June 30, 2020

Choosing the right vertical form fill seal (VFFS) bagger

It takes decades for a produce processor to build up its brand, but only seconds to ruin it.

A product recall traced back to contamination in your packaging equipment can destroy your credibility overnight. That’s why selecting the right vertical form fill seal bagger (VFFS) is critical to the success of your packaging line.

In addition to sanitary concerns, the produce industry poses a number of challenges when it comes to packaging fruits and vegetables. Thoroughly understanding your application and asking the right questions up front will help ensure you purchase the right bagger to meet your washdown and production needs. Here are five things to consider as you perform your due diligence on your next bagger.

Washdown design

The first and foremost concern for any produce processor is determining if their bagger is hygienic in design. With the safety of your customers a top priority, and how product recalls and negative news can be spread almost instantly through social media, this is an absolute must.

A hygienic design starts with the frame of the bagger. It should come with an open-frame design that allows full access for cleaning. Engineering developments in baggers like removing small nooks, crevices and fasteners that can become catch points for water, food particles and other particulates may seem small, but can in fact go a long way toward reducing breeding environments for bacteria to grow. Other features, like rounding squared edges to allow water and particulates to run off also contribute to a bagger’s hygienic design. 

Baggers need to be built to withstand daily washdowns with water temperatures exceeding 100° F from pressure washers spraying water over 220 PSI. The goal, of course, is to eliminate any course of contamination from the bagger.

Taking sanitization a step further, some companies are turning to professional cleaning contractors to wash their baggers and other packaging equipment. These firms specialize in disinfecting equipment, which removes responsibility from equipment operators who may not be as skilled in proactive cleaning practices.  

Mobile packaging machines

OEM manufacturers and produce processors have begun embracing the concept of mobility in packaging equipment.

The idea is rooted in bringing equipment to the harvest, rather than the other way around. When the harvest is ready in one area of the country, say California, the equipment is onsite nearby to process and package. Shortly thereafter when the harvest is ready in Arizona, the equipment is transported there to support those operations.

This is a shift in thinking from the traditional way of processing produce from a fixed location where the baggers and other packaging equipment are permanently located. Equipment may sit idle for a few months between harvests. Adding mobility to baggers, such as including casters or skids to the frame to be picked up by forklifts, can greatly save companies money by eliminating the need for a second bagger.

More SKUs

Many brands are now offering more products and SKUs as a way to appeal to a broader consumer market — one that increasingly is looking to better connect with their brands of choice.

While this increase in SKUs means shorter production runs, companies are packaging a larger, more diverse product offering with different bag sizes and different weights than ever before.

To accommodate this flexibility, baggers can have up to 12 changeovers in a single shift. To maintain production, changeovers need to be easy to complete in a matter of minutes and performed by the operators working that line. Effective changeovers allow operators to access the pre-loaded recipe for the next production run via the bagger’s touchscreen controls, and the machine does the rest. This cuts down on the engagement operators have with the bagger.

Easy operation

A well-designed bagger needs to be extremely easy to operate. That’s because in general, many of the employees who operate packaging equipment are entry-level, with little to no on-the-job experience operating packaging machines, and at most, have a base-level understanding of the machinery. They also may be in charge of operating several other packaging machines on neighboring lines, such as scales and conveyors, which shifts their attention to other duties. The need for easy operation is a must, and it starts with the touchscreen control panel, providing only the information the operator needs.

A larger processing facility may have packaging lines with up to 12 different touchscreens for operators to monitor. However, if some of the equipment is sourced from various suppliers, those screens will be different. The fit, form and function of a bagger’s touchscreen should really be designed with the operator in mind. Engineers design form fill seal machines, but it’s important to not design them for engineers, you need to keep the end user operator in mind.   

Performance

While a bagger’s advertised top-speed is a sexy stat, it really isn’t indicative of its true overall performance. To obtain a more accurate view of the bagger’s anticipated nominal speed, you need to consider how the product is processed; the volume of product per hour; how the product is fed into the bagger; and the speed of every piece of equipment behind and ahead of the bagger. 

To help ensure the bagger being built meets your production goals, a reputable supplier will want to know:

  • What is the product being filled?
  • What type of film will be used?
  • What is the density?
  • What are the flow characteristics?
  • What are the bag sizes?
  • What are the bag styles?
  • What is the desired fill rate per minute?
  • What is the target product weight?

Knowing this information upfront helps suppliers determine the scope of the project. Also, the reason to have answers to these questions in the early stages is that each one influences the other; if one of the answers to a question is unknown, it can sometimes dramatically change the scope of the project.

It’s important to do your homework when it comes to selecting the right vertical form fill seal for your produce processing application — and considering these five questions is a great place to start. Establishing communication with your supplier early on in the design process will make the project a much quicker and smoother experience for everyone involved — and deliver a bagger that’s ready for action the first day it’s installed.

Marc Wolf, Matrix

— Marc Wolf is the General Manager and Vice President of Matrix (a ProMach brand), an industry-leading manufacturer of vertical form fill seal (VFFS) packaging equipment. He can be reached at [email protected]; www.matrixpm.com.

Top photo: Ease of operation is key when choosing new equipment, like a vertical form fill seal (VFFS) bagger. Photo: Matrix