Changing packaging materials require next-level leak detection
Consumers’ expectations are constantly driving change, but the produce packaging industry faces especially challenging demands given the push for sustainability without loss to product freshness and quality. The competitive produce marketplace provides thin profit margins, so any issue can cause substantial damage to profitability and, in the cases of smaller companies, product returns can imperil the whole company.
As companies place increasing importance on sustainability, many times the first step is re-examining the choice of packaging materials or films. Brands must account for the durability and compatibility of these materials and ensure they will not only properly protect a product and optimize shelf life, but also work well with their existing manufacturing equipment. As conceptually uncomplicated as this is, in reality, implementation on this is a striking quality and engineering challenge.
In many cases within the produce industry, the package types and films make the package especially susceptible to the perils of the water bath testing process and in the end, this type of traditional leak detection method can be destructive for packages, especially ones that are delicate. To add complexity to this, in many cases, these new compostable films aren’t compatible with water testing processes at all.
Traditional water bath testing isn’t well-suited to ensuring that the sealing equipment meets the necessary requirements for these emerging films and industry trends which require lower leak rate detection and product quality needs. Currently, many companies do not sell product that is tested in water baths due to the potential contamination in the water. This testing process also puts strains on the packaging seals that make products more susceptible to freshness concerns. This immediately puts profit margins in tension with quality as well as production. To complicate this further, water bath testing methods are subjective and operator dependent, thus provide varying results from operator to operator, line to line, facility to facility.
One of the steps companies can use to bridge these challenges is to understand and invest in leak-testing technology that quantitatively evaluates packages and leaks in ways that are non-destructive, which immediately has positive impacts on product quality, freshness and profitability. Advanced leak detection equipment, such as Inficon’s Contura S400, can help ensure that the package stays intact and is leak-free, safeguarding a brand’s promise while simultaneously leaving the product in a condition suitable for sale.
Testing variables and data to support decisions: Anyone involved in process improvements understands elimination of process variables can help to better testing effectiveness and quality data. Many companies find it difficult to achieve testing uniformity without a method that can relay exact results that eliminate the marginal error derived from facilities, products, stations and people. The steps required to execute a water bath test, for example, are prone to human error due to the many variables in play and the overall subjective nature of the test.
The length of testing time, lighting, bubble source (e.g., surface tension bubbles), line of sight or being able to see the package from multiple angles, which creates ergonomic challenges, are all variables that are not controlled. Brands can overcome these challenges by using technology that delivers repeatable, reproducible results.
Certain leak detection methods, such as the water bath test, still require that data be manually recorded and stored following a test. This is almost always an unrecognized cost as well as a substantial source of potential errors and time consumption. In today’s world, time is increasingly limited, especially when considering the lack of downtime in manufacturing and packaging processes.
Synchronization of efforts: Leak-detection technologies, including the Contura S400 and the Contura S600, are designed to non-destructively test packages in seconds to even the micro leak levels while utilizing technological advancements in its elegant Human Machine Interface (HMI), which provides visual, audible as well as depicts quantitative leak test results on the display in just seconds. The delivery of clear, immediate results can be the difference between shipping leaking product and profitability.
While change is generally not simple or easy, there are bridges to meeting today and tomorrow’s quality and productivity challenges with innovative solutions today. Imagine how much more productive your processes could be if you could harmonize your manufacturing, quality and productivity challenges.
— Bill Burnard is general industry sales manager and package integrity business development manager in North America for Inficon, a provider of instrumentation, sensor technologies and advanced process control software. Inficon services the packaging industry, among many others.
Top: Due to increased sustainability efforts, films in packaging are changing and require next-level leak detection technology. Pictured, CFK’s Earthcycle packaging on display at Fruit Logistica 2020. Photo: Melanie Epp