This article explores some of the top trends across the global dairy market, how those trends impact dairy processor profitability, along with predictions about the types of dairy filling innovations we will see in the future.
3 Market Trends That Are Driving Innovation
1. Consumers Want More Options
The product proliferation we’re seeing in today’s supermarkets didn’t happen by accident, it’s the result of food and beverage manufacturers’ efforts to meet consumer demand for more options. Take a stroll down the yogurt aisle. You’ll find a wide variety of products to choose from, each with its own unique recipes, brand messaging, and packaging characteristics. This is because yogurt processors, both big and small, are desperately trying to connect with their consumers on a personal level. While their paths to achieving that goal may differ, both groups are dealing with challenges that stem back to production versatility.
With modest budgets and less floor space for equipment, smaller yogurt processors (6,000-10,000 cups/hour) tend to seek filling solutions that are small and cheap upfront. The problem with this approach is that when the company is ready to increase their output (or incorporate new functions like the latest decontamination applications, additional fillers, snap-on lid applicators, etc.) they are unable to do so without incurring considerable fees for upgrades and service from the OEM. Sometimes, this even results in the processor having to scrap or sell the original system to make room for an entirely new filling solution.
Larger manufacturers deal with this too. While processors like Danone and Chobani have well-established product lines, they too are interested in testing new products and markets to make new connections with consumers they weren’t previously able to reach. For example, Danone has created positive connections with French customers who care deeply about organically sourced foods via their Les 2 Vaches brand. However, helping customers in Spain connect with this same product may require changes to the product’s packing appearance or format.
In both scenarios, dairy processors should be researching filling solutions that can help them achieve their short-term goals without stifling the potential for future opportunities.
2. Market Uncertainties Hinder Progress
In the same vein, there are several dynamic factors influencing today’s global dairy markets. Take sustainability for example. To accurately label a product as “sustainable” you must take into consideration local infrastructure (i.e., composting and recycling streams), government regulations, and the biggest moving target of all – consumer demand. As Michael Dann puts it in his recent column on sustainable food packaging, “how can we as an industry satisfy consumer demand for ‘sustainable packaging’ when the term is still being defined?”
Consumer sentiment can change quickly. Today customers may prefer products packaged in paper for its recyclable and compostable qualities. Tomorrow, they may demonize the role it plays in deforestation. This is why it’s so risky to tie yourself to specific packaging formats and materials long-term.
Similarly, hygiene standards and technology are evolving every year. For example, as calls for sustainable business practices grow louder, one area of opportunity is reducing energy consumption while maintaining consistent hygiene standards. While today pulsed light is viewed as a more energy-efficient alternative to hydrogen peroxide, tomorrow is likely to bring an even better solution. Are you investing in filling equipment and other capital assets that will enable or prevent you from evolving with these changes? Again, this is why machine versatility is so essential in today’s global dairy markets.
3. Employee Turnover Diminishes ROI
Today’s dairy processors are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit, hire, and maintain qualified team members for their manufacturing facilities. While employee burnout and resignation have recently become prevalent across several segments of the workforce, this has been a problem among operators and maintenance professionals for years. A major driver behind this turnover is the ergonomic strain those employees must undergo during manual changeovers (i.e., heavy lifting, crouching down, bending over). Tasks like these can quickly lead to employee resignation.
This problem is exacerbated when it comes time to train new employees. With so much time and energy being poured into constant training, fewer resources are available to invest in product innovation, marketing, and other important functions that make today’s dairy processors competitive. Breaking this vicious cycle (recruit, hire, train, recruit again) will require innovative solutions that improve how dairy processors approach changeovers and training.
The Future of Dairy Filling Solutions
Given the global market trends I’ve discussed, I expect that we’ll see several technological improvements for dairy filling solutions in the near future. While some of these predictions may seem more likely than others – as someone who is very familiar with the state of today’s packaging R&D – I am very comfortable predicting that each of these will come to fruition in the months and years ahead.
Versatile Filling Equipment Will Create Greater Product Variety
With consumer demands that change so quickly, dairy processors need filling solutions that can change quickly too. Of course, most OEMs claim their solutions have “quick and easy changeovers” but do those changeovers include the ability to change from one format to another (e.g., pivoting from a Ø75 fruit yogurt cup to a Ø95 greek yogurt cup)? Dairy processors need solutions that are truly reconfigurable to allow them to pilot different packaging styles, formats, and several other considerations that consumers care about. This is the type of versatility that today’s dairy markets require, so this is the type of innovation we will see.
Modularity Will Enable Sustainable Packaging Development
Versatility will come in many forms, but one that is particularly promising is the exploration of mechanical and electrical modularity. While modular design principles have been leveraged in fields like commercial building construction for years, they haven’t yet been fully realized in the packaging industry. By designing a system that can integrate every relevant application (e.g., fillers, hygiene stations, overcap applicators) with standard module sizes (i.e., increments of 440 mm), OEMs can provide plug-and-play system that is quickly operational but also customizable for the future.
Unequivocally, this type of filling solution would be sustainable in many ways. For one, modules could be easily replaced to accommodate the latest sustainable package formats and hygienic dairy filling standards. Technology that doesn’t even exist yet could be integrated with the system with ease due to its modular nature. This “future-proof” design would also support dairy processors well beyond the 20–30-year lifecycle of an average filling machine. Because these solutions will be nimble enough to evolve with the new technology, they will not have to be scrapped or sold to make room for a newer solution.
Intelligent Machine Design Will Improve Operational Efficiency
For these newer solutions to have true long-term success, they cannot be designed without people in mind. In the age of the Great Resignation, dairy processors must add ease-of-operation and ergonomic sufficiency to their list of system requirements. Features such as automatic reloading, toolless changeovers, and overall easier maintenance will combat the costly issue of employee burnout. I also believe that we will discover new ways for HMI technology to improve OEE. Features like on-screen tutorials, preventative maintenance reminders, and remote OEM support will limit dairy processors’ reliance on exhaustive, repetitive operator training programs.