As the UK form-fill-seal machinery market reaches saturation point, manufacturers are under increasing pressure to develop fresh technology that will give them a sharper edge over their competitors. Louise Hunt reports

From its humble beginning as an alternative packaging system to Cellophane wrapping in the late 60s, the market for form-fill-seal machinery – both horizontal and vertical – has exploded over the last decade. In the UK this maturing machinery sector is fast approaching saturation point, as an influx of new contenders vie to snatch business from established manufacturers.

To stay ahead of the game, manufacturers are moving away from the comfortable one-machine-fits-all approach. It is now critical to develop machines that pander to the ever-changing demands of the major retailers and, wherever possible, anticipate the next big thing before it happens.

Rather than slowing down in its autumnal years by responding to retail demands, FFS has become the catalyst for innovation in pack styles that – in some instances – have revolutionised the way a product is packed.

Aylesbury based Rovema Packaging Machines – part of the world-wide group – has been an integral player in the development of new pack shapes that are opening opportunities for retailers and brand owners.

In 1990 it developed the stabilo pack, which introduced improved stability to stand-up pouch edges. In February 2002 Rovema broke new ground once more with the FlexCan, patented with Amcor Flexibles Europe.

Based on Rovema’s Brick Pack design produced on its SBS machine, the resealable FlexCan takes the stand-up Doy pack pouch a step further with four available print surfaces and a rectangular top for stackability.

KP Foods was the next to recognise the FlexCan’s potential for its Hula Hoops Shoks range launched last May. In a classic case of tweaking an existing pack to create a new style, a perfectly square miniature FlexCan one-shot version was produced with tear-strip.

“We’ve been more innovative I feel than a lot of other companies out there,” says Rovema UK managing director Mike Giles. “People are looking for an edge. The KP Shoks pack was a major change for packaging. I think it will become more popular. Once the multiples accept it we’ll start to see a lot more of them. We’ve got projects that we’re working on that we can’t talk about.” Mr Giles sees a future for the FlexCan with liquids and valve technologies for microwaving.

Rovema puts its achievements down to its ability to produce more bag styles than the competition on its selection of vertical FFS machines, available in intermittent and continuous motion, along with horizontal four-side seal technology.

“It’s becoming more important when you speak to customers to find out what they want to run and what bag styles they want. We’re making modular machines that go into detail on where customers want to be now and in a few years time,” says Mr Giles.

Rovema’s drive for flexibility is exemplified by its latest product development – the VVI vertical intermittent side-sealing machine. With 10 patents pending, it is said to combine the various applications of horizontal machines with the advantages of VFFS.

Benefits include a closure system that can handle the packaging of dusty products, as well as gas flushing for some food products to a residual oxygen content of <1%. The VVI runs between 100 and 600 bags/min and can handle larger format sizes.

Ilapak is another form-fill-seal manufacturer that recognises the need to respond to retail demand. Bob Morrison, managing director of the UK division based in Hayes, Middlesex, explains how the multinational company with a focus on flexible packaging is creating solutions to retail packaging trends.

“We are certainly driven by the retailer in the UK. The key thing for us is to remain in very close contact with what is happening in the retail sector. FFS is generally at maturity level. Everyone is looking for that edge to make the pack look different.”

Ilapak believes its point of difference lies in its product portfolio, which includes the full range of FFS solutions based on vertical, horizontal and four-side-seal technology, unlike most manufacturers that tend to focus on one area. “We are able to look at a customer’s problem and decide which of our machines is best, rather than push one type of technology,” he adds.

This adaptability enabled Ilapak to play a significant role in the evolution of wet wipes from expensive refillable plastics tubs to the more functional flat pouch pack.

“We’ve been producing wet wipes for 15 years but it is only in the last five years that the volume has gone up as people have latched onto the fact that anything with a fragrance or cleaning agent can go in a wet wipe pack. We’ve gone from making a couple to over 20 wet wipe lines a year world-wide on our HFFS Delta 3000 range,” says Mr Morrison.

Wet wipe pack production is carried out at the Lugano factory in Switzerland and now accounts for 40% of the plant’s turnover.

“We’ve just launched the Delta 2000, which is a lower specification, lower speed, lower cost version. Because there are some companies that only want to do 50 packs/min.”

Ilapak has further responded to the drive for new pack styles with its tetrahedral pack, launched in 2001for Nestle Smarties. Brand owners across diverse application areas are seeing its potential for product differentiation.

Boots picked the pack for its Natural Collection shower gel range, which comes in a chain of gel filled triangles. Most recently, McCormick Foods launched its Schwartz Shotz range of herbs, spices and seasonings in individual, brightly coloured tetrahedral packs to attract younger consumers to the brand.

The packs are produced on Ilapak’s new series Vegatronic 2000 vertical FFS machine, which manufactures the Shotz packs in a metallised laminate material in single strips with a tear-off perforated edge between each pack.

FFS not only has the ability to produce packs that deliver shelf appeal. It is also proving invaluable for improving process efficiencies.

