions. “We are seeing, on the case packing side, more customers who desire the tray format and moving away from shrink film containment to paper-based covers,” he says. “This provides for a more recyclable vehicle and reduced energy consumption at the plant operations level.”

Although case packing has benefited from a perception of sustainability, experts note that film wrap still presents benefits to this realm.

“This is a topic up for great debate. For years, shrink film was known as a very sustainable product and package; however, as of late, the trend for recyclable packing has been questioned with film,” Delkor’s Altman explains. “It is true that there is less recyclability of film available, but the fact remains we make many products with recycled film and the reduction in corrugate and the cost to produce it is extremely sustainable.”

Orion’s Pownall also details the efforts that have been made to support sustainable efforts within the film market.

“Manufacturers and distributors want to make the most of their film. Equipment like Orion’s film carriages that are standard at 260 percent pre-stretch are essential to meeting this goal,” Pownall says. “Additionally, Revo-Logic technology that provides the exact number of programmed wraps of the film further ensures that these operations are getting the most bang for their buck, and reducing their footprint as much as possible.”

Prepping for the days ahead

As beverage manufacturers pinpoint the machinery that best reflects their operations, OEMs note the various takeaways they must consider.

“Beverage facilities are often fast paced and running 24/7. Reliable equipment that can match the pace day-in and day-out is essential to keep production on schedule,” Orion’s Pownall says. “Some of the features that companies need to consider in their wrapping equipment include heavy-duty reliable construction, easily available customer support, parts and service availability.”

SOMIC’s Fox adds that operations managers should always assess today’s needs, but not forget about the next steps.

“I would recommend beverage-makers to future proof their operation by considering new format requirements and alternative packaging styles,” he says.

This further supports the needs of flexible OEM solutions. “A key component of the SOMIC 424 platform is the ability of our product handling system to handle both flexible and rigid containers on the same machine,” Fox says. “We have the ability to pack products in standard shippers, trays, and retail-ready packages, all on the same platform.”

Noting that Delkor offers case packing and shrink wrapping solutions, Altman also highlights that flexibility will be key to the future of the packing market.

“Flexibility and quick change are king,” he says. “You need to be nimble and be able to react quickly when retailers change the rules of the game. You want to make sure your equipment is flexible and easy to modify when package types change, which is often.”

Brenton’s Miller adds that what’s driving innovation for case packer and wrappers is listening to customer needs and anticipating new trends that are looming on the horizon.

“Designing flexibility into machinery for the beverage industry is really at the heart of what’s driving innovation for the OEMs like Brenton,” Miller says. “It’s forcing us to be able to improve those changeover times, increase case rates and provide packaging for a larger range of case sizes and types