Producing the Post-COVID Cup: Packaging Equipment Innovations Delivering Quality and Speed

By Nate Smith, Innovation and Senior Manager at R.A Jones

From creamy, spreadable cheeses to ready-meal soups to premium pet food blends, the average consumer’s fridge is no stranger to cup packaging and its suitability for diverse lifestyles and occasions. A single-serve yogurt, for example, may be thrown into a lunch bag and taken to the office, a larger portion of potato salad may accompany a family on an outdoor picnic and a container of resealable margarine may be used daily while cooking meals. These consumption settings will likely become only more varied as the world emerges from a pandemic—and, through it all, cup packaging must continue to deliver on product quality, safety and convenience. Additionally, the format must meet these expectations under the pressure of a supply chain scrutinized and stretched more than ever before as consumers continue to socially distance and cook at home at higher rates.

With these demands in mind, how will brand manufacturers adapt, and what kinds of technologies will they need to ensure a steady supply of high-quality goods? To mitigate risks while ramping up production, brands should remember packaging is often the first interaction a consumer has with an item. By finetuning the production line and leveraging the latest advancements in cup filling, sealing and overcapping equipment, manufacturers are well-positioned to deliver a more positive brand experience and build consumer loyalty.

Meeting strict sanitization standards

Manufacturers have long been held to high standards of cleanliness on the production floor, but following the COVID-19 outbreak, operations are under a larger microscope. Cleanliness is of paramount concern as the industry works to meet high product volumes while also minimizing risk of germ spread. For the manufacturer, meeting regulatory requirements ensures consumers receive a safe product and plant workers operate in a safe environment. Taking the right steps to properly sanitize production equipment helps to avoid costly recalls and preserve brand reputation.

With traditional cup filling, sealing and overcapping equipment, manufacturers often face challenges with components that feature uneven surfaces, tight spaces or nooks and crannies where product can become trapped—all characteristics of machine design that lead to difficult, tedious or sub-standard cleaning. Machinery that can instead be easily wiped or washed down reduces potential areas where food particles can linger and harbor bacteria. Also critical is the ability to conduct cleaning processes quickly and efficiently, allowing manufacturers to meet proper standards but minimize their downtime.

Promoting product precision and quality

Today’s consumers eye their products with more scrutiny than in the past. Not only has a SKU explosion created more choices, but the pandemic has placed extra emphasis on product safety and eliminating points of exposure to viral particles. To remain competitive, brand manufacturers must renew their focus on quality and reliability. Issues like inconsistent product volume across units, faulty seals and foreign particles are unacceptable and can quickly damage brand reputation. These defects are especially important to avoid as e-commerce and click-and-collect services become more popular, where products may not be visible until in the home and, if in unsatisfactory condition, inconvenience the consumer with additional trips to the store.

Standard cup sealers can often face issues of misalignment between container and lid, leading to a less-secure seal and increasing the likelihood of product leakage. The result is not only waste for the manufacturer and a mess for the consumer, but greater concerns around product freshness and potential spoilage. Additional risks around product quality are not necessarily visible to the consumer but are important for brand integrity. Some manufacturers provide additional quality control measures with certain machine upgrades. For example, more advanced packaging equipment is designed to flag foreign particles or contaminants that may be present in the cup during the pre-fill stage, as well as sanitize the cup thoroughly. If the machine fails to execute these tasks properly, the finished product can pose harmful threats to the consumer.

Beyond expectations of a safe, reliable product, consumers also take note of consistency and uniformity across purchases. Uneven fill levels from unit to unit or batch to batch will create frustration for the consumer, who will observe these variances as sloppiness or lack of attention to quality—not to mention product giveaway, which hurts the manufacturer’s bottom line.

Enhancing efficiency and output

In addition to mitigating risks, manufacturers serving the post-COVID market must also be prepared to produce at higher volumes—a challenge when most are already running 24/7 and cannot simply add more shifts. With CPGs under such pressure, uptime is everything. Each individual component on every machine makes a critical difference in overall production efficiency, pushing manufacturers to examine where their technology is falling short and possibly detracting from overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

Existing designs for cup packaging equipment are sometimes subject to performance issues that increase maintenance needs and shorten lifespan, such as parts that fall victim to early wear and tear. In addition, typical machines can be bulky and require a large footprint but be limited in capabilities and fail to provide added value. As an alternative, manufacturers can employ high-speed equipment with durable components designed to last and technologies that complete additional tasks within the same amount of space.

The next generation of cup packaging technology

With the pressure to balance quality with quantity and deliver on both fronts, manufacturers can leverage emerging innovations in cup filling, sealing and overcapping equipment. With the right technologies in place, brands can take their production capabilities to new heights—potentially increasing output by more than 20 percent.

In regard to cleanability, new machines designed to protect water-sensitive areas and expose high-traffic areas enables manufacturers to meet stringent hygiene requirements with greater ease. A sealed rotary drive mechanism keeps critical mechanical components within a watertight box and behind a barrier wall, ensuring vulnerable parts are kept safe and dry while workers pressure wash the bulk of the machine. Also assisting with hygiene are innovative machines that utilize belt drives rather than traditional chain drives. A cleaner design that minimizes product catchpoints and promotes easier washdown, a belt drive expedites the sanitization process. Belts also avoid a common maintenance issue observed with chains, which often stretch over time and require frequent readjustment. Furthermore, belts promote precision across the production line and run more smoothly, contributing to greater output and OEE.

Advancements around filler nozzles also yield tremendous benefits for manufacturers looking to run at higher speeds and minimize opportunities for error. New nozzles that can dive deeper into the cup help to reduce splashing, an important measure for liquid or semi-solid products with lower viscosity. The diving nozzles also help eliminate peaking, which occurs when product flow lacks a controlled cut-off and creates inconsistency in fill levels and product appearance. Protection against splashing and peaking helps the machine to stay cleaner and keeps the edges of the cup product-free and dry to foster a stronger seal. Ultimately, with these precision nozzles in place, manufacturers can fill containers faster and with fewer lanes.

When it comes to quality control, more intelligent cameras now serve multiple purposes. Designed within a complete verification system, vision technology inspects all materials to flag any holes or other damage, as well as ensures the right cups and lids are paired together. Lid detection capabilities also flag when a lid is missing entirely. Additionally, the cameras enable precise alignment with lids—a valuable feature when even a fraction of a millimeter can make the difference in a trusted or faulty seal. This system works in tandem with the larger production setup to pull rejected product off the line without halting or interrupting workflow, offering quality assurance while maintaining high speeds.  Checking total product quality in the machine reduces production line sizes and third-party equipment that needs to be purchased and integrated. This can also minimize offline quality control checks once validated.

All of these elements, along with a more sophisticated machine design, help to enhance production and boost cup filling speeds approximately 25 percent compared to the rates of traditional equipment. Finally, if production or quality issues do occasionally arise and require a technician’s attention, zone lighting helps to quickly pinpoint exactly where the problem lies, minimizing maintenance-related downtime.

Sourcing a suitable partner

As manufacturers work to evolve along with the cup packaging market and the needs of their customers, engaging the right industry partners is the first critical step to improving production efficiency and scaling up output. By involving an equipment supplier that is in tune with brand challenges and targeted goals for growth, manufacturers are poised to make meaningful changes to their operations and make a lasting impact with consumers—far beyond the COVID-19 era.

About R.A Jones

R.A Jones is part of Coesia, a group of innovation-based industrial and packaging solutions companies operating globally, headquartered in Bologna, Italy www.coesia.com.