Thanks to an investment in a cartoning machine last summer, Innotech Products was able to double its production and shipping of self-heating meals to between 40ꯠ and 45ꯠ a day to displaced victims and relief workers during the July through November hurricane season.
Before the hurricane season hit, the company sought to increase its ready-to-ship inventory and increase its daily production. Turns out that was a wise decision. “We produce and ship meals throughout the year, but this most recent hurricane season caused a tremendous spike in our business, which required the acquisition of additional packaging equipment,” says Tim Zimmerman, president of Cincinnati, OH-based Innotech Products Ltd., makers of self-heating dinners and breakfast items known as HeaterMeals and HeaterMeals Plus. HeaterMeals sell for $3.99, HeaterMeals Plus for $5.49.
At its Cincinnati plant, Innotech uses two lines to fill its six dinner entrees and two breakfast foods into rigid plastic “tubs,” as Zimmerman calls them. The flexible lidding is ink-jet-printed with the product’s name and various production data. Primary packages are then brought to a separate cartoning machine. Operators place the lidded tub, cutlery, napkin, and spice kit pack into a carton for the HeaterMeals, which is produced on one line. The second line fills HeaterMeals Plus, meals that include those same items, plus prepackaged snacks. One meal, for example, includes cookies, apple sauce, nuts, breadsticks, seasoning packets, and a can of lemonade.
Last August, Innotech added a second cartoner. With it, Innotech paired each primary packaging line with a dedicated cartoner. The company sourced the machine through The Frain Group, with whom it had previously worked. “I knew Frain had a large inventory of equipment that was immediately available,” recalls Stan Smith, Innotech’s vice president of operations. “And Frain offered a rental program with no fixed term, which fit our needs exactly.”
Selecting from 300 cartoners, Innotech chose a Langen B1-M machine. It matched the cartoner that Innotech added in the late 1990s. “The Langen provides us with the flexibility to run different-sized cartons,” says Zimmerman, who adds that changeovers can be done quickly on the machine.
The 20-pt SBS cartons are supplied by Gibraltar Packaging. HeaterMeals Plus cartons measure 83¼4”Lx61¼2”Wx3”D. For HeaterMeals, Innotech just switched to a smaller 7”Lx51¼2”Wx2”D carton. The Langen machine erects carton blanks, then operators slide in packaged products before the unit seals cartons with hot melt prior to downstream casing and shipping.
Zimmerman prefers not to disclose cartoning speeds, or any of the primary packaging specifics. The products are shelf-stable, with a one-year shelf life for HeaterMeals Plus, 18 to 24 months for Heater Meals.
Inside the carton is a paperboard tray that contains the prepackaged foods, beverage, cutlery set, a filled and lidded polypropylene tub, a HDPE film bag containing a liquid saline solution, and an orange, translucent outer resealable bag made of a coextrusion of high- and low-density polyethylene. Inside the folded, flat bag is Innotech’s Flameless Ration Heater (FRH), in a nonwoven material Zimmerman refers to as a “reemay.” An Internet search of the term lead this author to www.reemay.com, the home page of BBA Fiberweb.
The 4”x5” FRH uses Truetech™ self-heating technology, a combination of powdered food-grade iron and magnesium, salt, and water. As printed instructions on the orange bag and outer carton describe, the user opens the carton by pulling off a tab at one end. Next, the user pulls out the paperboard tray that includes the contents.
The user is instructed to open the orange bag, insert the unopened food tub lidding side down on the heater within the orange bag. Next, he or she tears open the pouch of saline solution at a corner marked “tear here” and pours the liquid into the bag. After folding the bag, the user applies the tape strip to the bag to seal it. The packet is placed back into the box. The solution activates the heater elements, which releases enough heat to warm up the pre-cooked meal to 100ºF. In 10 to 12 minutes, the entrée is hot and ready to serve.
Zimmerman points out that Innotech does not make the Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) rations used by the United States Military, but it does make the FRH used to heat those MREs. Innotech’s Web site says salt water is used to activate the heating process for HeaterMeals, regular water for MREs. HeaterMeals are sold nationwide, to the military, and to sporting goods stores and truck stops.
Innotech runs its packaging operations two shifts, six to seven days a week for the hurricane season. During the rest of the year it’s typically a one shift, five-day-per-week operation.
“We’ve been happy with the Langen cartoner,” says Zimmerman. He says that Innotech does not have a specific philosophy regarding the use of pre-owned equipment.
“It’s really more a question of what’s available, and a financial evaluation based on what changes we need to make,” he explains. “It’s a cost-benefit analysis of used versus new equipment. We have been making modifications in our sizes of cartons and types of packaging over the years, so we don’t want to put ourselves in a position of buying something that requires us to stay in a certain type of packaging for an extended period of time in order to get the payback that we want.”
Zimmerman is already making future plans. “We’re actually working with them [Frain] to evaluate additional cartoning equipment for a more automated, higher-speed line for next season. It could be a third machine, or a replacement or upgrade to an existing one.”