Clearing the Bar
Renowned Canadian cookies and bars producer hits the productivity sweet-spot at breathtaking speeds with installation of leading-edge packaging automation technologies
As companies in virtually every manufacturing industry continue to struggle with hiring enough people to get their operations back to pre-COVID-19 production levels, many of them are turning to automation technologies to future-proof themselves against such disruptions going forward.
Among the leading Canadian baked-goods producers, few have done so to date with the level of technological and operational excellence, along with remarkable foresight and acumen, as the legendary cookies and sweet-snacks producer Biscuits Leclerc Ltd.
Headquartered just outside of Quebec City in Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures, Que., the family-owned company has naturally seen and addressed a multitude of other epic challenges throughout its long and illustrious history, which traces back all the way to 1905.
To say that the company has managed to overcome them all in good shape would be a huge understatement for a thriving business that nowadays annually produces over four billion snack and nutrition bars, more that 2.7 million kilograms of crackers, and about 21 million kilograms of cookies—adding up to an expansive product portfolio comprising more than 1,000 SKUs (stock-keeping units).
As impressive as that sounds, Leclerc’s production levels are poised to soar much higher still following the company’s recent acquisition of a massive 790,000-square-foot facility in Brockville, Ont., which it plans to equip with leading-edge automated packaging lines supplied by renowned global packaging machinery manufacturer Syntegon Packaging Systems AG.
For Leclerc’s vice-president of projects and logistics Emilie Allen, the choice of its preferred machinery manufacturer was largely a no-brainer, based on the resounding success and operational improvements that Syntegon systems have enabled at Leclerc’s 160,000-square-foot production facility in Cornwall, Ont., the company’ eighth production site, started up in the spring of 2019.
Employing about 100 people on a two-shift daily schedule, with plans to expand to three-shift 24/6 production by the end of this year, the Cornwall plant is a dazzling showcase of high-speed, high-performance, fully-automatic packaging machinery running like clockwork, day-in and day-out, with bare minimum of human intervention and supervision.
“With the high pressure on labor markets right now, Leclerc Group has continually invested in its facilities with state-of-the-art production equipment,” says Allen, crediting Syntegon’s exclusive Canadian distributor Charles Downer & Co. Ltd. of Richmond Hill, Ont., for doing all the heavy lifting on the installation and commissioning of turnkey Syntegon packaging lines expertly laid out throughout the Cornwall plant’s packaging are—ensuring continuous high-speed production of high-quality granola and fruit-and-grain bars.
“Continuous improvement is a priority at Leclerc at all levels,” Allen states. “We have found Syntegon machinery to be easy to operate and easy to train new employees.
“It enables simple and fast changeovers,” she adds, “along with stable operation and easy cleaning and maintenance.”
With competition in the baked-goods industry always fierce, it is important for Leclerc to maintain “the highest level of automation possible,” according to Allen.
“We need to be able to provide a wide range of different products,” she says, “so the machines need to be flexible enough to handle many different formats and recipes.
“The level of automation we achieved with Syntegon equipment allows us to stay productive despite all disruptions.”
As Allen explains, “We are a leader in the food industry—recognized for the quality and variety of our products.
“We are always attentive to the market trends, and our R&D (research-and-development) department works day after day to develop innovative products that meet the needs of our consumers,” she adds. “We have deservingly won various industry awards for the quality of our customer service.”
Boasting several key certifications for product quality and purity—including BRC (Brand Reputation through Compliance) accreditation for food safety, OK Kosher certification, RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) certification and Peanut-free designation—the Cornwall facility is the most automated of all eight operating manufacturing plants Leclerc currently owns in Canada and the U.S., according to Allen.
“We are certified to the highest BRC standard level,” Allen states, “which means we are providing the highest level of food quality and product integrity you can find on the market.”
Supplying a diverse range of reputable customers in the North American retail, food-service, institutional and private-label markets, Leclerc is not a newcomer to Syntegon technology, having had installed its first Sigpack brand automatic packaging machine at one of its Quebec locations years ago, and continuing to undertake similar projects ever since.
