The Future is Tortilla Packaging Automation

By Mike Terry
Posted In : Automation, packaging automation, Labor, Bakery, Tortillas

The dawning of the New Year doesn’t mean an end to last years’ challenges for tortilla producers. They face the same storm of issues from the lack of continuity in the supply chain to the limited supply of raw materials and the growing fear of the Coronavirus’ new variant spreading to human employees in plants across the nation.

But for all these production obstacles, the demand for retail and foodservice tortillas hasn’t followed suit. Instead, consumer desire and expectations for healthier, readily available, artisanal tortillas, including low-calorie, organic, gluten-free, and plant-based products, have risen exponentially. Better, more sustainable packaging is no longer a polite suggestion but an essential ask, and consumers are only supporting those brands who deliver when and where they need it.

Growing Labor Concerns

While stories like this are common throughout the food packaging industry, the growing labor shortages tortilla producers have seen over the past 18-24 months have also exasperated the scenario unlike anything previously witnessed in the sector.

In 2020 and 2021, employee turnover rates in tortilla plants reached all-time highs thanks in large part to the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, mass retirement of skilled and non-skilled laborers, and overall health and safety concerns. Many workers could not, or chose not to, work in these dangerous environments. Still more are wooed away to other opportunities via higher hourly wages, hiring bonuses, and enhanced benefits packages. This has forced commercial tortilla producers to run operations at peak capacity to increase throughput, often with a reduced labor force.

In the past, the answer was simply to replace employees who either moved on, retired, or made lateral or upward moves within the company with more willing workers. But the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed that dynamic. The ability to reconcile issues in the supply chain, run a business successfully, and keep employees safe has taken the situation from challenging before the pandemic to something nearly impossible today.

Reinventing Modern Tortilla Production

With these labor shortages, wage inflation, health concerns, and high employee turnover rates has come an industry-wide reimagining of tortilla production that doesn’t revolve around manual labor. Tortilla packagers, large and small, are opting for a better choice to maintain or improve production and profitability using resources other than human workers from an already depleted labor pool.

That choice is automation.

Automation as a Logical Alternative

Today’s tortilla producers see automation as a saving grace in these difficult times. Innovations in robotic technology have made it possible for machines to take over repetitive, tedious, and potentially hazardous tasks previously held by human workers to improve overall efficiency and production speeds.

Additionally, as many operations begin to see the limitations of their current production teams without an endless supply of manual labor, automation becomes the only clear strategy for updating capabilities, addressing legacy staffing challenges, and streamlining key aspects of production.

According to a recent study conducted by PMMI, more than 13% of surveyed respondents have reported that they have accelerated their timelines for automation because of the pandemic and other challenges they face in the modern marketplace. They are investing significant thought and effort into meeting business and consumer demand in a scalable way and clearly see that automation is the way forward.

But for all the excitement surrounding tortilla packaging automation, there is also some confusion about where precisely to begin.

Questions concerning what it means to automate your tortilla packaging line, the drivers behind the movement, how to best benefit from packaging line automation continue to linger. Producers want to know how to realize a significant return on investment (ROI) for their automation upgrades, even in the most competitive and saturated market spaces.

We will explore the answers to these queries and show how you can make the most of tortilla packaging automation for present and future success.

Which Tortilla Packaging Processes Can Be Automated?

Simply defined, automation is any information technology designed to direct and control the work of machines and entire robotic systems to achieve a goal. Though the role of robotics is ever-evolving to accommodate innovations in tortilla packaging, the simplest answer to this automation question is “everything.”

From product loading and infeeding to primary and secondary packaging, palletizing, and shipping, tortilla packaging automation solutions can make your production process safer, more efficient, and more flexible. Subsequently, automation has the versatility necessary to integrate with several packaging applications – including thermoformed trays – and fits almost all tortilla production requirements.

However, most packagers opt for the ease, features, and broad design range of flow-wrapped tortilla packaging. Not only is it the most common automated packaging type, but it is also the packaging format most customers recognize and trust for all their tortilla needs.

Product Loading & Primary Packaging

Automation is ideal from the onset of tortilla packaging at the infeeding and product loading stages.

Tortillas run downstream from the cooling conveyors towards the flow wrapper chaotically via belts and lug chains. Custom-designed conveyance systems, carefully created according to available plant space, budget, and unique production requirements, singulate tortillas or arrange them into any desired array.

Once singulated or otherwise arrayed, 3D vision-guided robotic grabbers automatically recognize where the tortillas are located on the belt, then stack them into the appropriate count according to a predetermined internal recipe. Built-in, programmable logic controllers (PLC), such as Allen Bradley Integrated Architecture, handle all handshaking between the belt conveyor automation, vision system, and the robot, and your infeeding has better safety, synchronization, system continuity, and superior line control. Automation executes all mundane, repetitive motions, formerly completed by 2-4 workers manually for up to 12 hours per shift, and compensates for any errors in stack count, before ushering product into the flow wrapper and secondary packaging.

Secondary Packaging

Once the tortillas are stacked and systematically flow wrapped, they exit in single file and travel to an automated secondary case packaging and cartoner. system.

Depending on parameters, you can choose the casing style, generally between retail and foodservice cases. For foodservice tortilla packaging, custom-designed mechanical bypassing elements can be installed for unique secondary options, placing foodservice tortillas into the final shipping box without the added work of creating display cases with added perforations. This bypassing equipment allows you to forego any unnecessary processes and still use that same case packing system for the shipper without a separate line.

If you opt for a retail configuration during secondary packaging, the customized automated packaging robots create a display-ready case and a shipping case, depending on box perforations. The automated case former creates one of three options for empty cases, all fabricated on the same equipment with minimal space requirements and downtime for changeovers:

  • A retail carton
  • A retail-ready display case
  • A regular shipping case

After automatically creating one of these styles, the empty open case is delivered to the case packing robot. The automated pick and place robot then lifts the tortilla packages (generally in sets of 2-4 packages at a time) and loads them into the empty cases at a pre-determined production speed and array.

From this point, labels can be added, check weigh testing and rejection can be conducted, and the box is automatically sealed with tape or adhesive glue and conveyed automatically palletizing.

Palletizing & Shipping

At end-of-line palletizing, automated machinery grips and stacks cartons in the desired array, minimizing fatigue and injury so often witnessed with manual stacking. The cartesian stacks are then shrink-wrapped and heated to minimize movement of boxed product and are ready for shipping.

Automated Packaging Expense vs. Return on Investment

But why custom design an automated tortilla packaging line in the first place? Packaging automation for commercial tortillas integrates the latest technologies and can cost hundreds and thousands of dollars or more on average. Do the benefits of automation outweigh the expense?

The real question you should be asking is, “Can I afford NOT to?”

Labor shortages in manufacturing and food packaging are not showing any signs of abating in 2022 or beyond. In the meat and poultry packaging sectors, turnover has been as high as 150% in some instances. Many other operations in the manufacturing industry are following that trend.

Automation exists to taper the effects of negative labor trends and solve the legacy challenges of a decreasing manual labor force, health and sanitization concerns, and rising wages. When examined from an ROI standpoint, automation becomes a smart, sensible option, especially when increasing production according to higher demand.

Tortilla Automation’s Real Return on Investment

As a producer, you will always look for ROI when it comes to automation. However, when calculating ROI more closely, you have to remember all the factors in that equation. It is not only the cost of robotic automation systems but various other elements, including costs of material handling systems and the sensory technology and other mechanical features, which ensure the highest levels of overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and safety.

Automated system value calculations take into account factors such as:

  • Shifts per week
  • Average labor costs
  • Number of operators removed per shift (up to four on average)
  • Percentage of labor retained and necessary to operate the machinery
  • Productivity gains

ROI comes into play when the labor savings justify the expense of the automation. This time frame can be anywhere from 2-4 years on average, depending on the extent of your line’s automation.

