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Sustainability plus cost savings-a smart balance indeed

By replacing corrugated shippers with corrugated pads plus shrink film, the firm behind the popular Smart Balance brand makes measurable gains on at least two fronts.
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GFA Brands Inc. may be a virtual manufacturer. But that hasn’t diminished the Boulder, CO-based firm’s interest in sustainable packaging. So when management saw an opportunity to get a whole lot greener by asking its contract manufacturers to replace corrugated cases with Delkor Spot-Pak Pad Shrink Shippers, the opportunity was seized as quickly as possible.

“In dips and yogurts and cottage cheese and such, this style of secondary packaging is pretty well established,” says David Deaton, senior operations supply chain manager at GFA. “But we think we’re among the first to bring it to the buttery spreads and margarines category.”

According to Deaton, a detailed Life Cycle Analysis by an independent packaging consultancy determined that for the same projected annual production volume of Smart Balance, Earth Balance, Nuco, and Bestlife buttery spread products, Spot-Pak will achieve dramatic sustainability gains vs. traditional corrugated shippers. For starters, it reduces the weight of the secondary packaging for a 12-count multipack from .046 to .024 lb. Other advantages include these:

• 975 tons less packaging material to landfill or recycle
• 723 tons less greenhouse gas emissions
• 24.6 million megajoules less total energy consumption
• Because the Spot-Pak shipper cubes out better (15 multipacks per pallet layer instead of 13 corrugated cases), 64 fewer truckloads per year will be required to transport the same amount of product.

Cost savings are significant, too. Because the Spot-Pak system replaces a manual case packing operation, there are labor savings to be had. And on the materials side, the Spot-Pak format requires considerably less corrugated. Newly added to the cost-of-materials picture, of course, is the shrink film that is applied over each Spot-Pak. But even so, the amount of money paid for packaging materials is significantly less than it used to be. Though GFA prefers not to quantify precisely what that savings is, Delkor in its promotional materials and on its Web site routinely speaks of a 50% savings being more or less typical.

Copacker involvement was crucial

The Spot-Pack project dates back to early in 2009, when GFA and Delkor executives met with Ventura Packaging, a key copacker of GFA’s buttery spread brands. The goal was to outline all of the technical and marketing questions that needed to be resolved before this package could be introduced on a national basis. As a result of this meeting, a collaborative, multi-company effort was formed to resolve all the unknown aspects of the application.

“It certainly didn’t hurt that Ventura already had a Spot-Pak system in one of their plants in Illinois,” says Deaton. “So from there it was a matter of getting specifications for our tubs and lids and looking at what our volumes and speed requirements would be. We and Ventura came to an agreement with Delkor for a 90-day trial period. They were really upfront with us in terms of providing us with a no-cost, risk-free opportunity to try the equipment. Delkor brought it in, set it up, and did the training at no cost to us or to Ventura. And while all that was going on, I was analyzing the ROI projections over five different plants where these brands are produced.”

Before the 90-day trial was over, the decision had been made to install a Spot-Pak system in four Ventura plants and one at another GFA copacker in Arkansas. The original one that had been used for trial purposes has now been running in Ventura’s Ontario, CA, plant since July of 2009. “The feedback we get from Ventura is all positive,” says Deaton. “They tell us the equipment is easy to set up and operate, and that changeover from one pack pattern to another is pretty much done at the push of a button.” Most of the GFA buttery spread packages that go into the Spot-Pak systems are 1-lb containers with a 408 diameter. They’re injection-molded of polpyropylene by Airlite Plastics (www.airliteplastics.com). Both 12-count and 18-count Spot-Paks are produced, so layers of six tubs are stacked either two layers high for a 12-count or three layers high for an 18-count. The 12-count format takes one corrugated pad on the bottom and a second pad beneath the top layer. The 18-count format takes one extra pad on which the top layer rests.

Machinery in action

A look at the Spot-Pak system in operation at Ventura’s Ontario plant provides a good illustration of just how all five installations will run once they’re installed and commissioned. The filled and lidded tubs are conveyed into the Spot-Pak machine by way of a belt conveyor and two gating mechanisms that convert the single-filed tubs into a three-across format. Parallel to this flow of tubs is a four-station system. In the first station, flat corrugated pads—each measuring 121.5 sq in—are pulled from a magazine and placed on a conveyor leading to the second station. Before arriving at the second station, a pattern of adhesive is sprayed on each flat blank. In the second station, tubs of buttery spread are placed on the patterned adhesive.

“Each tub gets four spots of adhesive,” says Deaton. “It’s a patented Delkor adhesive that sets quickly and releases quickly. So it bonds to the corrugated pad and to the bottom of the polypropylene tub, but in a very short time the bond releases from the tub. The temporary adhesive bond only remains in place long enough to stabilize the cups on the corrugated pad until after the shrink film is applied and shrunk down tight. At that point, the adhesive releases from the tub so that when the unit gets to the retail outlet, the stocking clerk can remove the shrink film and pull the tubs from the pads quickly and cleanly with no resistance at all.”

The second station is equipped with a gantry-style robot whose two end effectors are fitted with vacuum pickup cups. These end effectors constantly swing over to the conveyors in which the tubs are accumulated, pick up twelve tubs, and swing back to the conveyors on which the corrugated pads sit. Six tubs are placed on each pad and the cycle repeats itself.

Once the pads have their load of six tubs, the pads are indexed into a servo-driven stacking system that mechanically lifts one six-count pad onto another. The stacking system has two separate tray-lifting sections because the triple-stacked format requires the second one.

Immediately after the tray-stacking system is a shrink film application station and then a shrink tunnel. The shrink film is a 1.5-mil low-density polyethylene. Operators manually palletize the shrink-wrapped 12- or 18-count units.

Though this project was originally driven by GSA and focused on five Spot-Pak systems to be used on GSA’s 1-lb buttery spreads, copacker Ventura Foods has now decided to install three additional Spot-Pak machines that it will use for 3-lb tubs that it produces, including GFA’s 3-lb tubs. “They’ve taken it a step further and made it into a broader Ventura project,” says Deaton.

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