Increasingly popular, crushable filters may very well breach the confines of their niche status.
By Stefanie Rossel
Even as global cigarette volumes continue to contract, one product segment is enjoying considerable success—flavor-capsule filter (FCF) cigarettes. First introduced in Japan in 2007, FCF cigarettes have seen impressive growth around the globe since.
“The segment is still relatively small but has doubled in penetration between 2012 and 2015,” says Shane MacGuill, head of tobacco research at Euromonitor International. According to the market research firm, FCF volume grew from 30.91 billion, or 0.6 percent of the global cigarette market (excluding China), in 2012 to 63.18 billion, or 1.2 percent, in 2015.
“Penetration is very high in some markets, particularly Latin America, Japan and the U.K., but there is much lower to negligible penetration in very large markets such as Russia, Indonesia and China, which means that at a global level the category is still niche,” says MacGuill.
FCF products are most popular in Chile, where they accounted for 32 percent of the tobacco market in 2015, followed by Peru (22.8 percent), Guatemala (19.3 percent), Argentina (15.6 percent) and Mexico (13.7 percent). In Sweden, they represented 13 percent. Other important FCF markets are Ireland (10 percent), Slovakia (9.3 percent), Japan (8.4 percent) and the U.K. (7.9 percent). Japan is the largest global market for FCF cigarettes in absolute terms; its FCF volume grew from 9.87 billion sticks in 2012 to 15.4 billion units in 2015.
MacGuill estimates that, on a pro rata basis, the global FCF segment would be worth about $8.4 billion. “However, given the geographic concentration, the true tax-inclusive retail sales price value of the segment could be more like $15 billion,” he notes.
Having started as a feature for premium brands, FCFs have now reached the cigarette mainstream. Increasingly, manufacturers are using the technology as a “premiumizing” tool for their economy and value brands, and in some cases even for localized cigarette brands.
FCF technology allows consumers to customize their smokes by crushing one or more flavor capsules integrated into the filter. Basically, there are two variants: double-mentholated or menthol-to-menthol capsule filters, which allow the smoker to vary the strength of the menthol flavor, and hybrid capsule products, which enable the smoker to turn a regular cigarette into a mentholated version.
While the focus has been on adding a menthol or minty taste, FCF technology is increasingly used to deliver other flavors, too. “We’ve seen a huge increase in combination capsules in the form of products like Pall Mall Double Click and several others,” says MacGuill. “Many of these are launched in Japan, but also in Latin America and Europe, particularly Central and Eastern Europe. Flavors are also becoming more exotic, with grape, berry, even whiskey, as in Winston in Japan, appearing in capsule form.”
The future of the segment will depend largely on regulations. The EU, for example, will ban menthol cigarettes from 2020. Concern about regulation appears to have held up FCF launches in some markets, such as Brazil, but Euromonitor has failed to detect a similar impact in Europe.
For the time being, FCF products remain tremendously popular. Anecdotally, the industry even credits capsule products with luring smokers back from illicit cigarettes, particularly in Latin America. MacGuill expects tobacco companies to sell FCF products for as long as they legally can. There are also large markets with low penetration, he notes, which are unlikely to introduce flavor regulation in the short to medium term. In such markets, there is clear scope for FCF cigarettes to expand.
MacGuill is confident FCF products present further opportunity for the industry. To some extent, he says, the flavor-on-demand option addresses the competition combustible cigarettes face from e-cigarettes, which rely heavily on flavors. Due to its sophistication, FCF technology also makes cigarettes harder to counterfeit.
And then there is China. “We are just beginning to see the emergence of capsule products in China, for example with green tea flavor,” says MacGuill. China, of course, remains off-limits to foreign cigarette manufacturers, but the rise of FCF products there could benefit suppliers. “If the segment achieves only a fraction of share of the Chinese market, it would be bigger than the entire global volume currently,” says MacGuill.
A hard nut to crack – flavored capsules present formidable manufacturing challenges
While the commercial potential for FCF products is promising, the manufacturing process is full of challenges. Based on gelatin, the delicate capsule beads need careful handling, not only during production and insertion but also during the reclaiming of tobacco from rejected FCF cigarettes. Too much pressure on the capsule and the flavorant will contaminate equipment and tobacco.
Tobacco machinery manufacturers offer a variety of FCF solutions. In November, Hauni Maschinenbau introduced Flexport-CI, an enhanced version of HCI, the company’s first capsule inserter. According to Hauni, Flexport-CI is the market’s first customer-accepted high-speed capsule inserter.
After thoroughly analyzing the inserting process and its HCI experience, Hauni completely redesigned the vacuum system and the shape of the capsule holding area. The revisions resulted in “a very precise and reliable inserting process,” says Arne Klisch, product consultant at Hauni.
The Flexport-CI can be integrated into Hauni’s KDF 5 and KDF 6 filter makers. To ensure gentle treatment, the beads are transferred by vacuum and sophisticated drum technology. A modified sampling device can eject filters out of the mass flow for immediate quality analysis.
By making many small but effective changes, Hauni was able to nearly double the insertion rate. With a more flexible design, Flexport-CI allows customers to reduce their time to market, according to Klisch.
