Efficiency rules!

March 24, 2003
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Packaging line innovations jibe with today's mandate to do more with less.

The bagging line at Poore Brothers Inc. went in as a modular installation, allowing just seven days between last bag off the old line and first usable production off the new line. Source: Heat and Control.


Today's heavy emphasis on cost-cutting in packaging operations puts a premium on cost-efficient innovation. And savvy operations people are becoming more adept at delivering that efficiency.

Consider these packaging innovations where efficiency rules the day:

  • A snack manufacturer's new packaging line squeezes more out of existing floor space and was installed in just seven days.
  • A cheese producer increases utilization of a cooler with a packaging innovation.
  • A grain miller automates a manual operation with a minimum of hassle.
  • A frozen food processor cuts an inventory of pre-printed cases by $750,000 with a new case coder.
  • A meat packer simplifies quality reports with data-handling software on metal detectors.


Doubling output

Poore Brothers Inc. is a snack maker that had to dramatically increase output for a rapidly growing product without expanding floor space, labor or maintenance support.

The company makes gourmet snacks—spicy potato chips, potato skins and nachos—and packages them under a number of brands including T.G.I. Friday's. Growing demand, particularly for the T.G.I Friday's brand, strained production capacity with the one-ounce bag quickly becoming 50 percent of the output at a Bluffton, Ind., plant.

Increased capacity came from six Ishida Apex 201-HS bag makers and Ishida Millennium 14-head weighers. The continuous-motion baggers hustle along at 130 bags per minute, more than double the speed of the baggers they replaced.

Glenn Flook, Poore Brothers senior vice president of manufacturing, explains that with the output of his old baggers, he would have had to run 15 machines to achieve the production achieved with the six new high-speed units.

The company turned to Heat and Control Inc. for the installation. A key criteria was that Poore Brothers didn't have extended downtime to install the new line. It needed to quickly rip out the old baggers and put the new line in as fast as possible.

Heat and Control responded with a modular installation including a product distribution platform and conveyors that were pre-assembled in the machine builder's plant before being shipped as modules to Poore Brothers for installation.

The modular installation also includes 28 FastBack horizontal motion conveyors to transfer product and feed the weighers. The FastBack drive bases were directly mounted to modular support sections and pre-wired and plumbed at the Heat and Control factory. Complete with lights, railings and stairways, the platform sections were delivered in bolt-together configurations.

Just seven days elapsed from the time the old line packaged its last bag until usable production was coming off the new line.

Poore Brothers packages several brands on the line, and quick changeover is important. According to Flook, the new line is dedicating to 1- and 1.5-ounce sizes. Both use the same forming collar so there is no need for hardware changes with a size change.

The baggers' film-feed configuration also speeds changeover. The way film rolls are oriented allows easy access, and a vacuum splicing feature on machines simplifies the operator's task in changing rolls.

Land O' Lakes had to stack cases two-high in a cheese packaging operation. An adhesive, applied in a process similar to the one shown, stabilizes cases to allow two-high conveying and palletizing. Source: Lock N' Pop.

Land O' Lakes challenge

Land O'Lakes faced a different efficiency challenge at its Spencer, Wis., facility.

The plant packages five-pound blocks of processed cheeses in two different case sizes. A larger corrugated case holds six, five-pound blocks, or 30 pounds of cheese. A smaller shipper holds two, five-pound blocks for a total of 10 pounds.

Land O'Lakes needed to efficiently utilize the cooler where filled shippers are held after packaging. Shelves in the cooler are configured to accommodate the taller shippers that held 30 pounds of cheese.

"We run the smaller cases maybe 40 hours out of a week," explains Jerry McHugh, the plant's production superintendent. "We needed to get 20,000 cases into the refrigerator, but the shelving has room for only 10,000 cases."

The solution was to double the refrigerator's capacity by stacking smaller cases two-high after coming off a case packer. That raised the challenge of moving the two-high cases along horizontal and inclined conveyors to the cooler.

"The stacked cases would bounce on the conveyors and one end would hang over the other. We just couldn't get them up the incline," McHugh explained. The incline rises eight feet over a 20-foot run, producing a 16-degree incline.

The solution was to use an adhesive to stabilize cases. Land O'Lakes chose a system—including both adhesive and applicator—from Lock N' Pop. The adhesive was formulated for the specific application and was tailored to environmental conditions, substrate and the incline.

In operation, cases come off the case packer and move under an applicator head which puts adhesive on the top of every other case. An automated unit then puts one case atop another with the adhesive between them.

They move to the refrigerator and after that to a palletizer which handles the cases as two-high units. That eliminates a potential bottleneck by cutting in half the number of units the palletizer has to handle.

Improved package appearance was one benefit when Bob's Red Mill automated its cartoning operation. Machine-packed cartons eliminated the bulges and "stuffed" look when manual packaging couldn't get pouches to lay flat. Source: Econocorp.

Grain milling simplicity

For Bob's Red Mill Natural Foods, Milwaukie, Ore., the challenge was to keep it simple while dramatically increasing output. The company processes whole-grain, stone-ground products. Breakfast cereals, flours and bread mixes are among items in its 400-plus SKU line.

Growing at about 15 percent a year, the company outpaced its manual cartoning capacity, says Dennis Vaughn, plant operations manager. The 82,000-square-foot facility has 70 employees on two shifts.

One of the company's biggest selling packages is a pouch that typically holds 24 ounces of product. Each pouch is clear to showcase the product inside, and a pressure-sensitive front label carries brand and product information.

Four pouches go into a corrugated carton that doubles as a shipper and display carton at retail. Cartons had been manually erected, filled and sealed. That step became a bottleneck as demand grew.

The manual operation also added packaging quality issues. Hand-packed cartons sometimes looked "stuffed" because operators couldn't get pouches to "lay flat" in the manual operation.

