This has a knock on effect that requires packaging machine companies to offer easier machine cleaning and faster output speeds.
As a result, Packaging Automation's commercial manager Samantha Ashton is monitoring the on-going changes in the ready meals industry, and she is confident that the company's on-going investment in technology will enable it to meet future market needs.
For example, Ashton claims that there is a move towards smaller batches and quicker turn-around, as food companies continue to introduce more market choice.
"To achieve this producers must have built-in reliability and rapid tooling change facilities, if they are to maintain and expand their market share" she said. "To meet these requirements Packaging Automation has invested heavily to expand its range and ensure that its Vision machines now operate even faster to meet ongoing peak speed demands and can be quickly re-tooled to meet the needs ofsmall batch runs, which are increasingly the norm.
"We believe speed of changeover is the vital element of heat sealing andlidding machinery because of the demand for a bigger and better choice ofready meals. Some factories can be running a line for just minutes before achangeover."
In addition, the European ready meals market encompassing fresh, frozen and chilled, is one of the major growth sectors of the European food economy, nowaccounting for an annual consumption in excess of 480,000 tonnes. The market has grown by 20 per cent in the UK over the past five years, and the trend shows no sign of having peaked.
PA estimates that changing lifestyles will continue to fuel the marketplace and by 2007 the ready meal tonnage is expected to top the 500,000 mark.
Big growth is coming in the frozen and chilled sectors. Currently each arelevel pegged at 151,000 tonnes but the forecasters say chilled will rise quickerthan frozen - to 166,000 tonnes compared with 156,000 for the latter. One of the newest sectors of the market is the growth in demand for ready to cook vegetables, along with pre-prepared salads and fruit that can be eatenwithout the need for anything other than perhaps the obligatory quick washunder a tap.
Ready meal packaging therefore has to keep pace with the continued growth of this sector. For this purpose, the Vision 182 is Packaging Automation's top selling and hired automatic inline machine, and has been designed to the same rigorously high standards as other equipment in the company's wide range. It is designed to meet the needs of those wishing to automate existing labour intensive semi-automaticpacking lines on a limited budget.
Meanwhile, PA claims that the larger Vision 4000 has the capability to seal larger and deeper trays and this allied to its operating speed makes it highly versatile. Based on sealing six packs per cycle, the Vision 4000 is capable of a speed of 100packs per minute.
Packaging Automation says that like all machines the speeds are reliant on the product being suitable for transfer at this speed into the machine - with the key factor being the viscosity of the product.
One of the latest developments is the new Vision 400. Packaging Automation developed the Vision 400 after research identified a gap in the market for a compact tray sealing machine which offers high speed - up to 80 trays per minute - combined with versatility and excellent performance.
The small footprint of the latest intermediate machine makes it an ideal choicefor those who want a high speed automatic machine but who have limitedpackaging space and budget. As are all of the machines in the Vision range,the Vision 400 is suitable for a wide range of products including ready mealsmeat, poultry, vegetables, fruit, seafood and convenience foods.
Packaging Automation claims that the machine is capable of tooling andproduct changes in just two minutes. The design allows all fixings to bereleased by hand, which ensures that downtime is kept to an absolute minimum and production rates are enhanced.
in addiiton, the machine is designed to be integrated with chain or flat belt filling conveyors, and with the ability to accept randomly spaced trays, the Vision 400 can seal plain or printed film, foil or board lids to any compatible container including CPET, APET, aluminium foil, polypropylene, PVC andboard.
Like all the Vision machines the 400 can be used for atmospheric, gasflushing (MAP-F) and vacuum (MAP-V) packaging with the option of highoxygen, making it an attractive choice for those who are looking for the benefitof enhanced presentation and increased shelf life.