Rolling with the Times
Ontario paperboard converter upgrades its production machinery arsenal with new-generation technologies to retain its supremacy in the beverage-carrier markets
While it technically falls into the broad industry category defined as secondary packaging, there is little else that is secondary about the critical primary role that paperboard and folding cartons play in global beverage marketplace and supply chain.
Combining all the sustainability benefits of a renewable resource with the material strength, durability, printability and other key functionalities required to produce convenient, attractive, high-impact consumer multipacks for all kinds of bottled and canned beverages, folding cartons are also an integral strategic branding and merchandising vehicle for beverage producers to build brand awareness and loyalty in the fiercely competitive, crowded and hotly contested markets.
Nowadays produced in a continually expanding assortment of shapes, sizes and dimensions with a virtually limitless choice of carrying and opening options, beverage multipacks have rightfully earned their place as a mainstay feature of supermarket shelves across North America and much of the developed world.
Ironically, such ubiquity and availability tend to underscore the enormous investment in the capital-intensive machinery, facilities and human talent required to produce this invaluable everyday packaging in sufficient quantities to help keep beverage producers on top of their game.
Operating at its current location in Ajax, Ont., since 1966, the WestRock paper converting plant is a veritable showcase of the sheer grand scale of the heavy-duty production and converting equipment required to turn massive rolls of virgin craft paperboard into fully finished retails cartons ready for shipment to the customer’s beverage packaging lines—often within a day.
Today operating as part of the Atlanta, Ga.-headquartered WestRock Corporation—formed through a landmark 2015 merger of paper-making giants Mead-Westvaco Corporation and Rock-Tenn Company—the 300,000-square-foot Ajax facility is a busy 24/7 operation running flat out throughout the year to produce more than 500 million beverage carrier cartons annually for leading North American beverage brand-owners and co-packers.
Currently employing 180 hourly workers and 29 salaried staff, the Ajax facility is an important strategic asset in the vast global manufacturing and forest management corporate network managed by its vertically integrated parent company that ranks as one of the world’s five largest paper and paperboard producers.
According to Ajax general manager Doug McMillan, operating as an integral part of WestRock has breathed new life and vibrancy into the sprawling production facility, which remains one of the most important and respected industrial employers in this fast-growing community of just over 120,000 residents.
Having recently completed a 90,000-square-foot expansion of the plant’s warehousing space to centralize its inventory and distribution activities onsite, the Ajax facility has greatly benefited from the large-scale capital investment upgrades and modernization projects carried out at the facility both by its current and former owners.
As McMillan related to Canadian Packaging magazine during a recent visit to the highly automated operation a few weeks ago, the plant’s strategic location and proximity to major markets—along with its dedicated and highly experienced workforce—have been instrumental in attracting large-scale capital investment to make it a world-class paperboard converter.
“Our access to investment capital has been very good in the seven years of being a WestRock business,” McMillan states.
“These are really exciting times for this facility.”
Expertly laid out around the expansive plant floor for optimal product transfer and packaging, the facility’s formidable arsenal of high-quality converting equipment is perfectly complemented with two fully-automatic quadruple palletizing systems, including an integrated six-pallet dispenser, and a fully-automatic stretch wrapper.
“It’s a pretty slick set-up,” says McMillan, praising the palletizers’ rugged flexibility, high cycle speeds and intelligent controls.
“At any given time,” he says, “we can palletize eight different configurations, while using up to six different sizes of pallets.
The two quadruple palletizing systems operate as independent units, so that if there is any downtime for one of them, the whole system just keeps going without any interruption to the process.
“This operational flexibility also allows us to add slip sheets, cap sheets, moisture barriers or whatever else the customer requires in one smooth inline pass,” McMillan states.
With over 100 active dies ready for action any day of the week, the Ajax plant’s extensive product portfolio includes glass bottle multipacks from six to 24 containers; can cartons from four up to 48 cans; and basket package multipack carriers accommodating from four to 12 containers—suiting virtually every popular multipack format used to retail all sorts of beverages across Canada.
The lion’s share of multipack cartons manufactured by WestRock in Ajax are made exclusively from the high-quality coated virgin kraft paper—produced in various thicknesses and basis weights (calipers) by a WestRock paper mill in Mahrt, Ala.—which is shipped to Ajax by rail in giant 79-inch-diameter rolls that are loaded whole right onto the plant’s inline printing presses by clamp trucks to begin the conversion process that can reach speeds of up to 1,000 linear feet per minute.
Being designated as an essential business during the COVID-19 lockdowns, the Ajax facility didn’t miss a beat on the production floor, according to McMillan, with most of its workforce also getting through the prolonged pandemic largely unscathed—thanks to meticulously followed workplace safety, masking, screening, sanitation and social distancing procedures.
