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Superior takes control in small coffee packs

Thanks to growth in specialty coffees, Superior's new plant installs a first-in-North-America vacuum/valve packager that offers a wide size range and precise controls for ground or whole bean coffees.
FILED IN:  Machinery  > Inspection  > Checkweighers
When Superior Coffee moved to a bigger roasting and packaging plant in New Orleans it opted to add a coffee packaging system that offers versatility in package style with a multi-feature control system.

Superior's new Specialty Coffee Division plant at Harahan LA features the first North American installation of a Model PKS 3150 packager from Robert Bosch Corp. (S. Plainfield NJ). This form/fill/seal packager uses rollstock to create either vacuum or valve-bag packages in sizes from 1.75 oz up to 1 lb. It has nitrogen flushing to extend shelf life it folds down the top of the bag and secures the top with a tape strip.

The system can produce up to 60 bpm on smaller sizes 40 bpm on bags up to 1 lb. The speed isn't its primary feature. Rather it's all the functions the system performs for several different package sizes. To add to the versatility the machine is equipped with a Markem Model 236M hot-foil imprinter for the rollstock.

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The imprinter permits the company to easily vary the product name the UPC code and the ingredient statement on generically-printed packaging. Changeover from product to product in the same package size can be accomplished in minutes. Plates for printing each flavor and UPC code were supplied by Markem and the date code is changed via type in slotted chases. Even a complete product/package size change can be done in about three hours by one person.

"We could buy a machine that would do a 2-oz brick pack for a lot less money" says Les Cole senior vice president of operations for Superior headquartered in Bensenville IL a Chicago suburb. "This system does both brick and valve packs in a range of sizes up to 16 ounces and there is simply no other machine that will do all that." In addition to Harahan Superior operates coffee plants in Chicago Minneapolis and in Hayward CA. Superior's urgent need was the 1.75- to 2-oz vacuum pack.

Many specialty coffee stores and other outlets merchandise these "one-pot" vacuum packs from bins or other displays. They allow shoppers to try new coffee varieties or flavors without having to purchase a full l-lb package. The same size is also used extensively in gift packaging.

Until four years ago Superior's packaging equipment was geared to larger packs. Eventually it added three semi-automatic packaging machines. "Volume in these packs grew so rapidly we couldn't keep up even with three machines" Cole says.

At the time much of the operation was manual. Operators had to roll down the top film and tape it closed. Then three labels had to be applied (front for product description back for ingredients and a separate UPC label). That's why Superior decided it needed this system.

6-month shelf life

Depending on the product the packaging system offers a shelf life up to a full year. For the small packs a laminate of 48-ga polyester/.0004 aluminum foil/3.5 mils of low-density polyethylene is commonly used. Rollstock is supplied by several vendors says Superior and the structure varies depending on whether the product is pure or flavored coffee.

Ground coffee flushed with nitrogen is packaged fresh in a solid vacuum brick that stays fresh for up to one year. Because freshly roasted whole bean coffee will gas off for several days it's packaged with a one-way gas-off Pli-Valv(TM) valve. It's also evacuated and flushed with nitrogen and offers a shelf life of six months. "We've used this valve design on other equipment for nearly 10 years" says Cole. Originally designed by Bosch the valve is now supplied domestically by Plitek (Des Plaines IL).

The shelf life is achieved by producing barrier foil packages containing an oxygen level of no more than 1%. First the coffee is flushed with nitrogen in the filling auger and then in the filling tube. After the package is cut from the web and it moves through compaction and into sealing a laminar flow of nitrogen helps keep oxygen out. The system employs sensors that will shut the system down if oxygen levels exceed the 1% standard.

Automated process

"Our plant technology eliminates over-handling of the product as the fragile roasted coffee moves from processing through packaging" says Ralph Russo vice president of the Specialty Sales Div. "In this market maintaining the appearance and integrity of the bean is so important."

The plant uses a computerized blending process so that only the proper beans are moved into the roaster. Following cooling and stone removal the coffee moves in special containers directly to packaging or to the flavoring area that uses Superior's proprietary process to make more than 75 different flavored coffees.

In the packaging area rollstock unwinds past the Markem imprinter that adds the variable information to the web before forming. A hopper above the Bosch system feeds product to the auger filler that's synchronized with package forming. A scale system is supplied for weighing whole bean coffee. Filling is very precise. Superior strives to maintain an overfill of less than 0.5% Cole says.

Once the flat-bottomed bag is filled and cut from the web it moves horizontally through stations that vibrate and compact the product. Next the open top of the bag is gusset-folded a vacuum is pulled at the following station then sealing and cutting follow. Finally the top is folded flat and secured with a piece of tape. After being discharged from the machine each pack is conveyed over a checkweigher to verify weights.

User-friendly controls

The PKS system is extremely easy to operate by a single worker. "Although this is a very sophisticated electronically-controlled system it's actually very user-friendly" says Cole. It offers storage for programming 20 different product/package combinations for quick machine set-up. Just as the imprinter allows Superior to quickly change from product to product within the same package size changes in package height can be done in about 30 mins.

All machine functions are controlled from the operator console. In the event of a stoppage the controls have full fault diagnosis to simplify troubleshooting. "Few other machines have this capability to help us keep downtime down. I'm sold on them" he adds. While this model is new to North America Superior operates other Bosch coffee packagers at several plants.

"The versatility of this machine is what sold us. We specked it out to be able to do just about anything we might need. We expect our payback on this will be quite good" Cole says noting that the system is not inexpensive. The new Harahan plant doubles the output and the workforce of Superior's former New Orleans facility.

This puts the company in an enviable position to supply what has become the hottest coffee market (no it's not McDonald's). Superior packs under its own brands including the new estate-grown Metro-politan(TM) and private label packing for coffee shops gourmet stores mail order catalogs and department stores.

"Specialty coffee now accounts for 10% of all coffee consumed and is projected to increase to 30% over the next five years" says Superior president Stan Greanias in explaining the company's investment in Harahan.

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