January 15, 2009
by Andrew Joseph, Features Editor
Tickling the consumers’ taste buds comes naturally to Voortman Cookies Limited, Burlington, Ont.-based cookie manufacturer who has been supplying Canadians with delicious, home-made quality cookies and similar baked goods for over 50 years.
With its product portfolio comprising more than 60 varieties of cookies and wafers, time rarely stands still at the company’s sprawling, state-of-the-art, 250,000-square-foot production facility located about a 30-minute drive west of Toronto, where approximately 300 employees run a three-shift, 24-hour operation five days per week to turn out some 120 tons of its popular sweet treats per day.
While the company’s chocolate chip cookies remain its bestselling product, plant and property manager Fred Heikamp—a 50-year company veteran—points out that most other things in the cookie business have changed beyond recognition since the Voortman brothers first opened doors of the company’s very first, 4,600-square-foot production facility back in 1957.
“As of 2004, all of the 60-plus varieties of cookies we produce at the plant have been remade into transfat-free products,” Heikamp, told Automate Now on a recent visit.
“We switched after our owner Harry Voortman’s daughter Lynn refused to eat our cookies because of the transfats blamed for raising the bad cholesterol levels.
“So thanks to Lynn pointing out the obvious, we became the first major manufacturer of cookies and wafers to stop using hydrogenated oils to make our products,” states Heikamp, adding that Voortman also ranks as one of the world’s largest producers of sugar-free cookies.
The company’s knack for innovation is a well-rooted tradition, Heikamp recalls, with Voortman being one of the first large Canadian cookie producers to begin shipping its cookies in bulk.
“Thanks to getting our name out via the bulk cookie format, we have been able to create and maintain a strong presence on the Canadian store-shelves ever since,” states Heikamp, counting the likes of Walmart, Sobeys, Loblaw, Meijer, Metro and Publix as some of its high-profile customers, while also pointing out the company’s success in breaking into new markets in the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean.
Not surprisingly, the company’s pioneering and innovative ways make themselves very evident on the production floor, where an expansive arsenal of leading-edge, automated packaging machinery and equipment keeps the plant running like clockwork—especially since the recent installation of the off-the-shelf, modular TLM-F44 robotic picker stations supplied by the Mississauga, Ont.-based Schubert Packaging Automations Inc., the Canadian arm of German robotics specialists Gerhard Schubert GmbH.
“We purchased our first F44 picker line in 2006 and liked it so much that we bought another one last year,” says Heikamp, explaining that both are used extensively to place individual cookies and wafers into the HIPS (high-impact polystyrene) trays produced on any of the plant’s three GN3021C thermoforming machine from G.N. Plastics Company Limited of Chester, N.S.
“Both of these robots have proven to be hard-working, excellent and affordable machines that have helped us to save on labor that we previously used to hand-pack our cookies,” Heikamp relates.
In operation, baked and cooled cookies are directed to the two Schubert F44 picker station machines via a conveyor system supplied by the Kingston, Ont.-based George E. Wright & Son Ltd., with one of the two F44 model robots installed at each of the stations springs into action.
“The robotic arms are equipped with special suction cups that allow them to gently pick up a single cookie and swing it over to a plastic tray, orient the product, and then place it gently within the tray,” says Heikamp, who is full of praise for the robots’ virtually noise-free operation, onboard machine vision inspection capabilities, and ability to process up to 4,000 products per minute.
The filled trays are then moved through another final quality check administered by the Phantom metal detector, manufactured by Fortress Technology Inc., and on to the final packaging stage: to be either hand-packed in corrugated boxes for bulk shipment to wholesale trade-shops; or to be flowwrapped at high speeds on one of the plant’s four Doboy or HBM series flowwrapping machines from Bosch Sigpack Systems AG.
So far, both robotic packer stations have performed as well as advertised, according to Heikamp, enabling significant cost-savings in manual labor.
“The Schubert TLM-F44 robot pickers has been working quite well for us,” he states. “Prior to the purchase of these systems, we needed to have six employees per line packaging the cookies by hand, and now we only utilize half of that labor.
“We also used to have a lot of health issues related to the repetitive hand motions required in the packaging done by hand,” Heikamp adds, “but not so much at all now.
“The cookie industry is rife with competition, from Kraft to Keebler to Pepperidge Farm and others,” he sums up, “so we have to ensure that not only do we continue to innovate in manufacturing great-tasting products, but also with our production process as well.
“So if we’re able to continue minimizing our production costs, I’m sure that we will continue to move forward to an even more successful future, with even greater growth potential.”