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Craft beer maker implements automated bottle packing

Fort Collins Brewery saves time, labor, and worker tedium, while increasing production capacity to better serve growing markets.
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FILED IN:  Machinery  > Case packing  > Case packer
     
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The Fort Collins Brewery, Fort Collins, CO, produces a full line of hand-crafted beers, including several full-time, year-round brews plus unique specialty and seasonal beers. To sustain growth, the company has continually and conscientiously re-evaluated and upgraded processing and packaging operations at its 30,000-square-feet facility to ensure the highest product quality, consistency, and production efficiencies.

The amber bottles, in 12- and 22-oz- volume sizes, are delivered to FCB in bulk quantities by Owens-Illinois. Body and neck labels are applied at the brewery, using cold glue label application equipment from PE Labeling.

FCB co-owner Tom Peters notes, “We use 42# wet-strength paper labels supplied by DWS of Deerpark, NY. Currently, our labels are 4-color, but we are switching to DWS’ new 7-color process because it will provide our labels with brighter colors and sharper images to really stand out on the retail shelves. Our 4-color-printed bottle carriers, made of wet-strength paperboard, are supplied by Wynalda Litho. And our corrugated shipping cases are from RockTenn. For our full-time beers, we have individual cases with the brand image pre-printed on all four sides. The shipping case graphics are two-color process printed over white surface board.”

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FCB uses a Sympak tri-block rinser/filler/capper acquired from CFT Packaging. Peters says, “This machine, originally installed at our previous location in 2005, runs at 115 bottles per minute and has integrated very well at our new location. It features bottle rinse stations, a 16-head double pre-evacuation filler, and a 3-head crowner.”

But in 2013, FCB expanded its brewing capacity with a 50 Bbl. Rolec automated brew house and clean-in-place system and upgraded beer filtering and carbonating systems. In conjunction with its new processing/packaging equipment installations, the brewery also wanted to increase capacity and efficiency of its bottle carrier and casing operations. For its multi-bottle carrier packs, FCB had been buying 6-pack paperboard carriers that brewery personnel would have to manually erect and manually load into shipping cases. Manually depositing the carrier packs into brand-specific shipping cases was very time-consuming and a mundane job.

Peters recalls, “This started to look like an episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ with the candy conveyor line. We were only doing 6-packs at that time. When we started to get into 4-packs, the crew didn’t have enough hands and fingers to keep up. We knew there had to be a better approach.”

Automating packing operations
After reviewing its carrier and casing options, FCB decided to implement “The Box Shop” solution (carrier erector, multi-packer, and case erector) from Pearson Packaging Systems. The Pearson BE60 carrier erector features compact, rugged design, and can erect 4-, 6-, and 8-pack bottle carriers. The small-footprint Pearson MP35 multi-packer, equipped with a PLC from Rockwell, is designed to automatically place/push bottle carriers into shipping cases. The compact Pearson CE25 Case Erector, capable of erecting RSCs (regular slotted cases) and bottom-sealing them with pressure-sensitive tape or hot-melt adhesive, also was custom-engineered for the FCB application and has a 2-ft magazine extension. Also, a 15-ft twin-lane carrier conveyor and an additional case conveyor were installed for the Pearson MP35 Multi-Packer.

“Before we had the Pearson equipment,” says Peters, “we erected the multi-bottle carriers by hand. Usually a crew of two arrived several hours prior to the start of packaging operations and manually opened the carriers, stacking them on tables, the floor, wherever we could put them to get ahead of the packaging run. Now the Pearson case erector sets up cases on one line while the Pearson BE60 carrier erector sets up carriers on another line. Then the Pearson MP35 multi-packer pushes the erected carriers into the shipper cases, ready for bottle loading into the carriers by equipment from Sympak-CFT Packaging.”

Peters comments, “Being an American craft brewery, we strive to purchase American products whenever possible, so Pearson was a logical choice. However, once at the Pearson factory, before the first machine was even delivered, it was apparent that the work staff, office, and engineering department all worked together in one happy environment to create an amazing company culture. This was evident with employee photos on the wall, showing the length of employment with Pearson—most of them in double digits. It was a very comfortable feeling knowing that all the Pearson staff really cared about what they were manufacturing and took tremendous pride in their work and their company. This attitude is missing at too many facilities, and, in a way, FCB wanted to reward Pearson for attaining this attitude by purchasing Pearson products. Their company culture was a big part of our decision to purchase Pearson equipment.

“The original Pearson purchase was only the BE60 carrier erector machine. That arrived in May 2013, and was installed by our staff in two days. The machine performed so well that it was only two months later when we placed another order with Pearson for the case erector and the multi-packer with connecting conveyors—a complete system. This arrived in September 2013, and was installed by our staff in less than a week.”

Peters further notes, “Each time equipment was nearing ship date, two or three of our FCB employees flew to Pearson’s facility in Spokane, Washington to go through very detailed training. Our staff learned to unload, place, and install this new equipment without issue. Then after a few weeks of running in our plant, the Pearson staff arrived at FCB to inspect our work and go over any programming issues or changes that needed to be made. They were very helpful in fine tuning the equipment to run at our slower packing speeds of about 6 cases per minute. Since then, Pearson has been in touch with us either directly or through their manufacturer’s reps on an average of every other month. We appreciated the after-purchase follow-up from Pearson and their company culture of complete customer satisfaction.”

Calculating the benefits
These new carrier and case-erecting systems have reaped considerable benefits for the brewery. The custom-engineered automation allows the Pearson machines to “talk” with one another, maintain constant speeds, and coordinate operations to avert back-ups and downtime.

Peters says, “The Pearson equipment works so well that it does not require constant supervision by our employees. We currently can run with only three operators who keep the packaging stock loaded and the line continuously running without stoppage. We no longer require the early arrival of workers to assemble carriers. I estimate that we have accomplished about a 20 percent increase in output during the normal packaging day.

“Currently, we are operating our packaging line at 110-115 bpm. But the Pearson equipment is capable of running twice that speed, which also supports our further growth. I like the fact this carrier and casing equipment will grow with us as we incorporate faster filling and labeling systems.”

Asked about estimated return on investment, Peters notes, “A dollar ROI isn’t the only factor to consider when purchasing Pearson equipment, as the resale value stays quite high. However, the biggest ROI is on employee attitude. No one likes a mundane job like opening carriers or hand-loading shipper cases all day long. We have seen tremendous improvement in employee attitudes since installing this equipment. So for FCB, it was not so much the ROI in a dollars sense, but rather more efficiency through happier employees. When your business begins to grow, there is no substitute for well-engineered automation.”

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