Canadian Packaging

Pack to Snack

George Guidoni   

Landmark snack-food manufacturing facility cranks up its cracker production volumes with cutting-edge packaging automation

With snacking continuing to evolve as a daily eating ritual across the world’s cultures and geographies—keeping hunger at bay between meals and providing a welcome boost of energy and nutrients—snack-food manufacturing has become an integral part of Canada’s consumer economy, serving a growing domestic market worth an estimated $13 billion annually.

As one of the country’s largest producers of crackers, cookies and other popular snack foods, Toronto-based Mondelēz Canada—part of the Chicago-headquartered multinational Mondelēz International Inc.—puts a high premium on continuous improvement in its production and packaging capabilities to retain and grow its significant share of the fast-growing global market for baked snack-food products.

Operating five manufacturing facilities in Canada, the publicly-owned company has invested millions of dollars’ worth of new equipment into its Canadian production assets over the last decade, with particular emphasis on modernizing and expanding its venerable cookie and cracker production site in Toronto’s midtown borough of East York.

Originally opened in 1949, the East York plant has undergone multiple upgrades and expansions over the years under various former owners, but its most recent comprehensive capital upgrade has arguably set a new benchmark standard for successful integration of automated processing and packaging machinery—raising its skill set and efficiency levels to the proverbial next level of world-class manufacturing excellence.

In 2017, the company expanded the existing East York building on Bermondsey Road to a total of 462,000 square feet of production space, while installing multiple new-generation processing and packaging machinery to accommodate a fast-paced, around-the-clock production environment to enable the peanut-free certified facility to produce over 160 million pounds of product annually for the Canadian and U.S. markets.

“Some of the major brands we make here at East York include Oreo, Premium Plus, Ritz, Wheat Thins, Crispers and Peek Freans cookies,” says site engineering manager Annamaria Reda.

“We have over 100 SKU (stock-keeping unit) offerings—comprising different flavors and a wide variety of packaging formats—here on-site,” Reda expands.

“We have the capability to produce cookies in trays—directly in overwrap, or overwrapped and cartooned—stand-up pouches, overwrapped slugs in a carton, and bag-in-a-box formats.”

“The product offerings we manufacture at East York bakery are mostly private-label direct-to-customers,” she adds, “with a small volume of portion- packs made for food-service clients.”

As Reda explains, the East York plant operates a total of eight high-capacity commercial ovens to make its product range, with each of the ovens feeding multiple processing and packaging lines to produce the final products and ready it for shipment to customers.

“Our eight ovens are evenly split between cookie and cracker lines, as they use unique forming equipment for the different types of products,” Reda notes.

“We are busy all year with both,” she says, “but one of the heaviest seasons is the lead-up to the fall and winter seasons, when we see higher cracker sales.”

Making the manufacturing processes run smoothly and seamlessly at all times requires a fairly high level of automation to maintain a high level of product quality and consistency, Reda points out, while ensuring robust productivity levels and reduced reliance on manual labour for some of the more repetitive and physically strenuous tasks.

“Automation is important to help us stay competitive and also to be able to offer higher-skilled jobs in the labour market,” Reda states.

“We do have a combination of fully automated lines where we make consistent products,” she notes, “although we also have some manual packaging lines where we either need more flexibility or have lower volumes.”

As Reda relates, the recent building expansion went hand-in-hand with a multi-phase installation of a whole new production line for high-speed, high-volume processing and packaging of cracker products, including the bestselling Premium Plus line of crackers.

Carried out in step with the ongoing building construction and infrastructure installation, the new L30 line comprises some of the most advanced processing and automated packaging equipment available in the market, including multiple primary and secondary packaging machines manufactured by leading global packaging equipment group Syntegon.

“The overall goal was to expand the facility to enable the production of various cracker SKUs here at the bakery,” Reda says.

“The project was installed in a separate building,” she notes, “so our other production lines were able to operate normally, and generally were not impacted.

“As with many large projects, it had its challenges,” she acknowledges, “but overall we have been able to learn the new process and equipment very well over the years.

“We are now running the machines at efficiency levels in the high 90s (per cent),” Reda states, “and Syntegon was a great partner in this project by providing support when it was needed to bring us to these operating levels.

“The Syntegon installation is one of our most fully automated lines end-to-end,” she states, “and we operate with the best-in-class crew.

“As a full new line, the L30 installation project added over 65 million pounds of additional output from the East York facility,” Reda says, complimenting the outstanding support and customer service provided to the project by Syntegon’s Canadian distributor and packaging line integration experts Charles Downer & Co. Ltd. of Richmond Hill, Ont.

Actively involved in the L30 line installation from start to finish, Charles Downer provided the required equipment for all the product handling, transfer and packaging stages from the oven—starting with product breakers and spreaders—right to the end-of-line packaging and palletizing.

According to Charles Downer’s president and owner Jeff Downer, the L30 line boasts one of the largest single-line installations of Syntegon packaging machinery anywhere in Canada, including:

  • Six Sigpack FGMT feeders with cross-feeding chains.

Designed for high-speed stacking and portioning of crackers, cookies and other dry, oily and brittle baked goods with a separation knife, the Sigpack FGMT feeder is a continuous motion-portioning machine that uses two separating swords per lane to allows the product column to advance continuously, rather than intermittently, to produce up to 400 slugs (stacks) of product per minute on each machine.

