Willow Tree Poultry Farms, Attleboro, MA, is enjoying robust growth in the sales of its frozen chicken and turkey pies and fresh refrigerated chicken salad. And in the Fall, the company will extend its product offerings by adding two new frozen chicken pie varieties—chicken with red bliss potatoes and chicken with classic vegetables. The products are marketed through most major supermarket chains throughout New England, and also can be ordered on-line at www.willowtreefarm.com.
The company’s 26- and 52-oz frozen pot pies initially were packaged in aluminum pie pans and manually bagged in sealable shrink film before being channeled through a shrink tunnel, while the 8-oz pies in aluminum pans were cartoned in coated, preprinted paperboard. Until the late 1970s, the 8-oz pie cartons were manually assembled. Then Willow Tree installed an automatic cartoning machine from Econocorp. But casing of all Willow Tree’s product was still done by hand.
Willow Tree Poultry Farm president Walter Cekala notes, “As our pie sales increased over the years, hand-packing of pies became a labor issue. It was taking from 6 to 8 workers to bag and case the pies. So, having used Econocorp equipment for our 8-oz pie cartoning operations with great success and reliability for decades, it only made sense to start researching equipment for a new line that would include an automated cartoner and caser for all our pie sizes.”
Willow Tree evaluated the equipment options and decided to install Econocorp Econoseal® Spartan cartoner equipment and an Econoseal® Econcaser. The Spartan cartoner is a mechanical, horizontal system featuring intermittent motion and PLC controls. The Econocaser is engineered as a simple, compact horizontal case packer capable of handling corrugated or folding board materials in a variety of case styles. The machine can accommodate pressure-sensitive tape or hot-melt glue closing applications.
Cekala says, “The original Econocorp cartoner, purchased decades ago, is no longer in operation. A second machine is being refurbished by Econocorp and is being returned to duty as a dedicated 8-oz cartoning machine that can be configured to feed into the automatic caser. Our latest purchase was both a cartoner and a caser. So now all the pies can go from freezer to pallet with minimal handling. After calculating a one- to two-year ROI based on labor reduction, the decision to purchase this equipment was easy.”
The automated cartoning/casing system requires only two to three people to operate, and the company no longer needs to use its shrink tunnel because pie bagging has been eliminated.
Cekala says, “Since set-up and training, we’ve had minimum contact with Econocorp because we haven’t encountered any major problems. But Econocorp staffers always have been available and helpful in swiftly resolving any issues.”
Currently, Willow Tree has two Econocorp cartoners and one caser in operation. Not only have packaging operation efficiencies been improved, but the finished cartons also offer enhanced shelf visibility to boost consumer sales volumes.
Cartoning and casing speeds now are approximately 26 pies per minute with three people, depending on pie size, from the rack to the pallet. This is in contrast to about 30 pies per minute with 8 people with the old manual operation.
All pies are automatically case-loaded and tape-closed. For the 8-oz pies, case loads are 12- or 24-counts. For the 26-oz pies, case loads are 12-counts. And for the 52-oz pies, each case holds an 8-count of pies.
Integrated into the cartoning and case packing operation are two Model Jet2se ink-jet printers from Leibinger. One prints date code information on the carton and the other prints similar information on the case. A self-cleaning nozzle feature keeps maintenance simplified on the Leibinger printers, which were sold to Willow Tree through Hill Packaging. A third Leibinger ink-jet coder—a Model Jet3se with IP65-rated wash-down capabilities—is used elsewhere in the plant on plastic containers of chicken salad.
Primary packaging material choices
Willow Tree decided to use aluminum pans, supplied by Penny Plate, and not market its pies as “microwaveable” for very specific reasons. Cekala explains, “Even though the gravy and chicken or turkey in our pies are fully cooked, we do use an uncooked crust that doesn’t perform exceptionally well under microwave heating. In fact, the time it takes to fully cook one of our pies in the microwave oven straight from the freezer takes almost as long as cooking it in a conventional oven, less the preheat time. Also, we view the 100-percent recyclability of aluminum pans as an environmental plus.”
For the refrigerated salad products, all cased manually, Willow Tree uses cold-fill equipment from Control GMC. The versatility of the Control GMC line enables Willow Tree to fill 10-lb, 5-lb, 15-oz, and 7.5-oz salad tubs with minimal changeover time. The salad containers are made of polypropylene and are supplied by IPL.