Specialty pet foods and accessories supplier upgrades its packaging automation competencies with flexible and robust VC999 machinery
October 25, 2018
Be it a dog, cat, bird, fish or reptile, truly dedicated pet-owners will go to great lengths to provide their animal companions with the best comforts of life they can afford.
And thanks to companies like Rolf C. Hagen Inc. and its subsidiary Hagen Industries Ltd., millions of grateful Canadian pet-owners can do just that any time of their choosing with full confidence in the quality and integrity of the company’s diverse range of premium pet foods and pet accessories—today ranging from cat and dog food to bird, reptile and ornamental fish products.
Founded in 1955 by Rolf C. Hagen—then a young Canadian newcomer from Germany arriving to his new homeland with just $5 in his pocket—the privately-owned company is an embodiment of the notion of Canada being a land of opportunity for those willing to put in the time and effort necessary to achieve long-lasting success in their chosen field.
Boldly establishing Rolf C. Hagen Inc. just a few days after arriving in Montreal, Rolf worked tirelessly over the years with his two brothers, Dieter and Horst, to evolve the company from a fledgling pet store operator into what is now a global distributor of a comprehensive portfolio of life-improving solutions for a diverse variety of pets worldwide.
Operating under the worldwide Hagen Group umbrella, the company is nowadays jointly owned by the founder’s three sons Mark, Tom and Rolf Jr. Hagen.
As a wholly-owned manufacturing subsidiary of the Baie d’Urfé, Que.-headquartered Rolf C. Hagen Inc., the Hagen Industries plant on the outskirts of Montreal in Saint-Laurent, Que., represents an accurate reflection of that far-reaching evolution.
Started up in 1974, the Saint-Laurent plant was initially a manufacturer of wire cages for pet birds and small animals like hamsters, as well as glass aquariums for all levels of fish hobbyists.
“We used to make about one million bird cages a year at this location back in the day,” recalls Hagen Industries general manager Yvan Giguère.
“There used to be a lot of metalworking and welding equipment at this plant to make the cages, and various glass processing equipment to make the aquariums, with industrial ovens to dry all the glues and silicone used in their assembly,” says Giguère, a 23-year Hagen Industries veteran who was appointed as the operation’s general manager about 10 years ago.
“Actually most of our employees have been with the company for over 25 years, and some for over 40 years,” Giguère told Canadian Packaging in a recent interview, relating the plant’s fairly dramatic transformation over the last decade and a bit.
“Over the last 15 years we have entirely changed the focus of this facility,” Giguère proclaims.
The recently transformed 250,000-square-foot Saint-Laurent facility houses two side-by-side business units—a factory business to make premium-quality food and treats for various pets, and a chemical processing and a liquid-processing division for water-care treatments—along with a vast 125,000-square-foot distribution center.
Employing about 60 full-time people over a busy two-shift, five-days a-week schedule, the state-of-the-art facility houses seven packaging lines on the food processing side and three line in the Liquid Division, with both units operated in accordance with the most stringent HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) guidelines for hygiene and food safety compliance.
Between them, the facility’s two manufacturing operations turn out about 700 stock-keeping units) of product, according to Giguère, who was instrumental in arranging the recent arrival and installation of two new high-performance automatic packaging machines at the plant over the last year—both manufactured by renowned Swiss-headquartered packaging equipment producer VC999.
While attending the biennial PACKex Montreal packaging technologies trade show two years ago, Giguère says he was very impressed by the flexible and well-crafted machines displayed at the VC999 Canada exhibit, which offered a sensible and cost-effective means of automating some of the plant’s outdated manual packaging operations.
“I knew of some pouchmaking machinery manufacturers in Korea selling very high-speed machines that could produce millions of pouches per year at high line speeds of 80 to 90 packages per minute, but this was far more than the speeds we needed,” Giguère says, “and the equipment was also quite expensive.
“But having learned about what VC999 could provide, I became convinced that they would be the right choice for us in terms of boosting our productivity and providing a quick return on investment.”
After a series of follow-up meeting and discussing with VC999 Canada’s sales manager for eastern Canada Carl-Michel Cloutier and Canadian vice-president of operations Remi Boudot, Giguère got the go-ahead from senior management to proceed with the purchase and installation of a brand new XtraVac RBF300 rotary bagmaking system and the XtraVac DWA14 Multihead weighing system, as well as the XtraVac TSF series vertical form-fill-seal (VFFS) liquid filling machine, to be installed about six months later.
Featuring stainless-steel housing and a sanitary design to ensure optimal food safety and GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) compliance, the rotary XtraVac RBF300 system is an eight-station workhorse handling all the key pouchmaking functions. This includes features such as pouch feeding and pick-up, date-coding and zipper opening; opening of pouch tops and bottoms; filling and sealing; and conveyor discharge.
Working in an anti-clock machine rotation, the machine handles a broad variety of packing materials and multilayer film constructions, employing a heavy-duty gearmotor for precise and stable positioning, along with quiet operation.
Equipped with best-of-breed industrial electronics such as a Mitsubishi PLC (programmable logic controller) and a full-color touchscreen control system for user-friendly operation, a server-drive zipper operation, a Schneider Electric frequency inverter for adjustable machine control, and a dry-type vacuum pump for stable high-precision pouch pick-up, the automatic machine is designed to provide very quick changeovers for different pouch sizes by automatically hanging the gripper widths from the touchscreen control panel.
