Full steam forward
Thriving Toronto craft brewer taking its growth to the next level with modern packaging automation technologies
November 17, 2011
by George Guidoni, Editor
Time never really stands still in today’s highly competitive and fiercely contested beer market, and it’s clear that the folks in charge of the Toronto-based beermaker Steam Whistle Brewing have been putting that time to good use in terms of both extending the company’s reach into new markets and by continually upgrading production and packaging capabilities of their highly successful brewing enterprise located near the Toronto lakeshore at The Roundhouse, a one-time locomotive servicing and repair facility that has served as its home digs since the company’s startup in 1996.
Having just recently secured distribution rights to market its flagship Steam Whistle Pilsner brand throughout the Province of Manitoba—significantly boosting the company’s Canadian market presence that also covers Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta—Steam Whistle appears to be pulling off an unheard-of feat of posting double-digit growth rates in what is widely held to be a generally flat and mature marketplace with few opportunities for quick organic growth.
According to the brewery’s plant engineer Sergei Mikhniouk, demand for the company’s flagship pilsner product—still the one and only beer made by the company as a matter of principle and choice—has been growing by 15 to 20 per cent over the last two years, requiring additional investment in brewing and packaging capacity that is now starting to swing into full gear underneath the roof of its historically-designated facility that is also one of Toronto’s most popular tourist attractions, blessed with close walking proximity to the Rogers Centre stadium, ACC hockey arena, CN Tower and a host of other nearby landmarks.
“It is quite a remarkable performance for the beer industry, but it just shows what one can achieve when you make a good quality product that consumers enjoy, as well as package it in a way that leaves them with long-lasting positive impression,” Mikhniouk told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the lively Steam Whistle plant, perpetually buzzing with activity even on nonproduction days.
“We use specially-made bottles that are about 30-percent thicker than the industry-standard glass beer bottles, which means that they will keep the beer colder much longer than the competing brands, and we use state-of-the-art bottle inspection technology to make sure that all our bottles are defect-free and perfectly filled each and every time,” states Mikhniouk, relating that the plant’s ongoing production capacity growth is being capably supported with some innovative, fully-automated case-packing technology manufactured in Canada by the Toronto-based machine-builder Nuspark Inc.
Utilizing two ELAU servomotors driving delta-style robots, the two model NTL-50 case-packers—one for the bottling line and one for the canning—have had a significant impact on improving packaging efficiency and product quality, according to Mikhniouk, who worked closely with Nuspark vice-president Felix Elent and industrial automation components manufacturer Schneider Electric to enable the two case-packaging systems to achieve optimal operational efficiency and flexibility to suit the brewer’ evolving production requirements.
“Using these case-packers enables us to run our bottles at about 220 units per minute—and up to 250 bottles per minute if necessary—and our cans can now run at about 270 units per minute,” says Mikhniouk, who first oversaw the installation of a NTL-50 case-packer on the bottling line in March of 2008, shortly followed by the arrival of the second NTL-50 unit in June of that year.
“After the success we had with the first machine on our bottling line,” he recalls, “it was natural for us to turn to Nuspark again to help speed up the packaging on the canning line as well.”
Before the 2008 arrival of the Nuspark case-packing equipment, the Steam Whistle plant was producing 60,000 bottles per day, Mikhniouk recalls, “and between 10 and 15 per cent of those bottles would be rejects, caused by rough handling of the bottles by the original drop-packer we had in place.
“After installing and modifying the NTL we went to producing about 79,000 bottles per day, so you can certainly call this installation a big success for us,” Mikhniouk explains, “and today we can easily fill and package up to 85,000 bottles and around 90,000 cans per day.
“Moreover, the bottle rejects problems we were experiencing before have virtually been eliminated, due to the gentle handling action of the grippers,” says Mikhniouk, praising the smooth bottle handling enabled by the 24 bladder-type grippers installed with the ELAU-driven delta robots to pack bottles.
“Once we have a set of 24 bottles collated at the infeed conveyor, they pass through the NTL machine via a tunnel in a single row, where the 24 bladder-type grippers gently lift all the bottles at once and swiftly load them into the beer cases in one smooth movement,” he explains.
“The grippers leave a little space around the crown on top of the bottles, which have sharp edges, and actually ‘squeeze’ each bottle around the neck to get a secure grip before depositing them into the proper slots in the case,” he says.
For its part, the second NTL model case-packer on the canning line employs vacuum-operated suction-cup grippers to manipulate and pack the filled cans of beer into the distinctive-green cartons supplied by the Concord, Ont.-based paperboard and corrugated packaging converter Packaging Technologies Inc. (PTI).
