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Water bottling line completed by farmer

To bottle its spring water in volume, Wisconsin farmer uses creativity to complete an automated bottling line. Homemade feeders and some change parts help keep total costs low.
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The Gilsons of Greenleaf WI have long been known as a family of dairy farmers in an area where that's one of the most popular vocations. But for almost as long the family homestead has had several springs that provided water that the Gilsons and their neighbors have enjoyed. Today those springs produce the water that's filled into bottles of polyethylene terephthalate and marketed primarily under the Ledge Rock Springs brand name in stores from Wisconsin to Florida.

To go from supplying neighbors to operating an automated filling line the Gilsons consulted with Combi America (Canton OH) and later Adams Engineering (Joliet IL). The line was completed last summer in four phases. Today the Gilsons believe they should have done it differently. As true as that may be the company operates an automated line that was installed at a cost some other companies would envy.

That's because the resident dairy farmer Tom Gilson used his farm "ingenuity" to help complete the line at a cost that he says was considerably less than the cost of buying all new parts. These include the local fabrication of some filler and labeler change parts the building of automatic feeder conveyors for the unscrambler and the capper and some other ancillary components.

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Still in a new and super-clean building just behind the farm's original dairy barn Ledge Rock Springs has assembled a bottling line that will allow them to grow their business. It begins with one of Tom Gilson's automatic feeders that carries bottles from a floor hopper into the bowl of a bottle unscrambler from New England Machinery (Bradenton FL).

After ionizing air cleaning the bottles are conveyed into an over-pressurized filling room that constantly pumps in filtered air. The first stop is an 18-valve Horix gravity filler that was remanufactured by Combi America. After filling the bottles move a short distance to an in-line capper from Kaps-All (Riverhead NY).

Once capped the bottles travel through an accumulation conveyor and out of the filling room toward a pressure-sensitive labeler from Avery Dennison (Philadelphia PA). The bottles are then conveyed into the infeed of a new case handling system from Combi. It consists of a Model 2-EZ case erector and bottom taper that feeds cases to a new Model DPI drop packer and Little David case sealer also provided by Combi. Finally the finished cases are conveyed through a wall opening into the warehouse for manual palletizing and stretch wrapping.

Starting modestly

Virtually every packer of drinking water in the country will readily offer "chapter and verse" and often undecipherable numbers to show why its water is the best. The Gilsons are no exception. For generations the water produced by the farm springs was used only by the family its livestock and their neighbors.

About four years ago Tom Gilson began to realize the potential for sharing the water with others. At first the goal was to fill tanker trucks with the farm water that would then be packed elsewhere. But Greenleaf WI is a long way from most bottling plants and bulk water customers were scarce. "That's when we decided we would have to bottle the water ourselves" recalls Ted Gilson Tom's brother who heads up marketing.

Both the Gilsons and Phillip Lewis plant manager are quick to regale visitors with stories about the water's characteristics. Scientists they say have analyzed the water and believe its source may be a glacier melt in Canada perhaps near Niagara Falls. Although the company labels it as spring water its solids content would permit it to be labeled as mineral water. "If we were going to ship out of the country we'd label it as mineral water because most consumers overseas are very conscious of mineral content" Ted Gilson reports. "In the U.S. calling it spring water seems to be just as valuable."

Still no visit to the farm is complete without a walk into the woods to see evidence of the capped springs that feed water down to the two 10-gal tanks from which the bottling line draws water piped through an ozonator.

Filler came first

Even when the farm was only supplying water to its friends and neighbors it purchased the filler to handle the gallon jugs it was filling. Once the Gilsons realized they would fill bottles for retail they turned to Combi to help them design a bottling line. The filler alone was Phase One and Pete Ballos of Combi sketched out a line that became Phase Two.

"I referred Tom to the representatives of Kaps-All and Avery Dennison so the plant could feed bottles to the filler capper and labeler and then hand-pack" Ballos recalls. When the Gilsons began to understand that manual labor couldn't uncase the bottles fast enough to keep the equipment near capacity the next phase was adding the unscrambler. Meanwhile Adams Eng. developed the conveyor system linking the machines.

"When we looked at putting in a packaging line we were concerned with economics" Ted says. "We had some numbers that we started off with and they were fine for buying the filler capper and labeler. However once we started looking at automatic unscrambling and then downstream packing those early numbers went out the window."

Once the plant installed the filler capper and labeler it quickly realized it couldn't manually uncase bottles fast enough to keep the equipment running near capacity. "After we added the unscrambler we found we couldn't case pack at the speeds we were filling. That spawned the end-of-line equipment and by then we had obliterated our first budget."

Trade-off vs labor

Although the capital equipment budget was exhausted the addition of equipment helped the Gilsons control labor costs. Lewis a veteran of soft drink bottling plants recognized that the machinery would minimize the need for workers especially when production requirements were uneven.

"We can operate the complete line with just three people" says Lewis. "Their primary roles are to replenish bottles caps and labels. In addition we have a warehouse worker who builds pallet loads and manually stretch wraps them."

This same crew handles line changeover between the 16-oz bottle and the 1-L size. The equipment was selected with easy changeover as one of the prime criteria Lewis says. While the case packer the labeler and the capper can all be changed in just a few minutes the filler takes 15 minutes and the unscrambler requires about a half-hour. To simplify the process the clean set of change parts for the other bottle size is mounted on the wall right behind each machine that uses them.

It is the modest labor costs that help permit Ledge Rock to ship its water as far away as Florida a market Ted Gilson is working to develop.

Maintenance of the equipment much like the installation of all the machines is left to the mechanically inclined farmer Tom Gilson.

Changes next time

The company's biggest mistake say Ted Gilson and Phillip Lewis is that the line was built "one piece at a time. If I had to advise the next company I'd certainly tell them to anticipate a complete line that can be done at one time. And" Gilson says "always leave room for the future.

"What you buy for today's needs probably won't be adequate for next year. So you have to step on the gas a bit and buy the equipment you'll need for tomorrow even if you're only operating at half- or quarter-speed today. Otherwise you'll be buying new equipment again next year."

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