Canadian Packaging

Natural Selection

George Guidoni   

A new high-speed automated packaging line making instant impact with massive productivity and quality improvements for innovative natural-health- and beauty-products co-packer

Natural beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and formulations at the MSP Laboratories Inc. plant in Varennes, an off-island suburb of Montreal in southwestern Quebec.

Founded in 1999 by Martial St-Pierre, the family-owned company specializes in contract manufacturing and co-packing for many leading global brands of natural health and body care products.

Skillfully riding the wave of a major consumer trend towards all manner of natural everyday products—from food to cosmetics—MSP has evolved to become a highly respected and reputed authority on the development and manufacture of natural health and body care products marketed in liquids, creams, gels, ointments, capsules, tablets, ampoules, sachets and other popular formats.

Sourcing its natural ingredients from all over the globe, the company’s 19,300-square-foot facility employs 45 people working on a one-shift, five-days-a-week schedule to produce a wide variety of products in the form of liquids, creams, gels and ointments, including natural health products (for humans or animals), dietary supplements, sports drinks, energy products, essential oils, skin-care lotions and many other natural H&B (health-and-beauty) formulations—serving a broad customer base across Canada from emerging start-ups to well-established national and global brand-owners.

Housing a total of seven production lines and running a highly flexible manufacturing operation enables the Health Canada– and FDA-certified plant to provide its customers with top-class service underpinned by meticulous quality control and intensive R&D (research and development) activities.

“The packaging for our liquids, gels, creams, gelcaps and tablets comprises many different-shaped bottles and tubes ranging from five milliliters to one-litre sizes,” says the company’s vice-president of operations Maxime St-Pierre.

“We first make the bulk product after weighing the raw materials and blending them to specs, using balance scales and mixing tanks—heated or not—and pumping it into a storage tank.

“We then perform various product analysis and quality control procedures to ensure the conformity of the bulk product,” he says, to ensure optimal product integrity and regulatory compliance.

“The product will then be packed depending on the volume and the type of bulk product—liquid, cream, gel or ointment—on a best-suited packaging line and, finally, a final analysis and quality control will be performed for final release of the finished product.”

As St-Pierre relates, the Varennes plant’s packaging lines comprise two plastic tube filling lines, one line for tablets and gelcaps, three semi-automatic cream and liquid filling lines, and the recently-installed full-automated liquid packaging line installed earlier this year by renowned Montreal-based automated packaging machinery manufacturer Capmatic Ltd.

Commissioned in early spring, the new turnkey high-speed Capmatic line represents the company’s first serious foray and capital investment in packaging line automation technologies and, based on its exceptional performance so far, a stepping stone to future investments in packaging automation.

Dedicated to the production of five-to-1,000-ml bottles of various shapes and dimensions, the Capmatic liquid filling line has almost instantly become by far the fastest and most efficient packaging line at the MSP facility, St-Pierre points out, by meeting all expectations for speed, precision and accuracy, while vastly reducing the labor costs and requirements for this part of the plant’s production repertoire.

Capable of producing up to 1,800 bottles per hour (bph), according to St-Pierre, the new line’s output dwarfs the previous 500-bph average output rate achieved with the previous semi-automatic line technologies, while enabling dramatic improvements in packaging/labeling quality and reliability freeing up staff for other more value-added tasks at the facility.

As he explains, the previous manually intensive process required one operator to position a unidose machine onto the line, another one to feed the machine with the empty bottles, another one to place the caps onto the bottles and place them onto a conveyor leading to an automatic labeling machine, after which another operator would make the final visual verification of the lot number, expiry date and the label placement, before manually placing the bottles into master cases.

“With the fully automated Capmatic line, the first operator puts a box of bottles into the unscrambler, a box of matching caps in the capping machine, and places the master case of the finished product on the pallet.

“The second operator make the weight verification to report in the file of the product and makes the verification of any ejected product the machine has deemed to be a reject,” he continues. “Meanwhile, the third operator is continuously placing the bottles inside the master cases.

“The Capmatic machinery does the rest: placing the bottles on the line, filling the bottles, placing the caps on, labeling the bottles, and then applying safety seals onto the bottles,” St-Pierre explains.

