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Great Shrink Packaging Now a Piece of Cake for Cheesecake Manufacturer

Wed, 05/04/2005 - 10:51am
When you're on a first name basis with your shrink-wrap machinery serviceman, it could be a sign that the equipment you're using, even though relatively new, has some inherent issues that will never go away. That was the conclusion at Adam Matthews Inc., a company considered a "little piece of heaven" by cheesecake addicts across the country. Owner Adam Burckle says it wasn't uncommon for the serviceman to be there two days in a row to correct problems related to poor seal quality and indexing errors that resulted in as many as a dozen cakes crushed in an 8-hour shift.

In fact, this happened with equipment from two different manufacturers. But after serving as a test site for one of Lantech's new shrink wrapping systems, Burckle found such problems aren't endemic to shrink equipment. He elected to replace his three existing lines with two wrappers and tunnels from Lantech. The consistency of the new machines led to a "measurable increase in output," even with one less line, says Burckle, along with a nice savings from about 50% more cakes per roll of film by using narrower, thinner film.

Adam Matthews Inc. was founded by Burckle in 1983, and today bakes 7000 cheesecakes a day, depending on the season. Cakes are produced in 92 varieties and sizes at the company's 30,000-sq-ft headquarters in Louisville, KY. Burckle says his company does things its competitors don't, which has helped drive double-digit growth and make the operation's products a hit with consumers and grocery powerhouses Wal-Mart, Kroger, Winn Dixie and Meijer, to name a few. One of those things is to slice and shrink-wrap the cake for convenience and maximum flavor, freshness and presentation. But most importantly, wrapping reduces the loss of cakes at the retail level due to staleness, known as "shrink" in the industry.

After removal from a baking pan, cakes are placed on a 125#-test board, sliced, and then fed into intermittent motion shrink wrap machines. From here, cakes are boxed, packed with domes, or otherwise packed to meet the requirements of the retailer. The company changed to automated shrink wrapping in 1992, and operated as many as three lines by 2003, but the results were inconsistent, and the machines required too much operator attention and factory service, said Burckle.

"These were essentially new machines that developed problems within months," he stated. "Seals were inconsistent or non-existent, the film would not shrink properly, cakes got crushed by the seal bar, the trim would break, etc. The Teflon tape on the seal bars sometimes had to be replaced two or three times a day. As the tape wears out, film starts to stick to it, operators turn up the temperature, and eventually it burns through the tape and into the seal pad. And if a film bag stuck to the seal bar, it usually resulted in a crushed cake, causing product loss and 15-20 minutes of downtime for clean up. We had loss rates of 2-3% for this alone."

Bakery Operations Manager Vickie Meeks added that employees keep a nice steady pace when everything's working correctly, but unwrapping and rewrapping bad packages, combined with machine stoppages due to trim break, caused frustration. "No one likes to do a job two times, especially when they feel it's the fault of the equipment" she said. "The slightest bit of debris on the seal bar caused a hole in the bag or no seal at all, and trim breakage accounted for 7% of our stoppages, even though we used a wider film than really needed and a fairly heavy 75-gauge. When you're producing at the volume we do with a small staff, these problems get your attention."

Meanwhile, a Lantech product manager noticed an Adam Matthews cake at a local store, and offered to let the company alpha test a new SW-1000 intermittent-motion wrapping machine and ST-700 soft-convection shrink tunnel that were in final phases of development in late-'03. Both wrapper and tunnel utilize new technology that allows the machines to economically produce excellent package

The machines lived up to their billing, according to Burckle, leading him to purchase his first complete system in June, and a second in September '04. "The design of the side-seal and trim wind system on the wrapping machine has allowed us to switch to a two-inch narrower film on every product size, and reduce thickness from 75 to 60 gauges," Burckle said. "And the machine works with less spacing between cakes, so we're getting about 50% more cakes per roll of film."

The new wrapping machines utilize Lantech's Ever-Clean™ rotary side-seal system in conjunction with an innovative electronic film drive. The novel rotary side-seal mounts a sharpened cutting wheel and a heated fusing wheel adjacent to each other on the same axis. The unique system allows setting of the true seal temperature, not an arbitrary voltage. Because the sealing wheel does not have to cut the film, the temperature can be set for the minimum needed to fuse, or "laminate," the seam, instead of melting the film to a liquid state, which causes film build-up on the sealing surfaces. The heated wheel maintains light pressure against a special rubber back-up wheel.

"The side seal system has proved very reliable and easy to set up for our work force," Meeks said. "Film doesn't stick to the sealing surfaces, so it has eliminated the need for routine cleaning and there is no tape to replace."

The tension controlled trim winder operates to maintain a pre-set level of "pull" on the trim, so the scrap on the top of the take-up spool is wound no tighter than that on the bottom, and it's always easy for the operator to remove. There are no clutches or mechanical adjustments on the trim wind, and the sensitivity of the tension control allows it to work with a small amount of trim without pulling so hard it tears the film. This reduced tension in the trim-wind system is what allowed Adam Matthews to switch to the narrower film.

Lantech's ST-700 shrink tunnel utilizes newly developed soft-convection heating, rather than direct blasts of hot air. Conveyor speed is up to 70 fpm, with a belt width of 18 inches and overall length of 6 ft. Setup is intuitive and no adjustment is required during production runs, said Meeks. The operator simply observes the pack through the ViewWindow™ and sets the temperature to cause the film bubble to peak and start shrinking as the pack passes over the adjustable riser bar. The insulated tunnels hold setpoint temperature at the package to ± 2°F, and the high-impact-plastic exterior always remains cool enough to touch. The ViewWindow™ is recessed to prevent accidental contact for safety. Exceptional temperature stability allows the tunnel to shrink polyolefin at 280°F, about 70°F lower than a typical forced-air tunnel would use for the same film.

"We are amortizing the cost of these machines into the wrap-cost for each cake, which handicaps them for purposes of direct comparison to our previous equipment," Burckle said. "But our output is higher on two packaging lines instead of three, with less operator intervention and overall labor; the quality of the wrap is noticeably better; and we've also had a modest increase in our plant capacity with no other changes to our operation. If you take out the cost of the machines, our savings on film cost alone is significant. All these indicators point to this acquisition as having been a very sound business decision, short term and long term."
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