But the remarkably high levels of operational excellence and productivity achieved with Syntegon machinery in the last couple of years at Cornwall has prompted Leclerc to move quickly to install similar Syntegon systems at some of its other plants as well.
Such genuine endorsement is naturally music to the ears of Jeff Downer, long-time president of the family-owned Charles Downer Co. Ltd. packaging automation integrator and distributor founded by his father Charles.
As Jeff Downer recalls, the massive influx of Syntegon machinery at the Cornwall plant began in earnest in 2020, when plant management noticed a significant difference in the performance levels between the first Syntegon line it installed there that year and the original packaging line from a competing machinery manufacturer.
Before long, Leclerc was calling on Jeff Downer again to help install more Syntegon equipment in Cornwall, on a far greater scale, to raise the plant’s productivity and efficiency levels to new heights of world-class operational excellence.
The sheer size and scale of all the Syntegon machinery assembled and integrated at the Cornwall plant is a testament to the Leclerc family’s long-enduring commitment to automation as a key strategy to growing the company, which it has done with aplomb over the years through a series of well-executed expansions and strategic acquisitions.
Along with building an expansive retail national brand portfolio comprising perennial bestsellers such as Celebration cookies, Go Pure fruit-and-oat bars and Choco Max granola bars, Leclerc is making optimal use of its new-generation Syntegon technology to serve a growing list of private-label brand customers across North America.
Souring its raw ingredients from nearly 400 suppliers, the plant’s bar production process begins in the processing area of the plant, where the raw ingredients go through all the required ingredients handling, dough preparation, dough feeding, dough processing, baking (for cooked products), cooling and cutting stages.
From there, the freshly made bars are directed into the packaging area, where six expertly integrated Syntegon packaging lines take over all the wrapping, box filling and box closing/sealing steps, and directing the filled and coded cartons on to the case-packing and palletizing stations to prepare the product for shipment.
Installed in several phases throughout 2020, the three turnkey Syntegon lines at the Cornwall plant primarily consist of:
- Fully-automated distribution systems used to align rows of bars and create gaps in the product flow, prior to cross-feeding the bars onto the packaging leg;
- Integrated 3D scanning stations for quality control and defect rejection, followed by a contact-less infeed system supplying the bars into the flow-wrappers;
- High-speed Sigpack HRM horizontal flow-wrapping machine to group, distribute the bars into sort, pick up and insert the free-flowing bars into the flow-wrap film up to maximum speeds of 1,500 packs per minute;
- The model Sigpack TTM2 integrated top-load cartoner that forms, loads and closes/seals the cartons used to pack the finished flow-wrapped products coming off the Sigpack HRM flow-wrapper, with maximum throughput rates of up to 200 cartons per minute.
Designed to ensure maximum flexibility and throughput in flow-wrap packaging applications, the state-of-the-art Sigpack HRM horizontal flow-wrapper makes quick work of packing the bars, arranged individually or in groups, inside the flow-pack material at film speeds of up to 150 m/min.
Moreover, the HRM processes many different types of films, including recyclable mono-material, and—when equipped with the Syntegon’s paper-ON-Form retrofit kit—even paper.
Modules to apply product codes and other required variable product information with inkjet, thermal-transfer or laser product coders can be added as required, while the on-board HPS high-performance splicer provides automatic and reliable splicing at high speeds without stopping the line.
The highly versatile HRM is equally adept at producing loose or tight-fitting flow-packs, with or without gusset folding, with longitudinally- or cross-crimped end fins, with straight, zig-zag or clip cut-off.
According to Syntegon, the servo-controlled machine’s modular construction is ideally suited to three-shift operation, with strict separation of product or packaging material handling drive elements meeting the highest hygiene standards in the industry.
Available in left-hand or right-hand orientation, the machine’s ergonomic design ensures easy access to all machine parts to facilitate comfortable operation, fast conversion to new sizes and shapes.
Surrounded by protective guarding to ensure safety and noise protection, the machine is operated via a large touchscreen HMI (human-machine interface) that allows the setting of product-specific parameters and, in case of error, displays a method for troubleshooting.
