Snacking continues to be a big win with consumers with no sign of slowing. Trends toward health and wellness, portion control and variety gain steam as the world returns to the mobility seen pre-pandemic. In a conference call with analysts this summer, Ramon Laguarta, chairman and chief executive officer of PepsiCo Inc., Purchase, NY, noted that smaller formats and multipacks are providing huge growth. And not only multipacks, but also variety packs are in vogue. 

Multipacks and variety packs offer consumers the ability to trial flavors and companies the option to generate sales through seasonal promotions. This is a no-brainer for a company’s marketing department, but supporting it operationally is tricky. Variety packs, however, require manpower, something manufacturing is in short supply of these days.  

“Depending on consumer demand paired with seasonal promotions, on a typical day, a bakery manufacturer may be producing six-packs or eight-packs daily,” said Jamie Bobyk, marketing manager, Apex Motion Control. “Introduce marketing promotions, seasonal holidays and events, and now your production line is required to crank out two-packs, three-packs and even four-packs. While that might not seem overly challenging with manual labor, having an abundance of labor can no longer be relied upon to help with these flexible production changeovers.” 

Automation can help snack manufacturers leverage their packaging departments and meet several goals from increasing efficiency and throughput to reducing a reliance on manual labor. 

“One of the biggest challenges today when packaging snacks is finding the ideal balance between efficiency and maximum production,” said Jeff Almond, Heat and Control industry manager, snack food packaging. “The key is finding the right speed based on the product characteristics and leveraging the entire packaging line to achieve optimal results. Automation plays a key role in snack food packaging today, and a key to success is configuring the case sizes correctly to leverage packaging capability.” 

Achieving that optimal packaging department with variety packs, however, requires a lot of different technologies working together to automate what has typically been a laborious process. 

“Variety packs allow us to use several different types of technology at once from custom-built end-of-arm tools to pick-and-place technology to vision systems, all of which combined ensure the correct product is selected without damage,” said Wes Bryant, product team leader for AMF Workhorse. 

When it comes to assembling variety packs, snack manufacturers have several options: a fully manual process to a fully automated process and everything in between. 

“There are a variety of ways to put a variety pack together, but the key to implementing this process is executing it without disrupting the mainstream production,” Mr. Almond said. “Most are manual and done as a satellite operation in the plant or by a third party. Some are fully automated but require ample floor space and significant capital investment.”

As Mr. Bobyk pointed out, however, snack manufacturers are less able to rely on a robust workforce to assemble these variety packs, and many are turning to automation to fill that gap. Typically, an automated solution requires primary packaging paired with robotic technology to assemble the variety pack. 

“Snack manufacturers often automate the packaging process by employing a robotic system that places or organizes the appropriate bags needed in a pre-determined flight and then packs them in a paperboard case with the correct mixes of packages,” Mr. Almond explained. 

Developing an automation plan is critical to getting it right. Otherwise, the process can bottleneck quickly. 

“Automation in variety pack manufacturing is quite a simple process but requires a lot of thinking up front before any investments are to be made,” said Simon Hill, group solution specialist, packaging, TNA Solutions. “Mixes of flavors and variety pack weights can really make the project very complicated very quickly.”

A critical component is balancing the production lines. And this goes beyond the packaging department. 

“The automation of variety packs specifically also causes the challenge not just to primary and secondary packaging but indeed to the entire system feeding the primary packaging machines,” Mr. Hill continued. “All feeds that the primary bagmakers are ‘pulling’ from need to be very carefully balanced in order to maintain overall equipment effectiveness of each primary bagmaker.”

Much of this relies on the output of all the lines lining up with each other. Primary bagmakers need to maintain the same output with each other with a strict percentage split of the different flavors in the variety packs. Stations on the primary production bagging cannot be moving faster or slower than each other. 

“Output of primary bagmakers should be measured in total output terms instead of a point-in-time measurement such as set speed,” Mr. Hill said. “When a TNA robag is set in run, they are automatically tuning themselves to achieve a target of 100% efficiency constantly, which if all primary bagmakers are doing the same will maintain the percentage split of flavors into the variety pack.”