After the products are baked in the oven, cooled down and fed into the FGMT by vibratory channels, one sword moves into the product flow, while the second sword holds the leading edge of the formed slug.

Once the swords advance the column to the lowering shovel, an overhead counter holder takes control of the leading edge—allowing for the second sword to return and start the next portion—while the counter holder guides the slug into a shovel for lowering the portion into the cross-chain.

After the portion is released and the empty shovel is raised, the next portion is guided in.

The alternating functions of the two swords allow the product to advance in a continuous flow, according to Syntegon, thereby reducing back pressure and product stress.

  • Six Sigpack FIL with HCS horizontal slug flow wrappers.

The slugs are transferred from the FGMT by the intelligent infeed named FIL, which uses linear motor technology instead of conventional chains.

The main advantage is the extremely gentle handling of the transfer, which is nevertheless still performed at high speeds.

Once transferred to the wrapper, the FIL carries the slugs into the folding box of the HCS wrapper. the slug streams go gently from cross chain unit right into FIL and HCS folding box.

The FIL infeed also acts like a small buffer, which stabilizes the wrapping speed for a highly efficient and reliable system.

The FIL/HSC also allow for very quick changeovers: within ten minutes from long to short slugs.

The HCS is compatible with a wide range of heat- or cold-sealable monolayer or laminated film structures at speeds up to 400 packs per minute.

Capable of producing longitudinally or cross-crimped end fins with straight, zig-zag or clip cut-off, the machine folds and shapes the film like a hose to wrap around the product, which is then longitudinally and transversely sealed.

Offering a variety of optional features—including print code, carton insert, label or coupon, tear strip, tear notches and other easy-opening features—the machine’s automatic film splicing enables fast and easy film reel changeovers.

  • Six Sigpack TTM top-load cartoners.

Designed for 24/7 production, the Sigpack TTM integrated topload cartoning platform delivers high-speed carton forming, loading and closing many types of cartons—including tri-seal closure, open tray, tray and hood, or tuck-in lid—at speed of up to 150 cartons per minute.

Requiring only one operator to handle all operations via a touchscreen HMI (human-machine interface) terminal, the Sigpack TTM can handle both solid paperboard and corrugated containerboard, as it automatically removes carton blanks from the loader, erects the cartons, loads them with the grouped product, closes the filled cartons, and passes the finished cartons on to the outfeed belt.

Incorporating a product infeed conveyor, a driven blank magazine, three-axis robots, controls and drives from Rockwell Automation, and an integrated hot-melt adhesive applying system, the high-performance machine can handle a broad range of carton sizes, while facilitating remarkably quick and easy changeovers.

In addition to the Syntegon primary and secondary equipment integrated into the L30 line, three Zambelli tray-packing and shrink-wrapping machines, as well as several Euroimpianti robotic palletizers, corner post applicators and RGVs (rail-guided vehicles) at the end of the line.

“They have expanded the palletizing system twice now in order to handle the entire facility with 10 robotic palletizing systems,” says Downer.

As Reda comments, “Our L30 Syntegon line has a single oven splitting into six packaging legs, which is why we have six full sets of the FGMT, FILHCS and TTM units.

“These feed into the three Zambelli units and four Euroimpianti palletizing robots, which are shared with another line,” she adds.

“It’s very important that all six legs run consistently with little downtime,” Reda points out, “as it would be inefficient to stop the oven process should one packaging leg stop producing.”

So far, all the Syntegon equipment has worked as well as promised, according to Reda.

In fact, the outstanding performance delivered by Syntegon machinery on the L30 line has enticed the East York plant to invest in yet another fully-automatic Syntegon secondary packaging system—an Elematic case-packer—on another one of the facility’s production lines.

“We have enjoyed good support from the Syntegon team,” Reda states.

“As it occurs in every project, there were some challenges, but overall we’ve achieved good performance results quickly after start-up.

“The service from Syntegon has also been very reliable; their team is highly responsive, and we have a local representative that can support on-site when necessary,” she sates.

As for Charles Downer’s contribution, “We found Charles Downer & Co. to be very knowledgeable on equipment capabilities and new technology offerings,” Reda states.

“They supported the project from end to end, including ideation of equipment selection and layouts, to ensuring we have the right support for the installation and commissioning phases.”

Reda says Mondelēz Canada takes pride in sourcing as much of its raw materials and packaging from Canadian suppliers as possible, and working with Canadian packaging automation experts like Charles Downer is a valid reflection of that local sourcing mindset.

According to Reda, the East York’s large-scale investment in packaging automation played a key role in enabling facility to carry on largely “business as usual” even during the peak months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when demand for foods like crackers and cookies actually surged above normal levels.

“The food industry is a very competitive business,” she says, “and our key competitive strength is our team’s ability to react and lead through challenges like that to ensure that products that our consumers love are always available on the shelf.

“Having the right technology in place to ensure that shelf presence is a big part of that competence,” she states.

“As a business, we are always working towards giving people a wide range of high-quality snacks so they can make great informed choices,” Reda concludes.

“It’s about keeping true to our existing brands that our consumers know and love, improving the sustainability of their production, and also offering new snack options that people truly love and feel good about.”

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