“Actually we were busier than usual during COVID because the market demand for multipacks grew on the account of many hospitality businesses and restaurants having to shut down their kegging and fountain lines,” McMillan states.
“We also saw a shift to bigger-sized multipacks like 30- and 48-pack carriers, as consumers changed their purchasing habits during the coronavirus crisis.
“People have switched to larger multiples to limit their potential COVID risk exposure by buying more product with less trips to the store,” he explains, “and we were happy to fill that new market need with the amazing equipment and capabilities we have here in Ajax.”
Having joined the company nearly four decades ago while it was still operating under its early PackageMaster corporate banner, McMillan takes a lot of pride in working for a progressive company with deep demonstrated commitment to the Canadian market.
“About 80 per cent of our output is produced for the Canadian market that we serve coast-to-coast,” McMillan states, “and it’s a great feeling to know that we are making a significant contribution to both the local and the national economy at large by providing a sustainable, low-carbon packaging solution on a substantial commercial scale.”
As McMillan points out, the paper and packaging products made by WestRock contain virgin fiber sourced from responsibly managed forests, and the Ajax plant uses only water-based inks on all three of its printing presses.
The facility has also recently completed a plant-wide conversion to energy-efficient LED lighting, McMillan relates, while also implementing various in-house recycling and other waste-reduction initiatives to reduce its own carbon footprint.
“All our clippings and paper scraps are sent back to mills to be used for various recycled content products in other market segments where WestRock operates,” McMillan notes.
As converting production manager Peter Nenke points out, “Our business has always been about making and converting paper, which means we’ve been focusing on sustainability long before sustainability gained momentum as a critical aspect of business.
“And WestRock’s strong investment in the Ajax facility has allowed us to bring in new-generation technologies with more energy-efficient heating systems and other new functionalities to help us keep improving our environmental profile.”
To keep this formidable arsenal of heavy-duty machinery running at optimal efficiencies at all times, the Ajax plant’s 19-person maintenance crew, expertly led by maintenance manager Kurt Basler, keeps a close regular watch on machine performance for all operating equipment through continuous diagnostics, testing, troubleshooting and other preventive maintenance techniques.
“This is a very high-skill team made up of licenced mechanical and electrical journeymen,” Basler states.
“I think our high level of technical expertise is one of our core competencies,” says Basler, adding the plant also houses an on-site machine shop to handle most of the machine repairs in-house.
“We try to do all repairs without sending items out unless they are just physically too big for what we can handle here at the plant,” he says.
“Other than that, we can do all the machining, welding, assembly or whatever else need to be done in-house.
“Machine uptime is always a key priority.”
As McMillan points out, the plant’s large investment in robotics and other automated technology has not only boosted the operation’s productivity levels, but has also contributed to a safer work environment by eliminating many repetitive and physically demanding manual jobs and tasks that could result in workplace injury or burnout fatigue.
“Our safety record has been good for many years,” McMillan proclaims, “and it’s no coincidence that it has gone hand-in-hand with acquiring all this new technology.
“We have done a good job in automating a lot of strenuous work areas,” he says, “and we’re not finished yet.”
As McMillan acknowledges, putting in a 12-hour shift, four days-a-week at a fast-paced production facility is not a walk in the park for workers of any age, so any investment in safety is a direct investment in its human capital.
According to McMillan, having such a committed and talented workforce played an important role in enabling the plant to pass its first SQF (Safe Quality Food) certification audit a few weeks ago.
Passing the rigorous third-party audit at its first attempt has put the Ajax plant on a firm path to obtaining the coveted food-contact safety accreditation that would allow it to expand its production repertoire with folding cartons for packaged foods across various product categories and segments.
“Naturally, we are very excited about the new opportunities this could bring to our business,” McMillan states, adding the plant has all the necessary fundamentals in place to diversify into food packaging.
“People tend to think of a multipack carton as just another box,” he remarks, “but it is so much more than that.
“Our carriers are in fact packaging solutions that come in a broad variety of size and design configurations, with all kinds of value-added features like embossing, Braille, UV coating and raised text, to meet customer specifications,” he says.
“Moreover, we can help our customers with their special product promotions by being able to insert coupons, leaflets, small prizes, and all sorts of marketing items right inside the cartons before we ship it to them.”
Says McMillan: “As a fully vertically integrated company, WestRock stands out in the paper packaging world by operating as a complete solutions provider, and that’s exactly how we approach our business here at Ajax—providing our customers with the best packaging solution to help them grow their business.”
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