Selecting the form, fill & seal (FFS) machine that is right for your application is not a matter of luck. As with any substantial purchase, you must research different machine styles, evaluate vendors, solicit recommendations and input from colleagues, read topical articles, watch videos of machinery in action, and review any other form of comparative analysis.
Due diligence goes a long way toward ensuring a proper match between your new form fill seal equipment and your production and sales goals. This was my own firsthand experience for many years while I was on the purchasing side, specifying packaging equipment for a global food manufacturer. I know what it’s like to inherit equipment that no longer fits the application — or being up at 2 a.m. struggling while it was not working properly and trying to get the vendor on the phone. Those instances were not fun and being on that side of the table gave me insight, taught me the right questions to ask OEM suppliers, and made me understand the significance of researching prior to purchasing.
There is no luck involved in specifying packaging equipment. You must understand your application and clearly communicate expectations of both the equipment and the partnership you want to create with a supplier.
A successful project requires thorough understanding of all the variables that are involved in your packaging line. To do that, you need to look at the whole picture, and know what’s happening to your product before it arrives at the bagger, as well as its destination after it’s been packaged. Here are some questions to ask yourself when getting started:
- What are you looking to achieve out of this line, both short term and long-term planning?
- What is the available floor space for the machine?
- What is the product being filled and how will it be fed?
- What are the flow characteristics?
- What type(s) of film will be used?
- What is the speed of every piece of equipment behind and ahead of the bagger?
- What are the bag sizes, styles and what kind of selling properties do you expect your packaging to have?
- What is the desired fill rate per minute and target product weight?
- Will there be many changeovers or SKUs?
- Will we be performing a factory acceptance test?
- Will maintenance be performed in-house?
- What is the budget and the timeline for this project?
Knowing this information up front will greatly improve communication of the project with the OEM. Also having answers to these questions in the early stages is critical because each one influences the other. If one of the answers to a question is unknown, it can sometimes dramatically change the scope of the project.
Horizontal or Vertical?
The two main styles of form, fill & seal machines are vertical or horizontal. Each bring their own strengths to packaging, so it’s important to select the proper style to best meet your needs.
Vertical FFS machines create bags by pulling roll stock film around a forming tube. The process of sealing the film and filling the pouches occurs at very high rates, up to 200 per minute, and does so in a compact footprint. They can create a variety of package styles — including pillow, quad, gusset, flat bottom and others. Dairy, spices, coffee or powders, IQF, fresh or frozen fruits/vegetables and pet food are some examples of products typically filled on a vertical FFS machine.
They are typically used to manufacture and fill a higher-level, premium package. Because of the step-by-step manufacturing process, horizontal FFS baggers can create standup pouches, as well as three- and four-sided pouches or special shapes, and come with a variety of closure options — such as zipper, spouts or other fitments. Typical fill rates are about 70 packages per minute or higher depending on the application. The drawback is space. Horizontal FFS machines have a larger footprint, as much as 15 feet or longer.
It’s important to remember that, just because a bagger can fill up to 200 pouches per minute, it doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for every application. The limitation on speed is often determined by the product being filled and if the product can be delivered to the bagger fast enough. For example, products that are very light and fine in nature, such as powdered sugar or corn starch, need a little extra time to settle in place. Even though it may just require an extra second for the action to occur, the bagging machine does need to slow down, and that can reduce the overall fill rates.
On the other hand, a liquid-based product, like tomato sauce, can be injected into the bag at rapid speed and doesn’t require settling time. Likewise, solid products like candy or frozen foods can be filled very quickly without delay. These are some of the reasons why you need to fully understand the complexities of the products you are packaging to ensure you select the right technology for your application.
We’re seeing more and more brands go green through sustainable packaging. Becoming better stewards of the environment is a great thing and helps brands connect to the ideals of their customers. However, before jumping in, you need to research sustainable films and their structure to ensure they will meet your packaging goals. Some sustainable films may not offer the right sealing properties to align with your product; the films’ structure may limit the speed at which they can run through a bagger, or the films shelf life may be limited. While gaining in popularity, sustainable films are still an emerging market. It’s best to lean on your OEM supplier relationship for guidance in this area.
Importance of FAT
Factory acceptance testing (FAT) is another component of a successful project. Since many companies desire a vertical start-up to get their equipment installed and operational as soon as possible, a FAT is an ideal way to make that happen.
The goal of a FAT is to replicate, as close as possible, the actual environment in which the bagger will be operating once installed in your facility. Conducting tests this way provides results that give a fairly precise view of how the bagger will perform. The best testing results are seen when conditions most closely mimic your actual environment. This eliminates variables that can affect the outcome. Additionally, a FAT gives you an opportunity to train staff on the bagger’s operation and maintenance. When I was the customer, a pre-installation test performed at our partner OEM was a must-have, as it gave us one-on-one attention to operations, troubleshooting and maintenance in a distraction-free environment.
These are just a few of the components that go into a successful form, fill & seal project. But without a doubt, the best path to success is clear, timely and effective communication between you and the OEM. Being able to understand what you’re asking and, in turn, understanding what the OEM is telling you goes a long way. Being from both sides of the table, I know that communication is a vital component to a successful project.