Flying High Again
New high-speed canning line puts Ontario beverage co-packer into the fast lane of the burgeoning North American RTD market
While innovation and entrepreneurship are undoubtedly both essential prerequisites for aspiring startups in virtually any business, it often takes a lot of machinery, technology and other capital assets to maximize these virtuous intangibles to their full bottom-line potential.
But for companies with the foresight and fortitude to make continuous capital investment a key cornerstone of their business strategies, the rewards can be truly spectacular.
As chief financial officer and chief operating officer at Black Fly Beverage Company Inc. in London, Ont., Martin Kamil has played an instrumental role in the company’s rapid rise through the ranks of Canada’s beverage industry in the last 10 years to become the nation’s largest independently-owned canned beverage co-packer.
Boasting second-to-none production and packaging capabilities enabling it to produce an exceptionally broad range of premium-quality beverages, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, under its own popular flagship Black Fly brand and for hundreds of beverage industry customers across North America, the company has spent millions of dollars over the last decade to expand its London facility and install world-class packaging line equipment to sustain double-digit growth in each of the 10 years that Kamil has worked for the thriving beverage producer with impeccable knack and credentials for product and packaging innovation.
With annual production capacity of one million hectolitres, the company’s 210,000-square-foot London plant operates a three-shift schedule on 24/7 basis throughout the year, according to Kamil, employing 250 people to produce a highly varied and imaginative range of premium beverages with ever-evolving product formulations and packaging formats.
“We try to introduce at least four to six new flavours to the market every year under our own Black Fly brand,” says Kamil, citing exceptional market response to the brand’s new three-litre pouch, frozen-pouch and four-litre bag-in-box packaging formats launched across Canada earlier this summer.
In addition, some of the Black Fly brand favorites like pre-mixed Black Fly Tequila Margarita and Tequila Sunrise, among others, have recently been expanded from PET plastic bottles to the can format in response to consumers’ growing preference for canned beverages, Kamil relates.
“About 60-to-70 per cent of all our output is in cans now,” Kamil told Canadian Packaging magazine in a recent interview, adding that the brand’s signature wide-mouth 400-ml PET bottles still remain a popular choice with many consumers across the country.
“We continuously innovate with our packaging because not every province across Canada wants the same packaging.
“Some want cans only, some want plastic bottles and cans, some will want sleek cans, four-packs, six-packs, 12-packs and so on,” says Kamil, adding the Black Fly portfolio now consists of nearly 50 different SKUs (stock-keeping units).
“There’s lots of different things that our customers want and expect from us,” Kamil says, “and packaging innovation is a big part of who we are as a company and a brand.”
Says Kamil: “Our new beverage pouches and frozen pouches are doing really well because they represent true innovation in the RTD market, while offering a more environmentally-friendly option to the bottles because they use much less plastic to make than other packaging.
“Similarly, our bag-in-box format offers a very attractive and economical price-point to consumers by buying the product in bulk, while also offering very long shelf life.
“You can keep that container in the fridge for weeks,” he says, “and it will taste great each time, right to the last drop.”
As Kamil points out, innovative packaging has been Back Fly’s calling card ever since it was started up in 2005 by the founding couple Rob Kelly and his wife Cathy Siskind-Kelly, and it remains a powerful marketing tool driving the brand’s remarkable mass appeal across Canada.
As he explains, “The Black Fly brand is not a gender-specific product, nor is it age-specific, millennial-specific or any of those things.
“There is nothing specific about it: it was always developed to appeal to a large swath of the population,” he states.
“About half of our drinkers are female,” Kamil acknowledges, “but Black Fly is just as popular among men, as well as seniors, university students, their parents, and so on.
“It’s a brand that appeals to the masses,” Kamil asserts, citing the unique look of the brand’s distinctive ‘unisex’ bottle, along with a wide choice of innovative fruit-based drink recipes, flavours and taste profiles, as well as the punchy seven per cent alcohol content.
As Kamil points out, “Having so many delicious flavours, along with the varied packaging option to choose from, enables our brand to really resonate with the consumers in a big way.”
While the Black Fly brand’s remarkable success in the RTD market has been hugely rewarding for its founders and employees, its actual manufacturing nowadays accounts for only about 10 per cent of all the production output at the London facility, with its highly successful co-packing business nowadays accounting for more than half of the company’s revenues.
“On the co-pack side, we have proven ourselves as a very good partner to deal with,” says Kamil, “and we managed to win a lot of new business in rent years based on our technical capabilities, our high product quality, our flexibility and the general ease of doing business with us.”
In fact, since entering the co-packing market in a big way in 2019, Black Fly has been able to triple its overall sales with consecutive years of double-digit revenue growth, Kamil confides.
“About two-thirds of our co-packing business is driven by alcoholic drinks,” Kamil relates, “and the majority of our non-alcoholic business is comprised by energy drinks, iced teas, functional waters, and ‘better-for-you’ drinks.
“We really have the capability and the flexibility to do it all,” he states, “from product development to final packaging.”
These capabilities got a massive boost in July of 2021 with the commissioning of a brand new high-speed canning line comprising state-of-the art filling and sealing technologies manufactured by renowned German beverage production equipment supplier KHS Group, along other best-of-breed packaging machinery from other leading global machine builders.
Expertly integrated by leading Canadian packaging line automation integrator PLAN Automation of Orangeville, Ont., the new canning line—housed in recently-added 110,000-square-foot plant expansion of the existing building—has been running virtually around-the-clock at speeds of 1,650 can per minute, making it one of the fastest canning lines anywhere in North America, Kamil contends.
