The idea of it is nothing new. Baked foods like cookies and bars have long been individually packaged for convenience and consumer appeal. While the format hasn’t changed over the years, so much about single-serve packaging has. And most of it is happening because of what’s going inside the wrapper.

In the past, someone might stop by a c-store to pick up a piece of coffee cake or a donut for a quick indulgence for breakfast. Today, they may stop by to grab an individually wrapped dessert for later in the day. Eli’s Cheesecake, Chicago, for example, has been at the forefront of the changing tastes and consumer preferences. The company entered the c-store market more than 15 years ago with Eli’s Single Serve Cheesecakes packed in a custom plastic wedge container sealed with film. The following year, Eli’s introduced flowwrapped dessert bars in a carton sleeve.

“In the beginning, we faced two challenges,” said Debbie Marchok, Eli’s vice-president of marketing. “The first was the case pack size since smaller pack sizes are more costly to produce but more desirable by the c-store channel. The second was the shelf life for the ambient dessert bars since we bake without preservatives, and the c-store market demands a longer shelf life.”

Eli’s overcame those challenges by flowwrapping its products to protect them and provide maximum visibility on the shelf or in the c-store refrigerators. In many ways, Eli’s was ahead of its time. Today, packaging suppliers say they are getting increasing requests for ¬single-serve flowwrapped items far and beyond indulgent snacks like cheesecake. Consumers are craving better-for-you (BFY) desserts and baked goods like cookies, breakfast biscuits, crackers and bars, and they are seeking them out in c-stores.

“It used to be you stopped in a c-store to grab something indulgent and didn’t worry about it,” said Dennis Gunnell, vice-president of sales and marketing, Formost Fuji. “Now, people are going into the c-store and reading the labels and looking at a row of six snacks and asking themselves which one is still going to be within a taste level that they’ll accept but also be better for them.”

As package sizes shrink, food manufacturers must find ways to adjust their production and accommodate smaller items with different texture and flavor characteristics. Many new BFY products have limited shelf life and can be delicate to handle in processing. Therefore, they need better seals on packaging and often new and gentler ways to package them.

“As the market evolves, we see more applications for gluten-free products such as granola bars, meal replacement snack items and unique new cookies and pastries that cater to a more health-conscious consumer market,” said Mark Evangelista, brand manager, SleekWrapper.

Fifty to 60% of the company’s flowwrapper sales come from the bakery and confectionery industry. Flowwrappers have the ability to wrap a variety of fresh and frozen foods, including breakfast bars, banana bread and oatmeal cookies.

The increasing variety of baked foods and snacks appearing in c-stores, along with the influence of clean label and BFY trends, means reexamining the flowwrapping process on high-speed packaging lines.

As BFY foods infiltrate the c-store channel, food producers must consider the demand for single-serve portions. That means creating items that can be taken on the go and eaten entirely before the package is thrown away.

“Where we see the baking industry going is on the one hand more portion packs, where people eat the whole thing in one sitting and do not reclose it,” said Kelly Meer, product manager, flowwrapping and robotics, Bosch. “On the other hand, for family packs and sharable snacks, we see a rise in reclosable packaging like doy zip bags, which allow protection of contents for future consumption as well as easy opening and reclosing features.”

Eli’s newest desserts, the Butter Tart and Salt Caramel Tart, are packaged to accomplish this goal. They are flowwrapped then placed in an individual custom window sleeve merchandiser. The tarts ship frozen and are merchandised refrigerated or ambient.

The single-serve trend puts pressure on production lines to make smaller items in larger varieties at the same rate as their larger counterparts. Think of producing four bite-size pieces as opposed to one full-size bar. Doing this brings complications to the process line, and food manufacturers should know that it takes more than just changing production flow to accommodate the change.

“Bakers and snack food producers are asking for packaging equipment that is simple to operate, flexible and easy to clean and allows easy changeover from one product to another,” Mr. Evangelista said. “Gone are machines that can only handle one type of product. Customers demand flexibility.”

Line flexibility meets the demand for variety and smaller portioning. Mr. Gunnell advised producers to design flexibility into a new line.

“If you know the different products you are going to make, it’s much easier than going back later and trying to retrofit something,” he said.

Mr. Gunnell explained that, in addition to speed, product handling is a vital consideration.

The Formost Fuji Alpha 7 horizontal flowwrapper features bottom film feeds for positive transfer of products from the servo-drive infeed conveyor to the film tube. The wrapper is designed with different product sizes, shapes and ingredients in mind.

“We have parts that are specifically designed to be changeable, not fixed,” he added. “Our adjustable former is designed to modify package width and height to match the product without taking the part off and changing it.”

Production lines need to be flexible and capable of running multiple products to accommodate the demand for variety. At Bosch, the company tries to break the dependency on dedicated production lines. Where a cracker line used to be set up to produce one item in huge volume, the demand today is for flexible lines that make multiple products and can efficiently feed them into smaller single-serve packaging.

