Wallau (Germany), 26.02.2016 – Whole chicken in Saudi Arabia, dates in Kuwait, meat and sausage in Germany, fish in Scandinavia and cheese in Slovenia – all of this fresh produce shares a common trait: its packaging by customized GEA thermoformers. The summary that follows outlines ways of further enhancing performance and efficiency, and of making food businesses fit for the future.

“As the market continues to ramp up requirements, we remain committed to offering our national and international customers long-term solutions that will enable them to succeed in the marketplace,” stated Bernd Klinkert, Managing Director of GEA Food Solutions Germany GmbH, speaking at the Packaging Convention 2016. The event, highlighting technologies around the PowerPak thermoformer, took place on 20 and 21 January. It is attested to the company’s own success that it has been manufacturing packaging and meat processing machinery in Biedenkopf-Wallau for more than 70 years. Annual production currently stands at around 600 individual machines, including packaging lines, labelling and printing systems, end-of-line units, such as lane convergers etc., and meat processing machinery. 

For two days GEA’s guests from both Germany and abroad took the opportunity to be informed of new techniques, including the latest trends in the film material, labelling and control systems, and how the interaction of oxygen and light affects packaged products. GEA packaging solutions were among the convention’s agenda items, focusing in particular on the benefits of shrink packing and on the packaging of hot products – ready meals, such as soups or pasta dishes – without any negative impact on weight, while prolonging shelf life at the same time. Another highlighted application was skin packaging of steaks, which is growing in popularity for high-quality food products. The event kicked off with a presentation of automated loading systems, which showed how existing packaging capacities can be augmented upstream in order to increase output significantly.

Automatic loading of sliced products

“In the context of high-speed slicing and packaging, our loading systems are very efficient links in the production chain, delivering portions fully automatically from the slicer to the thermoformer,” explained Norbert Brunquell, GEA Product Manager Slicing & Loading. His presentation focused on the universal ShingleLoaders 600 and 700, which are four and six-lane machines. These two fully automatic solutions facilitate the efficient operation of flexible slicing lines in the medium to high-capacity segment. In view of its prodigious loading performance, the ShingleLoader 700 in particular is a prerequisite of a high-output line in many cases. Operated in conjunction with the GEA GigaSlicer, for example, 300 g cheese portions can be processed at a rate of up to 2.3 t/h or 18 t per shift. 

The reproducible loading precision is a common feature across the whole product range, including the FlexLoader and RobotLoader. As a consequence, the loaders can feed a wide variety of sliced portions to the thermoformer. In addition to the loading operation itself, the ShingleLoader ensures continuous production on the part of the packaging machine, in most cases during the entire loading time of the slicer, by means of integrated buffer conveyors. The consistent hygienic design and simple, quickly detachable belts achieve a high degree of product safety through effective and economical wet cleaning. 

Optional functions and additional modules, such as a lane converger, integrated flip-flop correction belt or correction display make the ShingleLoader a very flexible machine for diverse products and packaging machine formats.

ROI within a few months

In his presentation, Norbert Brunquell did a simple sum to illustrate the return on investment (ROI). “Process automation with our loading system quickly delivers a financial benefit. The ROI period is generally less than a year.” In order to illustrate the point he gave a representative example. First, he calculated the output for a single product, a 105 mm diameter mortadella sausage, which is placed in the packaging machine manually. The standard portion is seven slices weighing a total of 150 g. two of the sausages are sliced. One operator loads the slicer, and two operators feed the packaging machine. Each operator feed in 30 portions to achieve an output of 60 packages a minute, equivalent to an effective speed of 6.6 cycles a minute. The packaging output is therefore around 414 kg an hour, or 3.3 t per shift. 

The ShingleLoader, by comparison, can easily accomplish ten (or more) cycles a minute. And with just two, instead of three, machine operator. Output increases from 3.3 t to 4.8 t per shift, or by around 45 percent. By raising the operating speed of the slicer and packaging machine, which is simple from a technical perspective, performance overall can be increases by a further 50 percent to around 900 kg/h, which is more than twice as much as the reference figure of 414kg/h. Depending on the format and cycle speed, the ROI period stands at around five to eight months, based on a two-shift production operation. A special benefit of the system arises from its autonomous design: since the ShingleLoader possesses its own control and display, it can be integrated in existing lines with machines of other manufacturers.

Shrink films on thermoformers

“Sausage rings, individual sausages, marinated legs of lamb, whole chicken and blocks of cheese – they are all suitable for shrink packing,” says Jörg Feisel of GEA in Biedenkopf. “A few years ago we developed a system that brought together the advantages of shrink bags and standard flexible film thermoformers, while at the same time enhancing workflow efficiency. The benefits apply in numerous applications – irrespective of the type or shape of the product that is being packed.” 