With 85% of Ilapak’s business in the food sector, the company is heavily involved in developing solutions that address food packing issues. It has recently developed a machine that provides a solution to seal contam-ination in cheese packs.

Ilapak has modified a Delta 3000 to use inverted sealing technology. Instead of the product being wrapped from underneath, the product is placed onto the film with the seal formed on top. This process is said to eliminate seal contamination from pieces of cheese that can damage the modified atmosphere.

The drive for extended shelf life through modified atmosphere packaging has led Ilapak to develop a new machine concept that it believes will put it ahead of the competition.

“We have a development that we believe is the first of its kind,” reveals Mr Morrison. “We’ve signed an order agreement with a customer and we will be building the machine over the next nine months.”

The system is designed to offer the same extended shelf life properties as thermoformed packs that, until now, has not been possible with HFFS, according to Ilapak.

“HFFS modified atmosphere packaging hasn’t been able to achieve the sort of shelf-life that you get in thermoforming because in thermo-forming gas is sucked inside the product giving a longer shelf life.

“Ilapak is developing an HFFS system that gives the same residual oxygen levels as thermoformers, which can get below 1% at point of pack. Flow wrapping couldn’t get much below 3-4% residual oxygen and this makes a big difference to shelf life. We are developing a system that will be in production at the end of the year that will give the same results.

“We see a very large market for this machine – mainly in food. The advantage we can offer over thermoforming is that thermforming is a multi-lane process requiring a number of product handlers. Our system is single lane with automatic feeders. This represents a huge benefit to cost.

“A further benefit is that you can take products that have only ever been thermoformed into a new pack style. And you can wrap product information all the way around the product in one film, unlike a thermoformer which uses two films,” adds Mr Morrison.

Ilapak, working with other companies and a major retailer, is also close to developing a solution for the long running problem of leaking whole chickens wrapped in trays.

“There are a number of leak proof solutions out there, but the key thing is presentation,” explains Mr Morrison. The problem is that people have got used to stretch PVC on whole chickens because it looks good. Given a choice between a pack that solves the leak problem but doesn’t look as good and one that does, consumers will always go for the better looking pack.

“Our solution replicates the finished pack appearance of PVC but uses a shrink film rather than stretch film over a tray. The secret is to get the pack tight and, therefore, retain pack appearance. The success of the project will be judged on how the pack looks on shelf.”

Mr Morrison sees the future of FFS lying in variations of the same theme, with more products coming out of other pack formats.

This is particularly true for liquids moving into pouch packs. The area that is likely to see the most change is continued progression in control technology.

“Control technology is now so good that you don’t need an expensive servomotor anymore,” adds Mr Morrison. “Electronic technology is going to continually reduce costs with all the sophistication of pre-programmable machines.”

A company that is turning control technology to its advantage is Line Equipment. The Nottinghamshire-based firm has recently developed the first continuous cross-web zipper applicators for vertical FFS and horizontal flow wrapping equipment.

The Reseal 460X machine for manufacturing resealable pouches uses a five-axis motion control system from Baldor to almost double throughputs to over 80 pouches/min.

By applying Keyseal zippers from Supreme Plastics across the web, food producers are said to gain packaging flexibility compared with conventional in-line zip application techniques, allowing one machine to be pro-grammed for FFS operations on a wider spectrum of pouch sizes.

Further FFS solutions are available from Sandiacre Rose Forgrove of Nottingham, which has chosen to deliver vertical and horizontal FFS solutions that are tailored to specific market segments.

The development of the Sandiacre TG350-RC continuous motion bagging machine for packaging damage-sensitive fresh produce is a good example of its work.

Minimised drop height, tailored in-feeds to optimise transfer from weighing equipment, and the introduction of a valve control product flight, combine to give a machine that can pack large weights at high speeds without increasing damage to product.

Its experience in transverse zip applicator technology for reclosable bags has enabled the company to become the UK’s only manufacturer of machines for producing bags with uni-directional out-gassing valves, increasingly used for packing roasted coffee. Here the rigid plastics valve is sealed to the film before the stand-up bag is formed and filled.

Increased demand for single serve and portion pack solutions has sparked the growth in stick packs as an alternative to traditional flow wrap packs. Hampshire based Stickpack Europe is one of the main contenders in this area with its claim on the fastest stickpack machine in the world – the Stickpack 1000.

This year it launched a solution to the high output speeds demanded by the snack and confectionery markets in a continuous motion machine that can be used in multi-lane bagging. In liquid and powder stick packing it is able to achieve 1000 packs/min, while with small bags it can deliver 800/min. It is said to be able replace 4-5 pouch packing machines doing the same job, with one operator working on five machines.

Stickpack is able to deliver a wider than average bag width by first slitting the film and then changing the centres. Sticks can be produced in widths of 10-60mm in eight lane configuration and wider if the lanes are reduced. The machine is also able to make a new style of tube pack at up to 500/600 tubes/min, with a maximum width of 60mm and unlimited length.