Confectionery manufacturing involves turning a fairly complicated group of ingredients into a somewhat fragile product designed to melt (or sometimes explode) into a mouthful of sweet, delightful flavors.
That sounds simple, right? But just take a look at the candy selection in any kind of retail establishment, whether it's a drug store, a traditional supermarket, or a big box like Walmart or Target, and you will see there is nothing simple about it.
Chocolate bars, gum, mints and other kinds of confections are merchandised in a multitude of locations and an array of packaging configurations ranging from single bites to multi-packs. And perhaps only ice cream is driven by flavor trends to the extent that candy is. While classic iconic brands enjoy loyalty, confectioners are constantly throwing brand extensions, size options, additional flavors and seasonal color into the mix.
Confectionery plant managers had better be prepared for changes and changeovers, while working to keep quality up — all within the demands of the bottom line.
Clean and flexible
Confectionery manufacturing is a sticky business, and the folks who run those operations have been confronted with some of the same challenges for years. Depending on the individual plant, flexibility can be very important. But more than anything, candy makers are striving for a new level of clean, says David Kirk, market manager-hygienic, with PSG Dover, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill.
"I think the challenges faced by confectioners fit into three categories," Kirk says. "One is being efficient; two is being clean; and three is being able to move from product to product and from flavor to flavor. Following cleanliness, I would say they are looking for more flexibility and to be able to shift gears more quickly."
Dover PSG sells a variety of pumps that are used by candy manufacturers, but primarily they are positive displacement pumps used to move blended slurries from mixing to filling and forming.
Newer pump technologies offer performance improvements that are finding some practical applications in candy plants, and Kirk points to the company's Mouvex C series eccentric disc line as an example. It has no mechanical seals, offers extremely low shear and is clean-in-place (CIP) compatible.
"For chocolate, because of its viscosity, nearly every positive displacement pump in the market is fitted with special self-cleaning chocolate rotors, which makes the pumps less efficient," he says. The Mouvex C Eccentric Disc line, which works without the special rotors, can provide more efficient operation, and do so over longer runs, Kirk says.
Those efficiencies assist a company in meeting those bottom line requirements, which never go away.
"With some of the added flavorings and just the cost of quality ingredients being used in confections, higher efficiencies can lead to a very big savings for companies," says Kirk.
Other equipment manufacturers are responding to industry demands for higher levels of hygienic design and cleanability.
"Probably the biggest driver in confectionery manufacturing over the past 10 years is to go to CIP-able equipment," says Bill Rice, technical product manager at SPX Flow Technology, Charlotte, N.C. "A lot of the confectionery manufacturers have historically used industrial grade rather than sanitary. But in the last 10 years, more and more are coming over to sanitary — the kinds of equipment that meets 3A standards."
Both regulatory and retailer pressure have moved manufactures toward sanitary equipment, which typically features stainless construction, hygienic design and higher documentation of all component materials.
SPX offers a broad variety of pumps (including APV and Waukesha brands) for all kinds of candy operations. Rice says that in his career he has worked in an array of plants, including everything from high-volume plants that produce single SKUs (he points to a Mars Co. Snickers plant in Waco, Texas, that is known as "the mile of chocolate") to small companies that have the flexibility to produce almost anything in the candy aisle.
Small shifts in consumer preferences and product development trends do have some measurable impact on the processing floor, Rice says.
"We have seen some shift from high-fructose corn syrup back to liquid sugar," Rice says. "But I don't think that makes a huge difference. Some have gone to alternate sweeteners, and some of those are thinner, so they might need to make some adjustments to the thickening process, because they certainly do not want it to be runny."
Dover PSG's Kirk notes that pumps use less energy than ever. Even if a company does not have a particular green technology program, they are buying pumps that are already more energy-efficient due to regulatory mandates placed on the equipment manufacturers.
What the confectioners are often seeking now are pumps that can work within a system to offer more control.
"Going back a few years everyone wanted to know 'How much can I pump?' Now we are seeing a lot of folks who ask 'How little can I pump?' " Kirk says. "We can go down to the very low levels and be very accurate. We can go anywhere from fractions of a gallon per minute to up to 30 gallons per minute."
Pumps that operate without mechanical seals, with so-called knife-edge seals, operate with lower loss of product, Kirk says. Reducing shear on product is important because shear degrades the product, and manufacturers ultimately settle for a lower quality threshold.
One square inch of shelf space
Candy is a treat, and often sold as an impulse item. That's why much of it is sold close to the checkout in nearly every retail channel.
A new product from Hershey takes that kind of positioning to the next level. The Pennsylvania-based giant describes its Hershey's Bliss line as "one square inch of specially crafted milk chocolate." The bite-sized indulgent products in the Bliss line sell for less than 70 cents and are merchandized on the check-out counter in drug store sand convenience stores.
Hershey's rival Mars Inc. recently introduced a coconut-flavored Three Musketeers bar, and according to a review on a consumer website, that rollout was part of a trend in which Mars has added a coconut version to a number of its top selling brands, including Twix and M&Ms.
Both of the leading confectioners use spin-off line additions with iconic brands to keep consumers interested. Throw in seasonal flavors, colors and shapes, and the number of different product SKUs produced is baffling.
For the most part, it works. A recent Mintel Group report indicates that the U.S. chocolate confectionery category enjoyed "modest year-over-year sales growth through the recession to reach $18.6 billion in 2011." Overall, there was a 16 percent increase in dollar sales, thanks to "a combination of innovation and price increases," the research firm noted.
Growth slowed in 2011, however, and Mintel says this "opens the market to private label manufacturers that can benefit from consumer interest in saving money."
As for the future, the market will need more SKU proliferation and more merchandizing in order to grow, that Mintel report says.
"Leading companies expanded their mainstay product lines by way of new formats and flavors in order to sway loyalists to try new things. Such tactics are key, given the saturation point of the market. With 92 percent of respondents to Mintel's custom consumer survey consuming chocolate themselves, growth in the category will require boosting purchase occasions, rather than growing a greater consumer base."
Bringing continued variety to the category will mean that food processors will have to continue to bring more technology and more efficiencies into those confectionery plants, whether they make a mile-long candy bar or a variety of SKUs that rivals the stars on a summer night.