Packaging Line Design: Balancing Speed vs. Flexibility

Whether packaging lines run fast and furious or take a slow and steady approach to the production race, a certain level of flexibility is required.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Just as machine-based processing lacks the flexibility of manual production but makes up for it in throughput, manual processes provide infinite flexibility but come with a loss in volume. Finding the sweet spot between the extremes is the world most food manufacturers live in.

Management at Dure Foods Ltd. has been engaged in that balancing act for most of its 38 years in business. The Brantford, Ontario-based copacker of dry blends does contract work for some of Canada’s biggest retailers and some of the world’s largest food manufacturers, but a good chunk of Dure’s production schedule is filled with orders from entrepreneurs and mid-sized food companies.

“The mixing of powders is not rocket science,” President Hunter Malcolm readily admits. But mastering best practices in packaging and production and the details of food safety and regulatory requirements requires more than a little expertise. “A lot of my time is spent on helping (smaller) customers to understand the details involved and being slow and methodical” when preparing for production runs.

Dure was founded by his father, Scott Malcolm, a onetime Dean Foods salesman who rented space in a warehouse where he set up a table to manually fill containers of liquid soap. When his employer gave him an order to fill packets of coffee whitener, nondairy creamers and sugar, he purchased a Hayssen vertical form, fill and seal (f/f/s) machine and segued to human consumables.

The company never looked back. Powdered cappuccino and hot chocolate mixes followed, and by 2000 a supplier relationship had been established with Tim Hortons, the ubiquitous coffee and baked goods purveyor that dominates Canada’s fast-food category and was acquired by Burger King two years ago.

The Horton relationship led to construction of a 35,000-sq.-ft. packaging facility in 2002 (expanded to 55,000 sq. ft. in 2006) and a “mirror image” facility in Columbus, Ohio, in 2005 (combined annual capacity: 70 million lbs.). Along the way, blending and packaging capabilities for functional foods and other more complex formulations were added.

Production runs of 24/7 for several months are required for some high-volume orders, but short runs are more the rule. As few as 1,000 single-serve stick packs for sampling purposes have been run. The casters on many machine skids attest to the line reconfigurations that occur on a regular basis.

The coin’s other side

Contrast Dure’s nimbleness to most snack-food plants. With projected annual compounded growth of 2.9 percent over the next six years, snacks — salty and otherwise -- are among the food industry’s pacesetters. Increased throughput through automation is necessary, yet manual processes still have a place at many high-volume plants.

Mark Lozano, national sales manager at Coppell, Texas-based TNA North America, cites the example of Shearer’s Foods, a Massillon, Ohio, chip manufacturer with eight production facilities. Besides its own brand, Shearer’s produces private label products and is part of the Frito-Lay network. Given frequent changeovers, casepacking is a manual process, a common scenario in snack factories.

Top end speed for a casepacking machine is approximately 140 bags per minute (bpm), according to Lozano, slower than the fill rate for extruded products and well below thresholds for the fastest vertical f/f/s machines. Hinting at a breakthrough casepacker from TNA, Lozano says fully automated secondary packaging remains out of reach for most snack firms.

High-speed f/f/s machines capable of a range of bag sizes are TNA’s hallmark — a triple-jaw machine tops out at 320 bpm, Lozano says — but the machine builder’s focus has shifted to the entire production and packaging lines. The firm acquired several OEMs of fryers, coating machines and other equipment in recent years, but one of its key acquisitions involved Cadalec Group, a systems integrator in Leicester, UK. Tying together upstream vibratory conveyors and downstream scales, metal detectors and other equipment is automation’s version of flexibility.

Manufacturer preference dictates control architecture, which is why a PLC integrates machine functions in a recent project at the Algerian snack company Maravilla. But the preference is PC-based controls, Lozano says. “It’s really whatever the customer is comfortable with,” but PCs are more adaptable than industrial PLCs.

Mislabeled product is a leading cause of product recalls. Copackers are particularly vulnerable, given the number of changeovers they make. An optional code reader can be integrated into film feeders to scan the printed codes on the film feeding TNA’s machine. If the code doesn’t match the job order for product entering the f/f/s unit, the machine automatically stops and queries the operator, according to Lozano.

Product comes off a pretzel line faster than it does at Dure Foods, but similar fail-safe controls are in place. Six years ago the firm received a grant from the provincial government to participate in a traceability demonstration project. Paper logs of processing steps still are kept, but they are redundant to the electronic records captured by the traceability software.

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