Shelf impact is the key to confectionery sales, particularly the boxes of chocolates that will be selected by countless consumers this Christmas. Cartoning and wrapping luxury products like this demands up-market production lines, lines where quality is king and speed just the young pretender. Rodney Abbott reports

The bigger the confectionery brand, the more important it is to produce quality products cost effectively but never at the cost of shelf impact for that would prove false economy. Most of the big brands have learned the value of compromise, particularly in these days of shorter runs and fickle public taste.

In the past the market was less fleeting and product size was more stable. Machinery could run constantly without being affected by changes of product size or, more importantly, marketing influences directing the packaging which is driven so hard by today’s retail chain.

Today, a happy plant manager is one that controls lines of modular plant that utilises an optimum footprint, produces shorter runs of product cost effectively, is speedily and simply adjusted, can be operated electronically from one source and requires the minimum of maintenance.

A mix of new and old

At Nestlé Rowntree a healthy mix of new, modified and second hand machinery plays an important role in its operations, particularly in the area of primary packaging to reflect that up-market image.

“In confectionery the driver is to provide different and new offerings in product format to suit category needs, frequently resulting in investment in packaging machines,” says application group manager Peter Jones.

“Nestlé has the benefit of having manufacturing operations across the world, with a significant asset base. An internal second-hand machinery database is maintained and this is the first place we look for equipment within the business and there is a lot of trade of confectionery equipment between factories.

“For high volume lines with significant UK and export tonnages low conversion cost is critical and hence high speed, automated lines are required. Lower volume lines, frequently with shorter product life cycles, require much more flexible and modular equipment, as adaptation is the driver here.”

First stop is the cartoner. Europack has worked with Nestlé in loading rolls of sweets into display cartons. “Confectionery is a high value product and it is critical that it reaches the point of sale in perfect condition. Product protection and presentation are everything. End of line product handling is often a three-stage operation involving loading product into a point of sale carton, film overwrapping to provide additional protection and then case loading,” says Europack sales director Ivan Reeve.

Versatile traypacker

Campak’s HV continuous motion cartoning machine incorporates a cantilevered balcony style, which totally separates the mechanical drives from the product and carton handling areas, guaranteeing total hygiene and accessibility for machine inspection and clean down. It uses a rotary carton erection system to give progressive and positive carton opening at speeds of up to 400 cartons/min.

Mechanical memory, which uses a series of colour coded dials together with simple release and slide mechanisms, gives quick and repeatable operator size changes with no fine tuning required. Product handling is gentle with the infeed bucket delivering the product up to and inside of the open carton during the loading cycle.

Campak’s NCX traypacker forms a tray from low cost die-cut blanks using a positive forming die and loads a variety of products which are automatically collated in a number of formats using high-speed feeders. The NCX system can produce either standard or hinged lidded trays for display purposes and operates at speeds up to 60 trays/min.

Pick and place robotics has a significant role to play in this game. Bradman Lake is transforming the vision of robotic automation into production reality and the LJ Toploader series represents the latest wave of new technology emerging from the company.

Incorporating the ABB Flexpicker IRB 340 robot, it provides automation, reliability, efficiency and profitability in applications that previously were too costly to automate.

The LJ Toploader series are now installed with several leading manufacturers of confectionery in North America and they automatically collate and load products previously packed manually. This automation provides significant cost reductions coupled with increased output and enables those companies to compete in the world marketplace.

Following the all-important cartoning operation, which generates the brand, the film wrapping technology used to display the carton has to be second to none. There is little point in creating the perfect image in the cartoning operation, only to destroy it with a lack lustre film wrap. That is why companies like Kraft Jacobs Suchard, Thorntons and Leaf use overwrappers in abundance.

Premier presentation

“Confectioners utilise the envelope wrap primarily for presentation and marketing – polypropylene provides a high shine clear wrap that looks hand wrapped,” says Marden Edwards sales director Chris Granger.

“With shrinkwrap technology the user gets less clarity and ends up with a bead seal around three sides of the pack. Our equipment is able to use printed film for pack promotion or wrapping a generic carton with different brands.

“Chocolates are very sensitive to heat and an overwrapper only uses quick instantaneous heat to seal the joint. There are no tunnels needed to shrink the film.

“The other advantage is that a near hermetic seal is produced and tear tape can be used for easy opening whereas, with shrink, the film is normally perforated to create reduction in the film and tear tape would not operate.”

The main problem with the overwrapper is that it requires fresh adjustment every time the operator changes pack size. The shrinkwrapper, on the other hand, is far more forgiving in that it can be quickly adjusted to suit line changes. Even so, it cannot currently compete with the overwrapper for neatness of wrap.

Bristows, a major producer of fudge, toffee, boiled sweets and panned goods such as bon bons, which it supplies to gift shops and supermarkets both locally and worldwide, makes good use of overwrapper technology.

Many of Bristows’ confectionery products are placed in gift cartons, which are overwrapped and collated on Marden Edwards’ machines. The boxes are first overwrapped in PP and a tear strip is applied if necessary. They are then collated and overwrapped again in PE in sets of five and 10 for ease of handling and transit.

The Marden Edwards machines at Bristows include a B200SF carton overwrapper with superlift that collates 170g cartons 10-wide and features a waterfall unit and link conveyor. There is also a B100SF carton overwrapper with tear tape unit, a B100SF carton overwrapper with waterfall and linking conveyor, and a B100FF carton overwrapper for 340g boxes.

Some of the machines feature a card inserting unit which is used to slot postcards between the confectionery boxes and overwrapping film.

“Overwrapping gives a good presentation. This adds value to these products which are usually sold as gifts,” says managing director Frank Bristow. Security is also a consideration for Bristows. “The Marden Edwards machines make a good end seal on a carton,” says Frank Bristow. “This gives the benefit of moisture protection which is important for confectionery goods.”

But shrinkwrapping disciplines have not stood still. At least two European companies – Meurer of Germany and Europack in the UK – have been busy developing fresh technology called tightwrapping.

Halo Foods, who make 200M snack bars a year, are visibly impressed with the new technology. They were looking for a wrapper that delivered value for money, speed, a neat finish and reliability… and Europack’s right-angled shrinkwrapper fitted the bill.

“Speed was the main issue. We had to handle 25 cartons/min. We wanted a straightforward machine that was easy to operate and within budget,” says packaging operations manager Chris Bradshaw.

No change parts

Europack’s Ivan Reeve explains that the machine, which includes top and bottom motorised film feeds, a height adjustable jaw, PLC control and an adjustable backstop and pusher to eliminate the need for change parts, makes good use of Europack’s tight wrapping discipline, delivering energy efficiency and production savings.

Through the use of a special sealing jaw, film is wrapped around the product more tightly than conventional shrinkwrapping and without tension – a film saving of up to 15%. With less film around the product, shrink tunnels are smaller and more efficient.

“The environment benefits, too, from reduced film use and low energy consumption – an important factor for companies wishing to conform to environmental management standards,” adds Ivan Reeve.

Tightwrapping threatens to prove even more forgiving than shrinkwrapping. It certainly provides the necessary tension for the pack, uses less film and keeps downtime to a minimum where product changeover is concerned. More significantly, it uses less heat. Perhaps, the compromise – a little bit of shrink and a little bit of stretch – will open up fresh markets for the industry.