ShinkPak is a vacuum packaging solution, and its secret lies in the die sets. Given the temperature sensitivity of shrink films, modified heating and sealing systems are used. Thanks to three-dimensional shrinkage by up to 40 percent in a hot water bath, and high-barrier properties, the shrink films presents the product in the best possible light, offers very good protection, and gives the food a long shelf life. Apart from the huge variety of packaging options, the high performance of the ShrinkPak system can significantly increase output. It is even compatible with printed films. In summary, ShrinkPak is a universal thermoform packaging concept. Changing dies is a quick and simple operation. Easy changes between shrink film and flexible packaging give operators greater flexibility. 

At the convention, Jörg Feisel presented two examples to illustrate where this solution has been adopted. In one project, in Saudi Arabia, presently ten ShrinkPak machines in a single site package 450,000 slaughtered chicken of the same weight every day. The individual birds are packaged, following the shape of the product, in printed film with an opening aid before entering the shrink tunnel and then the package dryer. The bottom film is printed with variable data before entering the forming station, while the barcode is applied to the top film.

The second case sturdy was a dairy, where a PowerPak thermoformer is delivering a fully automatic monthly output of 170 t Tilsit cheese and 20 t Emmental cheese in a single line. It is a special feature of this solution that the Tilsit undergoes secondary maturation in the package. One of the key factors is the barrier properties of the shrink film, which exert an influence on the ripening process. The packaging must retain the cheese’s moisture and effectively prevent the ingress of atmospheric oxygen. The Emmental cheese, in contrast, is packaged in a modified atmosphere in flexible film. Incorporating the two solutions, ShrinkPak and MAP, in a single machine reaped rewards from day one. 

As a general rule, moreover, film procurement is not subject to any restrictions whatsoever. “Our customers can obtain their film form any supplier,” comments Feisel.

Packaging hot products

“When hot products are being packaged, cycle speed is less important than temperature and humidity,” explains Gerd Heuser, Packaging Application Manager at GEA in Biedenkopf. The technique used for vacuum-packing hot cooked dumplings, soups or grilled chicken at around 80 °C, which is nondestructive to the product, is steam flushing or head space evacuation. 

The operation begins with a steam generator producing dry steam with a temperature of up to 180 °C and a pressure of 10 bar. A steam trap situated at the lowest point in the feed line to the sealing station collects the condensation that forms during the process for disposal. As a consequence, only dry steam enters the sealing chamber. It is injected by a special stainless steel nozzle attached to a hose. The system flushes the head space, and the residual steam is discharged by two hoses. A separate control valve heats the nozzle to prevent condensation. 

“The solution is both simple and ready to use straight away in a standard sealing station in a thermoformer,” remarks Heuser. A contamination of parts in the sealing station is ruled out. Among the key benefits are the absence of product weight loss and the positive impact on shelf life. The GEA system reduces energy consumption and can be used for vacuum packaging with both flexible and rigid film. In applications where rigid film is used, the pack should be well filled.

Vacuum skin packaging – the latest trend

In his second presentation, Jörg Feisel confidently insisted, “skin packages are currently trending throughout the whole of Europe.” Salmon in Scandinavia, meat in England, premium food products in Germany – after evacuation, the produce is sealed skin-tight with a skin film on either a dimensionally stable bottom film or a tray. Compatibility with a wide variety of applications is provided by the PowerPak machines that are used for this purpose. The pack outline in the forming die is configured for skin

packages. The top film is drawn into the specially designed sealing die, directly heated and, after evacuation, lowered. The product is thus sealed air-tight. It cannot lose moisture or slip inside the pack. “Here again, we are not tied to a particular film producer – customers have a free choice,” says Feisel.

Every label a precision landing

The GEA TiroLabel is a customizable labeler that can be matched to the packaging, machine or client’s special requirements. It is a cross web labeler that allows the operator to change label reels easily while the machine is running. A major benefit is this machine is the separation of the label dispenser from the positioning unit. In addition, servomotor technology reduces tearing of the label tape. The unwinding unit can accommodate reels with a diameter of up to 500 mm. This not only increases line capacity, but also enhances efficiency and reduces costs. The GEA TiroLabel is a labelling solution characterized by especially low resource consumption; it is mounted on a PowerPak thermoformer and can be upgraded from a basic to a high-output configuration. One of the features is the spring-loaded applicator pins, which ensure that both conventional and unusual labels are applied quickly, reliably and precisely, including on uneven surfaces and at the maximum cycle speed.

Local technology center

As the packaging convention drew to a close, its moderator and Product Manager Thermoforming, Volker Sassmannshausen, drew attention to the company’s own technology center in Wallau, which, he said, “satisfies every need”. “This facility enables us to offer customers the opportunity to conduct all kinds of packaging tests in near-operational conditions and thus build security into their workflows.” GEA packaging lines are easy to operate, set up and clean. If a producer’s requirements change, the systems can be seamlessly integrated in existing production lines. Sassmannshausen closed the convention with a final message: “We consistently seek to implement application-centered solutions in order to offer our customers the greatest possible flexibility in a reliable packaging environment.”

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