Packaging says a lot about the product inside. It’s likely the first thing consumers notice when browsing the shelves or shopping online, and it can influence their decision to buy. But even as environmentally-friendly packaging gains more interest among consumers, the package still has to do its most important job — safeguarding the product and preserving its quality from the factory to the home.    

Fortunately, with progress in automation and sustainable materials, meeting consumer packaging demands is getting easier. These technologies even help processors take on challenges like labor shortages and increasing operational efficiencies. To find out more about the trends and solutions in both packaging and portioning, we spoke to Matt Malott, President and CEO of MULTIVAC, Inc.

MULTIVAC has been a leading manufacturer of packaging equipment for nearly 60 years, and Malott has been with the company for 30 of them. “The food industry is one of our primary market segments,” Malott says. “And with our packaging, portioning, and bakery equipment, we touch nearly all areas of this market.”

For US customers, MULTIVAC is committed to developing, designing, and manufacturing its automation solutions from its US headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri.

Addressing workforce challenges with automation and predictive analytics 

As the industry continues to struggle with labor shortages, the good news is that automation technology has been steadily improving, and the cost of adopting that technology is going down. “The message we hear loud and clear from the market is that there is a real need for more automation,” Malott says. “It must be reliable automation, and it has to be hygienic in design.” 

MULTIVAC is incorporating the Internet of Things (IoT) and automation into its machines to be part of the solution to labor issues. In packaging, the most common automated tasks are loading products into the primary packaging machine, unloading finished packages at the end of the machine, and placing packages into secondary packaging or shipping containers. With these repetitive tasks automated, the line doesn’t require as many operators. “You can have just a few operators,” Malott says, “where traditionally you might have 10 to 12. We're able to accomplish this by integrating technology — the automatic loading and unloading of products — with a packaging machine.” 

Integrating those machines relies on IoT, which allows processing, packaging, and automation equipment to communicate, continually sharing critical information that improves the performance of the entire line. 

The other major benefit of IoT technology is that it provides access to real-time information. “Traditionally, that data is gathered weekly or monthly,” Malott says, “and then it’s retroactively reviewed.” But having data in real time allows for quick decision-making and better management of processing efficiency. Sensors and cameras along the production and packaging lines measure and monitor key performance indicators, gathering comparable data on factors like speed and throughput. “That's real-time data that you can then use to identify gaps and reduce inefficient steps in a process.”  

Supporting sustainability with new packaging materials

One of the major trends in food packaging is the demand for environmentally-friendly alternatives to non-recyclable materials. “Most traditional materials have unique composition that offers processors the ideal barrier properties for their specific product,” Malott says. “But they can be more difficult to recycle. So we're seeing advancements in materials that are able to provide the protection that producers want while being recyclable.” To meet this growing need, MULTIVAC is adding more sustainable materials to its lines, such as paper-based backing and skin packaging. 

MULTIVAC’s PaperBoard options include flat backing, trays, and formable packaging all made from recyclable paper fiber. These can be used in combination with Modified Atmosphere Package (MAP) or skin packs, which consumers can easily open and recycle separately from the PaperBoard. 

Malott says skin packaging is also gaining market interest. “It's a very thin gauge material,” he explains. “So from a weight and volume standpoint, it offers material source reduction and it gives the product an excellent visual presentation.” It’s also easy to open and, despite its thinness, has the durability to protect the food inside.   

While the slim design of skin packaging can bring some challenges to the packaging process, MULTIVAC’s equipment is ready for it. “We continue to adapt our equipment for the different techniques of forming, cutting, and advancing it through a machine.” Malott says. “Our equipment is designed to run these new materials and get the full benefits of recyclability.”

The technology behind MULTIVAC’s machines also helps reduce the total usage of packaging material without sacrificing a strong, secure seal. 

Boosting shelf visibility with full-wrap labeling

When it comes time to finish the package, labeling systems ensure the product stands out, “not only at the retail shelf or online,” Malott says, “but also in the consumer’s refrigerator as they store it through the product expiration.” 

Traditionally, labeling has been a time- and labor-intensive process. But MULTIVAC’s automated labelers have changed that. Today, labels that wrap completely around the package can now be added via machine. “So you can now have marketing communications on the front and safe-handling and cooking instructions on the back of labels,” Malott explains. This flexible full-wrap labeling is perfect for branding skin-packaged products without hiding the food inside. And MULTIVAC has a line of downstream labelers that can quickly, accurately, and automatically apply them to packaged products.

“Especially in the days of Amazon,” Malott says, “it’s important for producers to have a package go out with all their marketing communications presented on it. The label is something that lives with the product throughout the supply chain.” 

Improving yields in portioning

On the portioning side of things, Malott says meat processors, in particular, are always looking for ways to increase yields while keeping operating costs at a minimum. 

Using precise yet gentle product handling, MULTIVAC’s portioning system cuts down on product waste. “It handles the product very gently,” Malott says, “and puts the meat in a position to be accurately sliced and portioned for the best yield.” It also allows for quick line changeovers — in less than 5 minutes — because it’s easy to clean and doesn’t require any tools. This rapid process minimizes production interruptions and results in higher throughput rates. 

Meanwhile, the speed of MULTIVAC’s portioning equipment enables it to process meat products at warmer temperatures. This saves on energy costs since the product doesn’t have to be cooled down during processing.

MULTIVAC will be running a few different lines at PROCESS EXPO this year, featuring the R 245 packaging machine, the H 130 case closing system, and its TVI portioning equipment. These lines will showcase the company’s IoT technology, sustainable packaging materials, and higher yield capabilities. “We will also talk about our preventive maintenance capabilities and robust technical support network,” Malott adds, “with more than 70 technicians in the U.S. that are solely focused on MULTIVAC products.” 

MULTIVAC has been a long-time PROCESS EXPO exhibitor. “We've been an active member and participant in the show from its inception,” Malott says. “We are very active in the FPSA, and it's absolutely one of our key marketing and promotional strategies. We’re an enthusiastic member of FPSA and a proud exhibitor at PROCESS EXPO.”

To learn more about MULTIVAC’s processing and packaging solutions, visit Booth #3541 at PROCESS EXPO.