To test capsules in finished products, Hauni developed MCAP, an online sensor. Based on microwave technology and used in the Max filter assembly unit of a Protos-M cigarette maker, MCAP offers high- quality detection, according to Hauni. “The system offers color-independent detection of missing or surplus capsules and also monitors their filling level and position,” says Klisch.
The MCAP is the only sensor of its kind in series production, according to Hauni. Because the instrument tests every capsule cigarette at the end of the production process, it ejects only individual defective cigarettes, not complete filter rods with four or six capsules each, as happens in the filter rod production process.
Speed with precision and efficiency
Capsule filters require a high degree of accuracy during handling, especially as far as the capsule position is concerned. Another factor is flexibility; tobacco companies like the freedom to design a variety of products that will appeal to consumers.
In September, International Tobacco Machinery (ITM) introduced the Capsule Insertion Module (CIM) for its filter maker. “The capsule distribution process is controlled mechanically without centrifugal and gravity force support, transporting each capsule in a gentle way,” says Witek Bialas, director of filter technologies for ITM Poland.
Thanks to specially designed insertion cams, forks and vacuumless servo-drive technology, each capsule is safely transported and placed into the rod without any damage, guaranteeing precision and quality, while ensuring full repeatability of production, according to Bialas.
ITM says that its new capsule insertion technology does not limit the nominal speed of the filter maker when inserting capsules into the rod. It guarantees a speed of 500 meters per minute for the insertion of one or two capsules into the filter on its Polaris single-rod filter maker, with the highest product quality and minimum waste.
Capsule efficiency, Bialas says, is up to 40,000 pieces per minute, with waste of under 2 percent. The CIM can handle filters with lengths of 60 mm to 150 mm and diameters of 5.3 mm to 9.0 mm. Capsule diameter can be from 3 mm up to 3.5 mm, while the capsule position in the filter can be symmetrical or asymmetrical.
“Not only speed is unprecedented in this technology, but also the capsule position in the rod,” says Bialas. “The minimum 10 mm distance between capsules is unique.” The CIM is of modular design, enabling easy implementation to the ITM Polaris filter maker and flexibility to quickly meet the required filter specification, he adds.
To maintain and measure performance, ITM offers MOMS2, a microwave system that monitors the characteristics of the filter material, capsule condition and position.
Each rod is analyzed during the production process. Out-of-specification products are identified and rejected automatically.
Recycling made easy
FCF products present an additional manufacturing challenge in that they make it more difficult to reclaim tobacco from rejected cigarettes. If damaged during the recovery process, a capsule full of menthol or other flavors will contaminate the tobacco that is meant to be recycled. To prevent this scenario, Heinen Koehl has developed ReclaimAir. Depending on the filter type processed, the unit works with one of two different principles. Both start with cigarettes being discharged via a separation belt into a cigarette hopper, where they are buffered and collected piece by piece from the transport belt. With the help of sensors, all cigarettes are orientated with the filter toward the processing side.
For the separation of flavor capsule filters, the tobacco is then blown out of the cigarette tube with compressed air. The flavor capsule remains undamaged inside the filter. Even if the capsule was already faulty when entering the reclaim unit, its contents will not leak into the tobacco to be reclaimed.
When handling charcoal filters, the machine separates the filters from the tobacco rods to avoid the risk of charcoal particles entering the process. This is achieved with circular knives that cut the cigarettes in front of the filter; a vacuum then sucks off the segregated filter.
With its filter removed, the tobacco rod moves to a splitting unit. An additional circular knife opens the enclosed tobacco rod, and the paper and tobacco is discharged onto a separating conveyor.
Heinen Koehl has optimized the ReclaimAir since its introduction at TABEXPO 2015 in London. After successfully completing a long-term test, the machine has been available to customers since Jan. 1. “It’s a booming market, especially in Asia,” says Stefan Hahn, sales manager of tobacco processing technology at Heinen Koehl. “We already have a lot of requests for the ReclaimAir.”
More recovery solutions
ITM, too, offers tobacco reclaiming technologies suitable for FCF products, including the Delphi 2 reclaimer, the Oculus visual sorting system and the Elph filter plug removal machine.
Integrated in-feed separation, a new aligning system and a new gentle opening process allow retrieving tobacco from the capsulated cigarettes with a reclaim efficiency of 95 percent, according to the company.
“The intuitive design of Delphi 2 ensures that no filter plug components are released during the reclaim process, preventing any contamination of the recovered tobacco,” states Bialas. “Oculus can identify a variety of colored capsules within recovered tobacco and automatically reject them from the production flow.”
An adjustable and flexible detection system enables users to determine not only the color but also the size of the capsule. “Sorting accuracy is extremely high—proven at 95 to 100 percent, depending on the color—and precisely controlled rejection gates discard the contamination accurately with the minimal amount of collateral tobacco,” says Bialas. Oculus can be also incorporated into previous Delphi reclaimers.
Elph features a first-stage in-feed separator, which selects single cigarettes from the total waste and transfers them to the positioning module, where accurate identification and location take place before the filter plugs are removed completely. According to ITM, the precursory positioning and cutting system guarantees that even the most complex filter plugs are removed with great precision.
“Reclaimed tobacco contamination is avoided, and efficiency is proven in excess of 99.5 percent,” says Bialas.—S.R.