For its part, the Sigpack TTM2 integrated top-load cartoner is also a masterclass of engineering, design and operational excellence that seamlessly integrating multiple key secondary packaging functionalities in one turnkey solution loaded with performance-enhancing features and capabilities.
Requiring just one operator to run and to change over the machine, the Sigpack TTM2 is an integrated top-load cartoner providing reliable forming, loading and closing of cartons at speeds of up to 120 cartons per minute per machine, utilizing a patented tool-less changeover process with vertical restart. The precise carton forming process and the innovative carton transport ensure full carton control throughout the entire process.
Like all cartoners in Syntegon’s industry-leading TTM platform, the TTM2 is characterized by its high pack style flexibility that enables it to handle many different box designs and materials—including open and hooded trays, tri-seal closure and tuck-in lid boxes, shelf-ready display cartons and many more.
The highly flexible top-loading concept allows for superior secondary packaging of single products, small batches, or up to very large count numbers on the same machine, while also offering many different outfeed options.
The powerful combination of end-to-end turnkey operation and virtually limitless flexibility has provided the Cornwall facility with a formidable competitive edge in the hotly contested market segment for nutritional bars, says Jeff Downer.
“In addition to producing some world-class national retail brands, Leclerc is also very active in the private label space, where it’s all about producing high-quality products at a lower cost than what brand-owners could do themselves,” Downer explains.
“Considering that most producers pay roughly the same price for the ingredients, labour and other production inputs, it really comes down to running your production lines as efficiently as possible, with as few people as possible, to achieve the cost reductions you need at every stage of the process to offer customers a competitive price-point,” Downer elaborates.
“Combining Leclerc’s world-class products with the world-class manufacturing capabilities of Syntegon packaging equipment is a win-win collaboration that I am very proud to be a part of,” says Downer, complimenting Leclerc for its proactive approach to investing in leading-edge packaging automation on a continuous basis.
“Our best customers are educated customers,” Downer says, “and Leclerc is very well-educated in packaging automation. “They have bought many Syntegon systems from us before, and they all proved to be good investments.”
For her part, Leclerc’s Allen says she appreciates the high level of professional customer service consistently provided by Charles Downer’s highly knowledgeable technical and support staff through all stages of the Syntegon equipment installation, integration and commissioning, with more to come at the company’s massive new plant in Brockville.
“For us, it is really important to have Jeff Downer involved in our automation projects,” says Allen, pointing out that Leclerc and Charles Downers had already collaborated on many projects even before Syntegon was rebranded from its earlier Bosch Packaging Technology banner.
“Being a large company based far away in Europe, it is very important to have the right person here who can reach the right department and communicate our concerns with the right people on the other side,” she explains.
“Jeff has been great in supporting us every time by expediting all our questions, quotes and support capabilities to make sure all our Syntegon machinery always runs smoothly and efficiently,” Allen acknowledges.
“Our latest machine installation, commissioning and training was handled very well by the Syntegon technician who came on-site to do it,” she relates.
“It is very important for us to have a technical resource nearby to help us make whatever adjustments we need to introduce a new product or packaging format.”
Moreover, Allen points out that having so many different packaging capabilities incorporated in all-in-one turnkey systems, assembled by a single manufacturer, also provides valuable space savings on the production floor with a more streamlined and compact footprint.
“With everything being integrated within the machine, we do not need separate conveyors or other auxiliary equipment taking up square footage,” she says.
“The flexibility of the Syntegon machines is very important to us,” Allen reiterates. “We don’t not want to buy a new machine every time we have a new product to launch, so being able to change the size of a box, box shape or a box count just by changing a little tooling, quickly and safely, is very convenient.”
Says Allen, “With the difficult recruitment challenges today making it hard to find enough people to fill all the plant jobs, it is important for manufacturers to achieve the highest levels of automation possible.
“For us, the Syntegon machines at our Cornwall facility provide the highest levels of flexibility, speed, precision and safety available in the marketplace today,” she concludes, “and we look forward to installing more Syntegon technologies at our new facility in Brockville and other Leclerc plants.”