“The cameras at the end of the line then perform automatic visual inspection of the finished product and the label lot number on all the labels.”

All in all, “This line enables us to produce five times more bottles per person than we could before,” according to St-Pierre.

“We operate this line at around 30 bottles a minute for a 500-ml bottle size to 33 bottles a minute for a 150-ml bottle,” says St-Pierre, while praising the line’s remarkably quick changeover capabilities that enable the staff to perform a full product or size changeover on the line in less than 15 minutes on average.

Says St-Pierre: “Working with Capmatic enabled us to purchase exact type of machinery required for our needs and requirements, while also accommodating our space limitations and restrictions.

“All the machines in this line are very user-friendly,” he expands, “and Capmatic’s after-sales service is first-class.

“They are a great company to work with because they always listen to our needs, making it easier to provide the right solution for our requirements.”

Such ringing endorsement is naturally sweet music to the ears of Capmatic’s application engineer Nick Perugini, who worked closely with St-Pierre on the project from the outset to ensure optimal line performance right from the get-go.

As Perugini explains, the entire line is controlled by a large B&R touchscreen HMI (human-machine interface) terminal for easy product recipe selection and programming, using B&R servomotors to facilitate quick changeovers that typically require only a few manual adjustments of some tooling and other mechanical components, with the machinery’s software doing all the heavy lifting to prepare it for the next run.

“Everything is recipe-driven,” Perugini, “with the HMI actually indicating which components need to be manually adjusted during the changeover.

“Once those adjustments are made, the operator selects the ‘run’ mode on the HMI screen and the machine tells him if it is ready to go.

“Then it’s just a matter of pressing the start button and the machine goes to work,” Perugini says.

Such ease of operation and straightforward simplicity have already made the Capmatic line the favorite part of the plant to work on amongst many of the facility’s employees, says St-Pierre, while accounting for between 35 to 40 per cent of all of the plant’s daily output.

Not surprisingly, St-Pierre says he’s already looking forward to purchasing more Capmatic equipment in not-so-distant future to automate the plant’s other six packaging lines.

“We are very tight for tight for space at this facility right now,” says St-Pierre, noting the plant actually had to convert two adjacent production rooms into one bigger room to accommodate the Capmatic line’s footprint.

To that end, MSP has recently acquired another 12,000-square-foot manufacturing plant next door to continue its promising journey into the world of packaging automation.

“We should be able to start moving in some production machinery there in the next month or so,” St-Pierre states, “but right now we are still trying to figure out what to do with this new extra space in terms of which lines to move there.

“But having that extra space will allow us to purchase more automated machinery sooner rather than later,” says St-Pierre, citing intense competition and accelerated time-to-market schedules in the fast-growing market segment for natural health and wellness products.

“Our business expanded by about 25 per cent last year,” St-Pierre says, stressing the paramount importance of keeping that momentum going.

“There are about 10-to-12 direct competitors in our product segment just in Quebec alone,” he says, “and I believe that none of them currently have the high-speed automated production capabilities that this new Capmatic line provides us,” he states.

“This new production line has enabled us to achieve the accuracy and production speeds we were never able to achieve before,” he says, rating the new line’s performance to date as “a perfect 10 out of 10.”

“I really is full-on automation at the push of a button,” he extols.

“It gives us a very strong competitive edge as we continue to attract more customers and expand our geographic reach,” St-Pierre says, noting that the domestic Canadian market currently accounts for about 90 per cent of the company’s sales.

According to St-Pierre, the vastly improved quality levels achieved with the new line will significantly help the company grow its export business in coming years—in turn prompting further capital investment in packaging automation.

Naturally, St-Pierre expect Capmatic to play a big role in all those future investments decisions and supplier selection.

“We are planning to diversify our product portfolio,” he says, “and we trust Capmatic to be there for us with the right equipment solutions for our current and future needs.

“We will always strive to do more to find innovative solutions to our customers to make their life easier,” St-Pierre concludes, “and to make sure we meet all their deadline and expectations for product quality and efficacy.”

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