However, common labor shortages and the current state of food production and packaging are causing many producers to suspend their standard expectations of ROI. Instead, most are opting to keep up with growing consumer demand and expectations of a steady, stellar tortilla product that suits customers’ lifestyles and needs, lest the situation negatively affect their profits and overall productivity.

The Benefits of Tortilla Packaging Automation

Even if monetary ROI is a major concern for your tortilla operation, automation has the intrinsic ability to make your investment worthwhile. More than direct financial reimbursement, tortilla packaging automation offers additional benefits that more than justify the high cost of integration.

Improved Production and Throughput

Tortilla packaging automation acts as the bridge between exceptional production and throughput rates and existing staffing shortages. An automated packaging line reduces the need for both skilled and non-skilled labor from the onset and allows for higher production levels at every stage than could ever be possible with a manual workforce. The fact is mechanical elements don’t experience fatigue, distractions, or illness. Product infeeding, loading, and unloading can be accomplished with optimal accuracy, even at high speeds, and downtime and waste caused by human interaction are nearly non-existent.

Minimized Footprint

Physical plant space is a major operational challenge, second only to labor shortages in tortilla packaging. There is only so much square footage in which to conduct operations. Increasing the manual labor force with more personnel means requiring more room and more equipment to optimize production. Automated packaging equipment minimizes the amount of equipment you need for your production line by removing physical bodies from your plant space and reducing the required labor for equipment changeovers overall.

Quality Inspection & Product Accuracy

When you incorporate automation, you can conduct metal detection, check weigh, x-ray, and rejection testing and execution at various stages of secondary packaging. For example, your system can be designed to conduct this testing once product is flow wrapped and before it enters the secondary cartoning system after the product is packed into display or shipping cases, or both.

These checks and balances ensure the highest quality for your brand, superior accuracy for your product count and weight that would be unavailable with manual inspection, and reduce overall food waste up to 37% in many instances. These quality inspection systems integrate seamlessly with your line, providing peace of mind and offering useable data for future improvements.

Enhanced Packaging Flexibility

New sustainable packaging designs, short batch returns, and faster equipment changeover and setup are all modern drivers for increased tortilla packaging flexibility. Without automation, these processes would be manual, cutting into production times and overall profits because of slower production speeds. Operators who choose to automate their tortilla lines have their choice of a range of robotic solutions for infeeding, primary and secondary packaging, inspections, and palletizing. These options not only solve issues of system complexity, but also relegate the creation of multiple package formats to the same machine.

System Customization

Packaging automation allows you to customize every aspect of your tortilla packaging line, adding auxiliary equipment – including bypassing options, quality inspection robotics, interleavers, loading and unloading automation, and more – to reduce customer risk and labor requirements. As a result, projects considered too costly because of the customization involved are now viable and attractive options in light of current labor shortages.

Optimal Sanitization & Safety

Due to the hygienic nature of modern, wash-down compatible machinery, automation helps to stall and even prevent the spread of contamination for both products and personnel. Automation offers a simplified solution to enforcing distancing regulations designed around the COVID-19 pandemic and helps to keep existing staff healthy, operating, and overseeing the machinery out on the line.

Finding a Balance through Automation

As you consider automation for your tortilla packaging line, it is essential to remember that it is not designed to replace your human workforce entirely. Instead, automation alleviates strenuous, repetitive, mundane, and even dangerous tasks to give human operators a chance for safer, more fulfilling career pathing and managerial opportunities over time.

As you explore tortilla packaging, you may never be prepared to adopt a “lights out” strategy – in which ALL of your operations are autonomous. But the need for change in the current business climate is very real. The technology to keep up with customer demand and expectations, and proactively respond to pandemic labor, challenges is there.

When adopting automation in lieu of an influx of manual labor, your task becomes finding that perfect balance between automation and humans to keep production at peak capacity, even in the most difficult of times.

Contact Harpak-ULMA to discuss your automation options and let us help you find that essential automated harmony for the future success of your operations.

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