Automated Packaging for Small Businesses

Maplewood Meats' thermoform fill-seal system boosts production 200 percent.

Maplewood Meats employee Phil Schmidt places sticks of summer sausage into the customized compartments created by the Multivac thermoform fill-seal machine.

Maplewood Meats, a Green Bay, Wis., producer of cuts of beef and pork, sausages and smoked meats, dramatically boosted its output by making a switch from its labor-intensive packaging process to an automated thermoform fill-seal (TFFS) packaging system.

Even though Maplewood is a family-owned operation packaging meats mostly for its own retail store, its experience shows small processors can afford and benefit from some simple automation.

Maplewood Meats was using a vacuum chamber system to package savory products. The system required workers to place portion-sized meats into a pre-formed pouch and then accurately place the package on the machine to be vacuum-sealed and trimmed. The process was time consuming, and the system would sometimes produce leaky packages that had to repeat the production cycle.

“There were three reasons we were looking for a machine,” says Roger Van Hemelryk, who, with his wife, Patricia, founded Maplewood Meats in 1983. “Production was slow, packaging required lots of manpower and we never had enough throughput to satisfy even our own demand. If you combined the amount of time it took us to package our products the first time and then add in the time for repackaging the faulty ones, the system was extremely time- and labor-intensive.”

Not only was the company looking to increase the efficiency of its operation, the Van Hemelryks wanted to improve the quality and attractiveness of their packages. Maplewood Meats spends a great deal of time focusing on the quality of its products, and the company did not feel the original system was producing a package that did justice to the meat inside.

Van Hemelryk had seen TFFS machines at regional food shows and learned more about them in talking with his peers. He invited Multivac Inc., Kansas City, Mo., to assess his company's needs. A Multivac food packaging representative recommended a compact TFFS rollstock system.

Products are easily loaded into customized compartments that are formed from a bottom web of roll-fed flexible film that is heated and stamped. Then the machine’s top web securely seals each package in-line. The system dramatically simplified the packaging process, boosted productivity and eliminated the problem with leakers. “We are now packaging the same amount of product in three hours that would normally take a full 9- to 10-hour cycle,” remarks Van Hemelryk. “Our production speed has increased by 200 percent.”

The system also enabled the company to enhance the overall quality and consumer-friendliness of its package. “Our packages look first-rate with less work and they convey the quality of the products we've been providing our customers for the past 22 years,” he adds.

Maplewood Meats' award winning summer sausage is securely sealed on the Multivac rollstock packaging system.

Simplifying this process has also helped Maplewood Meats improve food safety. By quickly placing product into the thermoformed sections, the amount of time the meat needs to be handled is minimized and any opportunity for product to come into contact with machine components is eliminated. “I worry less about contamination because of the machine's engineering. The stainless steel, wash-down friendly design really gives us peace of mind,” says Van Hemelryk.

The new system has also afforded Maplewood Meats greater operational flexibility. With the company’s expansive product line, it often needs to package more than one type of meat over the course of a production day. The quick and easy changeover procedure on the rollstock system enables plant personnel to change the plates, compartment sizes and appropriate films in roughly 10 minutes. Depending on the day, this switching can occur multiple times, making the simplicity of the changeover feature essential to minimizing downtime.

In addition, the integration of the system into Maplewood Meat’s facility was accomplished quickly. “The computer system on the machine was user-friendly and we picked up the technology in no time. The Multivac technical team was knowledgeable and had us up and running in a few days,” says Van Hemelryk.

The new system also gives benefits to customers. The speed and accuracy of the new rollstock machine allows the company to sell a more compact and convenient package. To outweigh the material cost and time it took with the previous process, the company used to portion its products in one-pound assortments to reach its cost-per-unit target. “The new system efficiently utilizes the packaging material so we can offer our customers more convenient half-pound portions. Customers appreciate the added value of our smaller packages,” notes Van Hemelryk.

“This is a good example of a family business benefiting from the efficient, automated packaging machinery formerly available only to the largest processors,” says Bob Koch, director of sales for Multivac’s food division. “With rollstock technology now affordable for smaller producers, it's easy to see it being a key differentiator among competitors as well as a tool for taking a business to the next level.”

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