Consumer demands for sustainability, convenience and products that accommodate active and healthy lifestyles have far-reaching implications for the entire supply chain. As consumer product manufacturers respond to rapidly changing shopper preferences and an evolving regulatory landscape, technological advancements – particularly in packaging – are helping them transform products beyond skin deep. However, companies must keep a finger on the pulse of food packing rends if they hope to gain the competitive edge and increase profitability.

1. Sustainable packaging practices

Consumers continue to value sustainability as a key variable in their purchase decision-making process. According to PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies’ 2017 Global Packaging Trends Report, the increasing demand for environmentally friendly packaging is driving the adoption of more eco-conscious materials and containers across all industry segments. For instance, the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption in transportation has led to the increasing popularity of lighter-weight formats, such as plastic pouch packaging. Brands that utilize both rigid and flexible plastic formats continue to evolve packaging with new bioplastic formulations. Thus far, the beverage market remains the segment most affected by the shift toward more sustainably sound packaging materials. However, the home care and pet food segments are also catching onto this trend. The largest growing segment of beverage for that matter is bottled water, which is forecasted to see 10.6 billion units of absolute volume growth through 2020 in North America.

2. Convenient on-the-go packaging

As flexible substrates play a crucial role in the move toward sustainability, they also help consumer goods processors marry their products with convenience-enhancing packaging. Flexible pouches are lightweight, often easy to carry and are resealable. But these formats are not the only game in town. Shaped liquid cartons are also seeing a growth in packaging applications, according to the report, with both shaped liquid cartons and plastic pouches predicted to grow the most at 10.1 percent and 6.2 percent respectively. This growth is due to the growing need for products enjoyed on-the-go. Consumers desiring portion control are often willing to pay a premium for that convenience.

PMMI. Food Packing Trends and Innovation

Consumers continue to value sustainability as a key variable in their purchase decision-making process.

3. Clean labels & healthy choices

In last year’s Food Packaging Trends and Advances Report by PMMI, 37 percent of U.S. consumers indicated that the ability to identify ingredients on food brand products was important to them and 91 percent believed that these products were inherently healthier.2 In response, food processors had to start re-thinking their methods of extending shelf life while preserving taste and quality. Approximately 50 percent of the participants in PMMI’s 2017 Trends in Food Processing Operations survey emphasized that clean labeling is impacting their manufacturing processes. As a result, high pressure processing (HPP) has seen widespread consideration and is increasing in adoption among food processors in applications like sliced meats, dips, fruit, juices, beverages and other emerging options. This method of processing involves the intense use of pressure post-packaging and enables brands to better retain natural flavors without the use of additives – and in some cases, extends the shelf life of certain products two-to-three times their traditional lifespan. While HPP is not a new processing method, it has seen a resurgence amid the advancements in flexible packaging technology.

4. Flexible equipment for the SKU explosion

Flexible is more than just a packaging format. It’s a whole manufacturing approach. With increasing consumer demand for options that meet changing dietary needs, such as non-GMO, gluten-free, vegan, organic, antibiotic free products, manufacturers continue to broaden their portfolios. However, in a still-challenging economy and amid ceaseless change, manufacturers are opting to do more within the same footprint and opting for more flexible machinery. The variations of products at which food and beverage brands need to address these dietary restrictions ultimately results in an explosion of stock keeping units (SKUs). With these variations, flexible machinery becomes paramount and in some cases more important than throughput numbers. In fact, four out of five companies surveyed in the Food Packaging and Trends and Advances Report stated that they had more than 100 product SKUs and anticipated that these numbers would increase, continuing to drive the need for faster changeovers. These changeovers and need for flexibility are also influencing the need for greater synergy between packaging and processing operations.

5. Automated packaging & processing operations

Automation continues to play a key role in manufacturing operations in the case of robotics for performing traditionally manual tasks. However, the automation of data collection for regulatory matters and preventive maintenance and diagnostics is equally as important. According to the 2017 Trends in Food Processing Operations Report, engineers are looking for better synchronization between packaging and processing operations because any mishaps upstream can cause unexpected downtime on the packaging line. In order to combat these challenges, original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are developing automated maintenance scheduling and diagnostics and automated sanitation schedules. Additionally, three out of four companies are looking toward their OEMs in providing any improvement that maximizes uptime and enhances overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

Sean Riley is senior director, Media and Industry Communications, at PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies.