Small is the new big: on-the-go snack bars

Kathryn Fox, global marketing manager at Videojet Technologies, looks at the rising star of on-the-go snack bars in Europe and how manufacturers can keep productivity to a maximum with advanced coding and marking systems

In a world where convenience is king, and people are constantly on the move, snacking on-the-go and in between meals has become a mainstay in the European diet. Snack bars are a prominent format in this sector. In 2016 alone, the European snack bar market posted revenues of US$ 3,841 million, according to a report published by Mordor Intelligence. This growth is set to continue, with a forecasted CAGR of 3.1% from 2018-2023, driven largely by sales of breakfast bars. In the UK, for example, 22% of adults regularly eat breakfast on-the-go at least once a week, and across Europe breakfast bars occupy over 50% of the total snack bar market share.

Energy, granola and fruit-based bars make up the majority of the remaining market, and consumers continue to be drawn to healthier on-the-go options. Being time poor does not mean consumers are prepared to compromise on nutritional values, and brands have reacted to increased demand accordingly. Whole grain snack bars are the fastest growing category according to the European snack bar market report (by Mordor Intelligence), with energy and protein bars also proving popular – particularly after exercise. Their portability and convenience make snack bars a very versatile option, and their smaller size also contributes to less food waste and avoids binge eating.

Space, speed and sustainability
For manufacturers, there are a number of challenges associated with producing snack bars, including the necessity to provide certain compulsory information on a very small surface area, such as lot numbers and best-by dates. Codes must be clearly visible to ensure consumers can easily identify important product information, while lot numbers and bar-coded information must be easily read by scanning devices.

Maintaining consistency and accuracy is also challenging. Single serve packages must be coded in a precise and often small area. Errors like offset codes, result in a potential drop in a plant’s productivity and can even cause a financial impact.

Smaller packages lead to more packaging materials required. Because of that, over-packaging and its effect to the environment has been a big concern over time. How to balance convenience and sustainability is another big challenge for snack bar packaging.

A ‘flexible friend’
Snack bars are mostly packaged with flexible films, which can be printed on before product packaging in flow wrapping machines. In this instance, Thermal Transfer Overprinters (TTO) are the ideal solution. TTO printers use a high-resolution printhead and thermal transfer ribbon to create high quality, clear images at speeds up to 500 packages per minute.

In addition to standard lot and expiry date information, TTO’s high-resolution printheads can print logos, graphics and barcodes. This can be a significant advantage, as it enables manufacturers to hold less pre-printed packaging SKUs in stock as they can print on-demand.

Advanced controller software provides an intuitive interface to enable operators to virtually eliminate coding errors in TTO printers. Some of the TTO printers also have additional code assurance software, iAssure, that provides intelligent code assurance to customers. iAssure conducts printing spot checks in real time that can catch significant recurring print defects far faster than manual quality checks. Through a process of image capture, analysis and comparison, any codes that do not meet the required format can be instantly rejected. This software helps customers quickly identify illegible codes, thereby reducing packaging waste and rework time.

Clean, clear, precise
Laser marking systems are highly effective when manufacturers require individual products to be coded at a high speed. Due to the variety of ingredients and nutrition, consumer-driven product proliferation is commonly seen in snack bars. The need to shut down and set up for different products makes flexible production lines experience more downtime than dedicated lines. Advanced laser controller software like line set-up wizards, along with a suite of productivity tools, can help operators address the sources of both planned and unplanned downtime. Depending on user familiarity, set-up wizards can be between 25-50% faster than legacy controller interfaces. Assuming even a modest number of changeovers per day, these time savings can add up to meaningful production hours over a year. In addition, Code Assurance features enable production supervisors and quality teams to easily create error-proofing rules during job set-up that limit operator input to predefined choices.

Laser solutions are also able to minimize packaging uses and contribute to certain corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals. Because laser solutions use no consumables outside of electricity and require little maintenance, plants are able to reduce production waste caused by planned or unplanned downtime, and can significantly reduce or often eliminate the use of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

A versatile option with its own set of ‘smarts’
Continuous Inkjet (CIJ) printer is a great option for snack bar manufacturers looking for ease of integration, as they can code and mark on both carton cases and plastic films before or after a product is packaged. Although regulations in the food sector are strict and complicated, a selection of inks has been developed to accommodate the unique requirements. A newly launched supplies brand, iQMark, including inks, make-ups, cleaners and ribbons, has been designed to comply with strict governmental and industry regulations as well as help customers meet their corporate social responsibility (CSR) goals. There are over 30 inks under iQMark that address those objectives. One of the newest iQMark inks for CIJ complies with the European Printing Ink Association (EuPIA) Exclusion List. iQMark supplies also help enable ‘go green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ initiatives by helping customers reduce or even eliminate methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), emissions of VOCs, and consumption of energy and raw materials.

While manufacturers may have concerns that inks and fluids can damage the food production environment, embedded microchips in CIJ can ensure the right fluid is being used, and a Smart Cartridge fluid delivery system can virtually eliminate spillages.

Like laser and TTO technologies, CIJ printers also feature intuitive interfaces to ensure the elimination of coding errors. Especially where fast changeovers are required, improving efficiency and keeping uptime to a maximum is critical. For functionality coupled with clean and neat usage, CIJ printers will be a viable proposition.

From big to small
The challenges presented to snack bar manufacturers are growing bigger. Printing in a precise and small area at high speeds is challenging enough, not to mention keeping the entire line running without stopping for printing errors.

Through an overall understanding of the product, packaging substrates, operating speeds and regulatory requirements, an expert supplier in coding and marking can turn those big challenges into small ones, which allows manufacturers to concentrate on the important business of production and to continue to provide consumers with convenient and healthy snack options.