Also, cartons were sealed with tape and operators would sometimes tape over a carton's easy-open feature. When grocers cut the tape to open the carton, they occasionally cut a pouch inside.

Bob's Red Mill responded by installing a Spartan case packer from Econocorp Inc., a company that focuses on moderate-speed case-packing equipment.

The packer is manually fed—an operator puts four pouches into the infeed buckets. From the buckets, pouches are pushed horizontally into the carton which has been automatically set up from a magazine. When the machine pushes pouches into the case, it creates a snug, squared-up fit without the "stuffed" appearance cartons had before.

A hot-melt adhesive system seals the flaps, eliminating any problems experienced in taping. Bob's Red Mill employees then manually palletize cases.

Vaughan says the company has consistently achieved 450 case-per-hour outputs from the Spartan cartoner. Success with the first unit led to installation of a second cartoner to accommodate further production increases.

Smith Frozen Foods imprints variable data and bar codes on cases, depending on customer requirements. Using an Iconotech printer, Smith Frozen Foods imprinted all the data on the end panel. Source: Iconotech.

Faster, clearer bar codes

For Jeff Shaffer, production manager at Smith Frozen Foods Inc., the need for efficiency grew from customer demands for bar codes and for an increasing amount of information on corrugated cases.

Shaffer's answer was to find a new technology for his case-coding operation.

The company's Weston, Ore., facility packs frozen vegetables for retailers and foodservice distributors. Customers wanted more information on shippers. Each customer wanted information in different formats, and they demanded bar codes that could be reliably scanned.

Flexographic case printers had been the backbone of Smith Frozen Foods' case printing operation, but they couldn't efficiently meet the demands.

Shaffer focused his search on three objectives:

  • First, a case printer had to produce readable bar codes.
  • Second, it had to be easily changed over between runs.
  • Third, it had to help the company reduce its inventory of knocked-down cases.

The unit that delivered was an Optimizer digital case printer from Iconotech. The unit uses digital image files generated on a PC. With those files, it burns an image onto a thin film used in the printing process. Ink on a drum passes through the images burned onto the film, allowing a precise ink laydown onto a corrugated case.

The system delivers 200-dot-per-inch resolution that prints scannable bar codes. The system's digital plate-making process allows production of a range of variable information.

Another benefit, according to Shaffer, is that changeover time dropped significantly. "If we're not making a color change, the changeover time is about five minutes with the unit. It used to be 20 minutes with our old printer," he says.

The unit saves time when there is a color change, too. Shaffer says a color change requires about 20 minutes with the new unit, while the old unit typically needed 45 minutes.

The Optimizer handles cases up to 36 inches wide by 39 inches long with a print area of up to 11 inches by 32 inches. The magazine holds up to 50 C-flute cases, and the unit prints at a maximum cycle rate of up to 60 cartons per minute.

With the unit, labor costs dropped. The Optimizer needs just one operator, while two workers were needed to run the old flexo unit. And, Smith Frozen Foods doesn't have to inventory the rubber plates it had to store before.

Because the old flexo printer couldn't print bar codes, Smith Frozen Foods had to inventory cases pre-printed with bar codes. The new unit eliminates the need to inventory preprinted cases—an inventory valued at $750,000.

The unit also enhances Smith Frozen Foods' ability to respond to customers. "If a customer calls today and wants to make a change in its coding, I can print that new information on a case today," Shaffer explains. The equipment can also print logos and other customer graphics as long as it has a scannable image to start with.

Rex Moore, president of Maverick Ranch Natural Meat, with a metal detector that is a key component in an operation that incorporates software to generate quality reports for customers. Source: Safeline.

Delivering quality documentation

For Maverick Ranch Natural Meats, Denver, Colo., efficiency is being able to automate and customize reports generated from its metal detectors that inspect case-ready meat packages. Those reports allow the company to meet quality requirements from its customers, both for foodservice operators and retailers.

The company sells beef under the NaturaLite and Gold Medal brands. Products appeal to health-conscious consumers because beef is raised without antibiotics, steroids and pesticides.

For modified-atmosphere-packaged beef, the company uses foamed styrene trays sealed with film, a package that is convenient for supermarkets and appeals to the highly-educated, higher-income consumers attracted to natural products. "Our typical consumers are also more concerned about food safety," notes Rex Moore, Maverick Ranch president. "That's why we inspect our ground beef both before and after packaging."

Maverick installed Powerphase metal detectors from Safeline Inc. The equipment handles a variety of products without a need for re-programming, and their performance validation capability ensures that sensitivity and test standards are maintained.

Inspecting the packages is just part of the job.

Rex Moore explains that automated operations like his ground beef line need a metal detection system that can verify that inspection has occurred and provide proof to supermarket buyers that the metal detectors were at work on their shipments.

A metal detector that is a key component in an operation that incorporates software to generate quality reports for customers. Source: Safeline.

Maverick answered the need for reports by installing SafeNet software from Safeline, using it first on its ground beef chub production line. SafeNet can link together the many metal detectors in Maverick's facilities, capturing relevant data and giving Maverick Ranch a way to provide customized reports for different customer requirements.

The stainless steel metal detectors on the case-ready MAP line were supplied to Maverick SafeNet-ready.

"We believe in inspecting both before packaging and afterwards," notes Moore. "When you inspect before packaging, you can minimize packaging waste. Inspecting after packaging is double assurance for your customers, and important for our own HACCP process. The vendor certification advantages that we get from the Safeline detectors are important to customer satisfaction."

The metal detector's rugged construction is an important component of data handling requirement. The detectors, and their touch-pad controls, are built to exceed NEMA 4X requirements for washdowns. That protection guarantees that the machines will perform efficiently and deliver the data mandated by customers.

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