“It’s right up there with all the big beer manufacturers and other beverage mass producers,” says Kamil, complimenting the great support and collaboration from all the key suppliers to the project, with much of the work on the new line done during the COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions.
One of those suppliers singled out for special praise is the Montreal-based conveying and packaging line specialists Storcan, whose team played a major role in the design, installation and integration of the one-of-a-kind double-deck tunnel pasteurizer custom-manufactured by the Italian-based liquid processing technology specialists TMCI Padovan.
Easily the largest single piece of equipment installed on the new canning delivered a seven-fold increase in the throughput capacity compared to the plant’s first standard-sized TMCI pasteurizer installed on the plant’s older KHS canning line, running at a much more modest speeds of about 245 cans per minute.
The new pasteurizer’s vastly expanded capacity has been critical to the new line’s world-class performance to date, according to Kamil.
“We use the pasteurizer for all the canned products coming off this line,” Kamil states, adding that having this capability gives Black Fly an important competitive edged in attracting new business from brand-owner and beverage producers from all over North America.
“It provides the safety and quality control our customers demand by killing off the bacteria and making the beverages shelf-stable,” he says.
“It makes a huge difference because once the product is pasteurized, it can safely be sold from the shelf from one to three years, compared to a few months you would get with unpasteurized products,” he explains.
“Being a fully-automated machine, it is a perfect fit for our new highly automated canning line,” he says, adding that the flexible machine can cover a broad temperature range up to 80°C.
In addition to installing and integrating the new TMCI double-decker, Kamil says, Storcan also did a “fantastic” job in supplying the bulk of the different types of product transfer conveyors linking the whole new line together from start to finish, including the in-feed and out-feed conveyors placed on either side of the TMCI double-decker.
“There is about one kilometer of conveyor systems on the new line in total,” Kamil remarks, “and they have all performed very well right from the start.”
The Storcan-supplied conveyors on the new line comprise:
- A mat top conveyor system with four accumulation tables, configured to facilitate efficient and fluid FIFO (first-in/first-out) product flow;
- In-feed and out-feed conveyors manufactured for a perfect-fit incline in and out of the pasteurizing tunnel on two levels;
- A pressure-less single filer;
- A mass flow conveyor;
- A roller curve case conveyor with the Hytrol EZLogic zero-pressure accumulation and zone control system.
As Kamil relates, he always felt confident about making the right selection with the TMCI tunnel in large part because of the positive past experience with the smaller TMCI unit on the other canning line, which has largely been running trouble-free since arriving to the plant in 2019.
Storcan’s director of major accounts Hugo Lorquet says his company worked hard to establish itself as one of Black Fly’s key value-added equipment vendors and partners.
“Our business relationship with Black Fly has begun in 2016 with installation of very small conveyor system,” he says, “but since that first, we have become more than just a supplier.
“We are a real business partner that is actively supporting their growth throw various integration projects,” says Lorquet, citing Storcan’s deep technical expertise and commitment to customer-service excellence.
As Lorquet explains, “It is our mission is to help companies meet their operational challenges with innovative, flexible and automated equipment—allowing them to increase their production capacity and meeting the highest safety and health standards.”
According to Lorquet, the installation of the TMCI double-decker in London is a perfect example of how Storcan lives up to its mission.
“We worked closely with our certified partner, TMCI Padovan, to integrate the custom-built double-deck tunnel pasteurizer, which can process two levels of cans at the same time for optimal performance and high productivity,” Lorquet says.
Manufactured in Italy by TMCI Padovan’s SAP-Blendtech division, the double-deck pasteurizing tunnel boasts nearly 3,400 square feet of enclosed processing space to handle vast container quantities per cycle.
Designed for low maintenance requirements and high energy efficiency, the fully automated system was custom-designed to address all the requirements of Black Fly’s new high-speed line, according to TMCI Padovan’s division sales manager Massimo D’Ambros Rosso.
“Our long-term experience in the beverage sector allows us to handle any request we receive.” Rosso relates.
“We are used to analyzing every aspect of the project in-depth to provide the right solution for our customers, always working with them hand-in-hand.
“This makes our solutions flexible and tailor-made,” says Rosso.
“Our partnership with Black Fly Beverages began several years ago when we first installed our systems, including the first tunnel pasteurizer, on their first major canning line,” Rosso recalls.
“Thanks to the success of that first installation, our relationship has evolved to a mutually beneficial partnership, making us their first choice for their new mutual technical exchange, which made us their first choice for the new ‘giant’ line.”
Says Rosso: “Over the years we have built hundreds of pasteurizing tunnels, scattered all over the world.
“This training that we have carried out over the decades allows us to be able to manage any potential anomaly, both remotely and onsite, with the intervention of our technicians, along with ability to carry out preventive maintenance, and checking and replacing components.”
For his part, Kamil says he was left highly impressed by the professionalism and the proficiency of Storcan’s technical team in installing the TMCI double-decker tunnel and all the conveying systems to help the new canning line run like clockwork.
“Once again, they have proved to be really good partners for us,” he states. “They are very responsive and attentive to our needs.
“They executed a challenging multi-phase project on time, on budget, and they did it in the middle of the during time on budget in the middle of the COVID pandemic, when buying and supplying equipment was exceptionally difficult,” he sums up.
“Their skills and expertise we essential to the successful commissioning of a state-of-the-art canning line that will help Black Fly maintain our market growth well into the future.”