Manual labor is still a part of modern tortilla production. Packagers at all production levels employ human operators to fulfill most stacking, filling, and closing operations using soft, wicketed polyethylene bags and semi-automated equipment.
Many cite the historically lower up-front costs of a labor-centric system and inexpensive materials over packaging robots, system automation, and improved sustainability. Others point out individual customer needs, such as volume demands of the food service industry or consistent acceptable production data (40-50 packages per minute), as their rationale to avoid the expense of innovation. They believe consumers are familiar with their product, and implementing changes – even if done to reduce overall plastics and food waste – simply does not take precedence over cost savings in their business model.
But producers who refuse to scale operations through automated processes and enhanced sustainability may be putting themselves at a disadvantage.
Automation reduces operational expenditures over time, and modern consumer demand is shifting. As more companies find new ways to differentiate themselves in an already competitive market, it is up to individual tortilla packagers to scale their production properly by integrating improved technology and processes for commercial success, even survival.
However, efficient tortilla scalability doesn’t simply mean throwing money at advanced equipment and services and praying for optimal results. Instead, with a well-planned roadmap, scaling tortilla production comes down to choosing the right option for your business and taking the correct steps to meet your customers’ needs and present your products to market in the right way.
Modern Tortilla Packaging Means Flow Wrapping
The first essential step in scaling your tortilla production is to move away from the costly labor challenges of manual production. High turnover rates, labor availability, skill gaps, and lower packaging agility from manual loading processes can increase your time to market and cause your business to lag behind others who choose innovation to successfully pivot in today’s marketplace.
Experts across the industry agree that choosing flow wrapping as your primary packaging method gives you access to top capabilities and features. Opting for flow wrapping allows for advanced automation from infeeding to palletizing, Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) for improved shelf life and product quality, and enhanced sustainability using recyclable fiber and paper-based films.
That being said, scaling your tortilla production with flow wrapping systems takes careful consideration. There are several different options available. Choosing the optimal application will depend on many factors, including production requirements and budget.
Let us take a closer look at the prominent flow wrapping methods and features for enhanced scalability and the advantages they offer:
Standard Flow Wrapping in Tortilla Production
With standard flow wrapping equipment, the process is simple. Stacks of tortillas are introduced via feeding belt, placed on top of roll stock film, longitudinally sealed from above, then closed on both ends.
This process eliminates the need for secondary sealing equipment, such as air blowers, unreliable wicketed bag infeeding machines, and other semi-automated mechanical components. Packaging is simplified, with one operator working between two machines, and allows for more robust, accurate, and efficient automation at various packaging stages.
Advantages of Standard Flow Wrapping
While the upfront investment in robotic automation systems and equipment increase costs in the short term, it is becoming increasingly necessary for properly scaling modern tortilla production. With the additional costs from a standard flow wrapping system come other advantages that can increase productivity and decrease operational costs over time:
Less Equipment & Manual Labor
Labor challenges during and after the pandemic have made it difficult to find trained, capable technicians working in sync and to full capacity. For example, in a manual tortilla packaging environment, there could be up to five operators at each packing station, handling and loading tortillas and sending them downstream to band sealing or clipping machines, secondary packaging stations, and case palletizer areas.
Flow wrapping automates this process, eliminating strenuous or repetitive jobs and placing skilled, valuable human operators at other locations further down the packaging line. As a result, automation from flow wrapping reduces product damage, human error, and labor turnover rates and offers better efficiency, operational predictability, and customer satisfaction.
Improved Speed & Productivity
Throughput is another important benefit of flow wrapping systems. Manual or semi-automated tortilla bagging systems without flow wrapping capabilities produce approximately 40-50 packages per minute (ppm). With a standard flow wrapping system, that number jumps to nearly 85ppm. This investment in improved production creates better Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) and reduced Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) over time.
Improved Graphics & Material Density
Wicketed polyethylene bags, while less costly, are softer than other materials used in tortilla packaging. They do not offer the same product protection and cannot be used in modern flow wrapping. Even producers who opt for high-density polyethylene to save on material costs lose packaging clarity and thus product marketability.
Alternatively, flow wrapping offers enhanced product protection and sustainability using thicker, premium-quality packaging materials such as polypropylene (pp). Recyclable and thermally resistant, polypropylene packaging also facilitates better graphics and labeling capabilities even at the standard levels.
Upgraded Flow Wrap Features for Scaling Tortilla Production
As you optimize efficiency and throughput with new flow wrapping techniques, you can scale your production capabilities further, adding more useful flow wrapping features and adaptations to do more. These additions improve product shelf life, ensure product freshness across all stages of production and transport, and help enhance brand awareness in your market sector in a more dynamic way.
Standard flow wrapping machines can add in-demand peel and reseal packaging features to enhance product quality. First, an intentional slit is placed in the rollstock film in the unwinding system. A peel/reseal adaption with pressure-sensitive adhesive tape is then added automatically to this opening, creating a reclosable peel and reseal function on the same machine.
Resealable tortilla packaging ensures better product freshness, significantly reduces material and food waste, and creates a more familiar look that resonates with customers. The flexibility of resealable packaging is also ideal for both foodservice tortilla production and retail applications, where reclosable features would help your products stand out.
Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP)
In addition to resealable packaging, MAP is one of the standalone benefits of enhanced flow wrapping systems. As the package is gas flushed and the oxygen replaced by a helpful mixture of nitrogen and CO2, product consistency and preservation are improved.
This process, in turn, prolongs product shelf life up to 30 days, allowing thermal processing to take place for safer transport and storage and significantly reducing both food waste and processing plastics. These benefits are unavailable with manual tortilla packaging and polyethylene bags.
Standing Tall in the Tortilla Market
Scaling production with flow wrapping makes you more agile in the packaging industry. With it, you can integrate more advanced product to pallet automation, decrease or eliminate human error across various packaging stages, and increase product quality and shelf life for a better customer experience.
But opting for flow wrapping, even automating your entire packaging system, isn’t the end of your enterprise scaling efforts. Differentiating your packaged products from “commodity tortillas” – tortillas stacked and packed in simple wicketed poly bags for mass consumption – in an already competitive marketplace, requires advanced equipment and features capable of handling and developing higher-end tortilla formats, including artisanal and plant-based options.
Ultimately, optimizing high-end tortilla packaging for product protection, shelf life, resealability, graphics, and MAP, comes down to the inclusion of resealable zippers from premier packaging machinery.
Why Do I Need a Zipper for My Tortilla Packaging?
Consumer preferences are shifting towards premium tortilla choices made with healthy, alternative, “clean label” ingredients. Often, these tortillas derive from substances other than traditional corn or flour, including seeds, quinoa, gluten-free whole grains, and a variety of vegetable and plant-based ingredients.
Advanced flow wrapping equipment, like Harpak-ULMA’s Artic Side Seal system, is the only flow wrapping equipment capable of sealing premier products with the right atmosphere at the highest production speeds. These systems are fabricated with specially designed components, which guarantee tamper-proof, hermetic, longitudinal seals for all types of tortillas – complete with MAP for optimal shelf life.
This type of machinery also easily incorporates full automation at every packaging stage at variable speeds. This is especially important when considering automation for secondary case packing and palletizing. Integrated automation is essential if you operate at the highest production levels with multiple, high-speed machines and need to reduce labor and material costs.
Most importantly, unlike standard flow wrapping, packaging created on premier devices offers full, high-resolution graphics on both the front and back of the package. This packaging machinery is versatile enough to fabricate standard, resealable, and zippered flow wrap packaging on a single machine but is the only equipment line capable of creating the professional-grade, double-sided graphics customers look for on higher-end packaging.
Key Considerations before Switching to Flow Wrapped Tortillas
Producers who align their production capabilities with today’s demand for automation, atmosphere, and graphic packaging design will be able to take advantage of highly scalable distribution systems and differentiate themselves in their market.
However, now that a clear scalability roadmap has been defined, there are various considerations to make before investing in advanced flow wrapping capabilities and systems for any tortilla packaging line:
Plant space will always be your primary consideration. Even if you have the capital to invest in a fully automated flow wrapping system, you must also consider the physical space to establish continuous packaging, case packaging, and palletizing. Human labor, though minimized, will still have a presence and must be accounted for as well. If the space does not exist presently, investment in new or expanded plant space must be considered.
Tortilla diameter is a key factor for determining operating, material, and sustainability costs. A standard flow wrap system generally works with tortillas of ten inches or less to stay cost-effective. However, as tortillas can expand to 12, 14, and 16 inches in diameter, your total investment in specialized equipment and materials may be affected by the size of your product.
Identifying your customers’ unique product needs and responding with the right product volume and packaging can reduce your overall costs and prevent superfluous investment. While wicketed bags and manually driven tortilla production may not be ideal, perhaps advanced automated flow wrapping production at 120ppm with MAP is not either. Finding that production balance (retail vs. food service, standard vs. premier product) and considering elements such as TCO, space, materials, and packaging graphics will determine where your company falls on the packaging spectrum. With this information, you can optimize your system design to match your production needs.
Food and Material Waste
America wastes 40 percent of its food. Americans also eat about 120 million tortillas per year. Even as a fraction of the total food waste nationwide, tortilla waste still measures in the metric tons. Upgrading to a more advanced flow wrapping system can extend tortilla shelf life by up to one month and reduce the plastics and processing involved by more than 80%. This reduction, in turn, helps prevent waste, protects the environment, and gives you better throughput, Return on Investment (ROI), and lower TCO across your entire line.
Scaling Tortilla Production for the Future
Scaling your tortilla production comes down to a simple choice:
“How do I want to present my tortilla product to the market?”
Many of the top producers in the industry rely on manual bagging systems and human operators to ensure broad-based adoption of their products, despite shortcomings in productivity and efficiencies.
Scaling your tortilla production with the right flow wrap technology according to your physical space, production needs, and budget offers the best path to desirable individualized commercial results.
Modern advances in flow wrapping preserve products longer, continuously meet modern sustainability demand, or present a higher-end tortilla packaging that stands tall on shelves with artisanal cousins like pitas and flatbreads. To scale to these levels and achieve the attributes you want, an investment in innovation and system automation must inevitably be adopted as part of your widespread efforts to scale your tortilla production for the future.