“Often customers think about the end product coming out of a flowwrapper, but it’s about how we can be flexible and automate getting it into that package,” Mr. Meer said. “That can be more of a challenge than the overwrapping.”

Getting up to speed
A major challenge involves aligning packaging rates with the speeds of single-serve items coming out of the oven. Bill Kehrli, vice-president, sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging, said the front end of processing needs to pay more attention to how the baked goods are manufactured for single-serve sizes.

“It gets more difficult because you have to have better control over your consistency of food,” Mr. Kehrli said. “The accuracy and consistency of a larger product at a lower speed is not as critical as a smaller piece running at significantly higher speed.”

The engineering challenges are wide-ranging when retrofitting a line that used to make large rectangular pieces, Mr. Kehlri said. For example, single-serve packs require modified transfer points between conveyors and adjustments to the infeed system for flowwrapping. There are also limitations as to how many pieces can be fed into a flowwrapper. Cavanna narrowed the design of its Slim line so two flowwrappers can fit into the same footprint.

“It allows our customers to double their productivity even though they have smaller pieces,” he said. “The pounds per hour are the same, but the packaging configuration changes so the piece count goes up.”

As the smaller products move toward the wrapper, they can be more susceptible to damage than slower larger products.

“Speed must be managed, whether you’re driving a car or packaging a cracker,” Mr. Meer said. “You need to focus on reducing impacts and gentle handling.”

For example, during the product extraction from the magazine feeder to the wrapper, cookies are extracted at great speeds and the delicate surfaces often are damaged, affecting the end quality. Bosch’s new Smart Pile Loader (SPL) reduces impact on the product edge during extraction with a pusher that slows down before touching the product. This “controlled extraction” ensures gentle handling while maximizing the product protection and speed of the extraction.

At Pack Expo 2017 in Las Vegas, Bosch is launching its flexible Biscuit on Pile packaging system for plain sweet and savory biscuits for North America. The system includes a vibratory infeed system, a new gentle magazine feeder, a new horizontal flowwrapper and an integrated top-load cartoner. Its SPL was developed for gentle product handling and continuous product flow and enables cookie and cracker producers to change the size, shape or number of biscuits in a pack. The SPL can create piles of one to seven pieces with four lanes coming into the machine.

Smaller products traveling at faster speeds need tighter tolerances, Mr. Meer added. If a product’s width or height varies by even 0.05 inch, it can cause problems. When stacking a pack of six that might be running 0.05 inch thicker than normal, that adds up to a 0.3 inch variance — a big difference in the flowwrapper.

“On our new SPL magazine feeder, we made the thickness adjustment non-mechanical,” Mr. Meer said. “It is purely down to electronics and motors so the operator can let the HMI know the product is running thicker.”

A small size difference in thickness could result in the pusher scraping along the bottom edge of the product.

“If you’re not scraping, you’re making less crumbs, which means you don’t have to clean as often,” Mr. Meer said. “It’s a snowball effect.”

Jerry Buckley, regional sales manager, BluePrint Automation (BPA), said it is important for packaging equipment suppliers to work with food manufacturers early in the process to help find solutions.

BPA makes vision-guided robotic carton and case loaders that handle two cartons or cases at a time. Each can have different product counts, adding to the machine’s flexibility. For example, a food producer could create 9- or 12-count cartons on the same line. If an order needs to be completed quickly, the operator can adjust the touch-screen HMI to load a higher percentage, up to 100%, of arriving product.

Vision systems also allow bakers and snack makers to monitor their product quality as it enters and exits a flowwrapper. BPA’s 3-D vision technology can identify varieties and product variances automatically where most variety packing was previously done manually.

“Although we do often handle wrapped bars and wrapped sandwich crackers, we believe we can handle most flow-wraps without any restriction on what is inside the wrapper,” Mr. Buckley said.

Looking inside the wrapper
No matter how small a product gets, the highest priority is providing a quality end product. As bakers work with packaging suppliers, that means finding the right combination of seal integrity and film quality.

Bosch’s Pack 403 high-speed flowwrapper comes with a feature to precisely measure and control film tension resulting in fewer wrinkles and better seals during production speed changes and during machine starts and stops.

The film barrier is more critical now than ever, Mr. Gunnell said, thanks to fewer preservatives, which often means limited shelf life. Often materials are specified and purchased without properly reviewing the requirements with all parties involved. Price is important, but barrier properties, speeds needed and seal strength are usually as important or more.

“You need to get everyone together as early as possible to make sure that we are on the same page as to what can and can’t be done,” he said.

Through all the changes, the result looks familiar to consumers. They can still pick up their favorite indulgence or BFY food in a recognizable flowwrapped package, but the process to get those foods into the package and safely wrapped has changed considerably.