“We have had some real success with these case-packers this past summer,” recalls Mikhniouk, explaining that it was the first summer during which the plant would sometime run both the bottling and canning lines on the same day to keep up with buoyant market demand for the Steam Whistle Pilsner brand.
“While the plant currently runs its packaging operations only three to four days a week, using the rest of the time for machine maintenance and facility upkeep and cleaning, based on our growth projections it is just a matter of time before we will need to raise our production outputs,” he says, “and it is good to know that the case-packing systems we have in place right now will continue to serve us into the future to meet our growing needs.”
So far, the biggest obstacle to boosting production levels in a major way has been attributed to the fact that the plant’s existing bottle-washer can only handle 12,000 bottles per hour at maximum speeds, but the pending arrival of a new, state-of-the-art Krones bottle-washer from Germany—scheduled for installation in February of 2012—will effectively address that limitation, according to Mikhniouk.
“We have some very big and exciting plans for this plant in the near future,” he remarks.
“The new washer will have the capacity to wash 18,000 to 20,000 bottles per hour, so we’ll really be able to ramp up our production capacity here in a big way,” says Mikhniouk, adding the plant typically employs about a dozen people per shift to run its bottling operations, with another seven employees running the much more space-restricted canning operation in the adjacent production room.
In fact, the small footprint and limited floorspace in the canning room provided Steam Whistle and Nuspark with significant installation challenges, recalls Mikhniouk, which were resolved by first installing the NTL case-packer into place and then designing the mezzanine and conveyor systems around it to fit into the available space.
More recently, he adds, the Steam Whistle plant has also automated its end-of-line packaging operations with the installation of a model A-Arm stretchwrapping system from local machine-builder Cousins Packaging Inc. to ensure reliable product stability and protection of its shipped loads of beer cans, bottles and the heavy-duty kegs sent to Steam Whistle’s hospitality industry customers, which still account for about 30 per cent of the company’s sales.
According to Nuspark’s Elent, both high-performance NTL case-packers take full advantage of Schneider Electric’s advanced ELAU technology to ensure highly energy-efficient and flexible operations, adding that this technology is also widely incorporated in Nuspark’s other packaging systems such as case-erectors and palletizers, among others.
“This technology really provides us with the means to enable true plug-and-play operation,” Elent remarks, noting that both NTL case-packers, each offering 50-kilogram payload capacity, were up-and-running within two days of their arrival.
Says Elent: “When it comes to electrical controls, Schneider Electric is the standard technology that we like to use on all our equipment, especially when we use multiaxis, servo motion-control technology.
“There is no PLC (programmable logic controller) used in these machines—just the standard ELAU motion controller,” he says, adding that while Nuspark can incorporate other manufacturers’ control technology in its machine designs, “we simply like to use the best technology that is available in the marketplace.
“The ELAU system is a very powerful machine controller that offers both motion and logic control. In 80 per cent or more of the cases, our machinery does not really need to have an additional PLC in it,” says Elent, estimating that Nuspark currently has an installation base of about 400 packaging machines around the world, employed in the food-and-beverage, packaging, pharmaceutical, automotive and other key industries.
With about a third of Nuspark’s nearly 50 employees being fully-trained engineers, “We are a company that is very well-respected in industry circles for being able to execute all sorts of hard, challenging and unique projects for our customers, and I do believe that our comfort and familiarity with the Schneider Electric control technologies is one of the key factors that gives us a good competitive edge in the marketplace.
“We never compromise on the quality of our machines—it is the Number One rule in our company,” he states, “which is why we never cut corners by using cheap components.
“When we sell a machine to our customers, we really put our reputation on the line, so we have to be able to stand behind our technology at all times after the purshase—even long after the warranty has run out.”
This mindset perfectly complements Steam Whistle’s own proactive approach to product quality and packaging presentation, according to Mikhniouk, explaining why the company will only buy the best packaging products available, including high-quality aluminum cans from Crown in the U.K., extra-thick green-tinged glass bottles sourced from Central America, and highly-decorative beer cartons from PTI boasting unique packaging features such as the easy-open tear-strips running the full length of the cases of canned beer for quick-and-safe opening and effective display capabilities.
“From a marketing perspective, these robotic packers have really been able to improve the presentation of our products to our customers in a significant way,” adds Steam Whistle director of communications Sybil Taylor. “Long ago, we used to get complaints from our customers about the bottles being chipped when thy clanked together during case-packing, but that just doesn’t happen any more thanks to the delicate bottle placement that this NTL machine performs.
“We have excellent packaging design capabilities inhouse, and we use them to full effect to make packaging a really beautiful piece of marketing collateral, with interesting design elements, that Canadian consumers really seem to enjoy and appreciate—enabling us to keep growing right across the country.”