“It’s a very good machine that we run at 20 to 25 bags per minute,” Giguère explains, which suits us perfectly for now.
“We used to do this manually at about three to four stand-up bag per minute,” he notes, “so this was a big step for us in term of improved throughput, and it also givesus the capability to flush the stand-up with nitrogen to improve product shelf-life.
“This machine helped us improved the way we pack our products, and by having it integrated to our new Loma X-Ray inspection system, we have also improved the security of all the products that we package and ship into the market.”
Giguère says that the new XtraVac RBF300 machine was instrumental in the successful recent launch of the new Catit Nibbly line of resealable 90-gram stand-up pouches, made with the high-quality pre-made bags supplied by Tempo Plastics Limited of Innnisfill, Ont.
In addition to cat and dog treats, the food processing plant also manufactures food product from smaller animals like hamsters and other pet rodents, a variety of fish and reptile food products, and the Tropican/Tropimix lines of high-quality bird products for feeding domesticated parrots and other species of popular bird pets.
“It is a very popular global product brand that we ship to well over 30 countries,” Giguère remarks.
“In fact, about 70 per cent of what we produce here in Saint-Laurent is exported into international markets,” says Giguère, citing the company’s widespread global acclaim as an acknowledged pioneer and a force for innovation in the pet nutrition markets.
“We are probably the global leader in the production of insect-based feed for fish and reptile pets with our Bug Bites product line,” Giguère points out, explaining that the company sources insect larvae from a specialty biotech supplier in British Columbia to process it into edible products on-site in Saint-Laurent.
“Last year we processed over 25 tonnes of bug larvae,” says Giguère, noting the company’s innovation prowess has received much attention in global scientific and academic circles for its leading-edge product innovation credentials.
“We decided to enter this business a couple of years ago because we strongly feel that this may be the future of food production down the road,” Giguère states.
“You will find our Bug Bites products in Canada, the U.S., U.K, Germany, Japan and New Zealand,” he says, “and most of them are packaged on the RBF300.”
For its part, the new XtraVac TSF series VFFS machine installed at the Liquid Division also yielded significant improvements in throughput and line efficiencies, according to Giguère.
“Last year we produced a million liquid sachets on this machine,” Giguère extols, noting the machine normally operates at running speeds of 40 to 50 sachets per minute, depending on product and other common variables.
“It is a double-headed machine, with each head packing 20 to 25 units per minute,” he explains.
Built for reliable automatic packing of liquids, pastes and fluids packed in heat-sealable materials and light laminates of rollstock film, the stainless-steel XtraVac TSF employs a special forming tube shape and servo-driven squeeze rolls ensure less air into the final bag, according to VC999, providing extra freshness and a longer product shelf-life.
The system also uses an unwind bracket—independently mounted from the main frame—equipped with photosensors to ensure precise automatic alignment of the film to achieve optimal vertical sealing for every sachet.
“The main thing with this machine is to use the right film for each product to ensure good sealing and leak-free packaging,” he says, crediting VC999 Canada for supplying all of the machine’s film requirements with its extensive XtraPlast brand of high-quality packaging materials to keep it running at optimal operating levels.
Adds VC999’s Cloutier: “The XtraPlast Division also supplies Hagen with its new rotogravure-printed Boneguard VFFS film for its bulk bags of pet food.
“We developed this new films specifically to help Hagen fix some of the puncturing problems occurring on its packaging lines.”
Says Cloutier: “The partnership between VC999 and Hagen is very successful because it is easy to discuss things with Yvan and his team, which really helps us find the right solutions for their needs.
“A great partnership is always based on great discussion,” he states.
“The cat and dog food business is growing every year,” Giguère observes, “and so is the diversity of product in these segments.
“There are even some manufacturers out there now offering vegan dog food,” he points out.
“There are also many very big players who have far greater manufacturing capacities and capital resource than we do,” Giguère notes.
“It is very hard for us to compete against such powerful companies head-on.“The key for us is to find the right market niche and focus on the things that will make us a leader in that targeted objective,” says Giguère, citing the company’s agility and quick market response as key competitive advantages.
“With the Hagen Group still being a privately-owned company, our corporate management has the advantage of being fast in terms of product development and agile in terms of product distribution,” Giguère says, citing a well-established global network of reputable distributors and business partners to keep its export business growing strong.
“We can literally develop a new product today and have it distributed worldwide within six months,” he states.
Naturally, strict quality control is of paramount importance to the success of Hagen Industries going forward, according to Giguère.
“We have a large state-of-the-art laboratory on-site, which is very rare in the pet nutrition industry, and a full-time team of five laboratory technicians to test our product constantly for constantly for any signs of
product contamination, as well as all our incoming raw materials, which arrive in various formats and quantities daily.
“We pull products from our running packaging machines every 20 minutes or so to perform rigorous and thorough quality assurance tests to make sure that all our products meets or strict product specs and meet
all the shelf-life requirements,” says Giguère, citing 18-month product shelf-live for the Catit Nibbly treats brand.
“We have a very good track-and-trace product monitoring system in place that extends right to the individual bag level, shipped to anywhere in the world,” he says.
“As a privately-owned Canadian company we are very proud of being able to compete in world markets and serving such an important global industry,” Giguère concludes, “and our investment in new automatic
VC999 equipment is a testament to our long-term commitment to those markets.”