One of the great mysteries of our modern age is “why hot dog and hamburger buns are always produced in packs of eight?” – unlike the products they are intended to hold. Truth is, when these products began mass production, and standards developed, there was no assumed link between buns and the meat that fills them.
While we buy them as a pair today, historically they were made and sold separately: buns can be used for Po’ boys, lobster rolls, sausages, and the like. It’s only in the current day and age that we intimately associate our pre-packaged dogs and burgers with the buns that bear their name.
The production of 8 rolls per package is rooted in the industrialized systems which enabled mass production of buns. Baking trays molds of four better optimized both production efficiency and product conveyance techniques, and buns are clustered into two layers during the packaging process. The industry grew up around that standard, so bakeries today are highly vested in those self-same technologies – and changing them out is expensive.
The change is already underway
Nonetheless, change is on the horizon. Consumer preference is shifting – average family units are smaller, convenience is king, and millennials shop differently. People have become more cognizant of wasting food as the sustainability wave picks up steam. Unfortunately, refrigeration tends to dry breads out, buns don’t freeze well, and the packaging film commonly employed today does little to improve it.
If that wasn’t enough, consider the trend to more individualized retail bakery packaging outside of US markets – European markets in particular have widely moved to smaller retail package sizes. The fact is that the era of 8-pack buns will give way to more discrete options sooner rather than later. European-sourced buns and specialty items such as “brioche” buns packaged in smaller quantities are already showing up in American retail markets. Consider that a few big-box stores have begun introducing 4-packs of hot dog and hamburger buns as a specialty product.
As expected, the more individualized the package, the higher the premium paid. But consumers have demonstrated a willingness to pay for convenience and reduced waste, and producers realize better average product margins. The real question is not if, but when, this sea of change reaches our shores.
What’s the alternative?
Of course, underlying changes in production molds and related technologies won’t occur overnight. In the meantime, however, producers seeking to meet these new market demands have another option: transition traditional bun packaging from polyethylene wicketed bags to polypropylene flow-wrap technology. Why? Flow-wrapping enables packaging a variety of smaller package sizes, using better films, with a lower total cost of ownership, equal or better throughput, and equivalent brand presentation. A flow-wrap solution offers up a solid, flexible alternative for bakeries that understand the potential profit of meeting this shifting consumer demand. At the most fundamental level, a variety of key factors impact a packaging solution’s feasibility when replacing a line.
We’ll step through both the challenges and benefits that make flow wrap a logical choice for packaging smaller individual product units.
Changing by the numbers
One of the first considerations in any packaging line change is the physical footprint of the new line – space is at a premium in most plants. Changes in packaging methods can also imply changes in product loading, unloading, and case packing. A flow wrap solution is similar in footprint and will typically work within the same physical space allocation as an existing wicket bagger, minimizing disruption to plant layout as well as ancillary product loading automation.
Another major consideration when you run smaller package sizes is ensuring equivalent throughput.
Wicketed baggers typically produce anywhere between 30 to 75 packages per minute. Simple math dictates that fewer products per bag at similar cycle times drops throughput substantially. But since a flow wrapper runs at a significantly higher cycle rate, it can maintain the same total line throughput, keeping oven output maximized.
The films employed in a flow wrap process offer superior product protection and shelf life while maintaining existing brand appearance using a flat structure-fill bag.
At the same time, by design a flow wrapper leverages simple tool changes to accommodate different output formats – introducing the flexibility to produce a greater variety of package sizes and counts. Of course, the ability of secondary packaging to accommodate changes in cycle times and pack formats must be considered.
It’s common today for buns to be packed by single layer in baskets – a smaller package can use layering to achieve the same volume per basket. Larger operations that maintain a clustered baking paradigm to optimize their existing investment would experience little process disruption by eliminating the pre-load cluster stacking process, to produce 4-packs.
Simplicity saves money
Another benefit of any flow wrap solution is simplicity of design. A flow wrapper simply has fewer moving parts. Essentially, they employ servo motors and timing belts to make the movements of the infeed conveyor, seal rollers and cross seal jaws. That stands in stark contrast to the movement complexity of a wicket bagging machine. Complex machine movement requires higher maintenance frequency and associated downtime, so simplicity helps lower total cost of ownership.
While flow wrap films tend to be costlier, that is more than offset by the decrease in operator intervention to supply packaging materials to the machine: a roll of flow wrap film may last 45-50 minutes. An operator doesn't have to worry about loading packaging materials for that period of time. In comparison wicketed bags typically are loaded in increments of 250 bags using a staged, rotating station that requires constant attention. Automatic roll splicing on the flow wrap film roll further extends run times – allowing a single person to maintain two separate machines.
The end…of the beginning?
It’s often said that “the only constant is change,” and it certainly presents a truism when it comes to staying apace of shifting consumer preferences. Transitioning from wicketed bagging to flow wrapping can help bakers better align with them. They can offer consumers more buying choices, added convenience, and better product protection and shelf life, while realizing improvements in total cost of ownership and demonstrating progress support for sustainability goals. Perhaps the time has finally come to help buns, dogs and burgers play nice together in the sandbox.