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Co-man Improves Worker Safety and Glass Filling Line

Contract manufacturer Consolidated Mills’ new automatic depalletizer has increased the company’s cooked liquids filling line by 10%.

the Ska Fab FHA 5000 automatic depalletizer designed to discharge full-height pallets of empty glass jars or bottles up to 4,000 lbs.
The Ska Fab FHA 5000 automatic depalletizer designed to discharge full-height pallets of empty glass jars or bottles up to 4,000 lbs.

For many contract manufacturers and contract packagers (co-man/co-packer), moving towards automated lines has been on their collective radar and/or has already been installed for a variety of reasons from increasing efficiency and output, to mitigating labor shortage issues and speeding up changeover rates. Right before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, co-man Consolidated Mills had also decided to invest its own automated solution to improve worker safety and increase output.

Worker safety first

Consolidated Mills is a co-man located in Houston, Texas. since 1962 that serves the food and beverage industry. The company specifically offers services for spice dry-blending, liquid flavor concentrates, and cooked liquid product such as sauces, salsas, and other acidified foods. Consolidated Mills has little staff turnover, with some employees having worked there for over two decades. Understandably, it is very important to the owners to enhance worker safety through automation, which can reduce injuries from accidents and repetitive motions. Automation also allows workers to be placed in different positions to optimize production.

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“We have 54 employees, and we want to utilize them the best we can. I'm not looking to buy machinery to replace people. I'm trying to buy machinery to make their jobs easier, and to make our capacity bigger, so we can take on more customers and utilize the same people that we have,” says Keith Vrana, co-owner and executive vice president of Consolidated Mills. Vrana and his brother Scott have owned the company for nearly 20 years.

The machine that Consolidated Mills was on the lookout for was an automatic depalletizer for its cooked products liquid line. Before the pandemic, Consolidated Mills received most of its glass bottle packaging for cooked liquid products in reshipper boxes to be sent out in. But as suppliers adjusted to COVID-19-related regulations and shortages and customer needs changed, it quickly became apparent that reshipper boxes would no longer be an option.

The depalletizer helped the co-man adjust to supply chain consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic.The depalletizer helped the co-man adjust to supply chain consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic.The co-man began buying glass in bulk, which arrived shrink-wrapped on pallets. This necessitated manually building boxes, inserting dividers, and placing bottles on the production line. Though the company says it never missed an order with this laborious process, the Vranas knew a change needed to be made to maintain and grow the cooked liquids side of the business.

Adjusting to supply chain needs through automation

The Vrana brothers were aware of Ska Fabricating (Ska Fab) and approached them at PACK EXPO International to get the conversation started. The machine manufacturer suggested the Ska Fab FHA 5000 automatic depalletizer designed to discharge full-height pallets of empty glass jars or bottles up to 4,000 lbs.

Created with flexibility in mind, the FHA 5000 can be tailored to customer-specific configurations and requirements. The machine includes a user-friendly HMI touch screen with automatic and manual controls. The programmable push-and-play PLC has up to 20 product menu options to program different container types. Adding a new container to the PLC can be done by Consolidated Mills’ team and is a semi-automatic process with the team moving the machine parts into place to then save the new configuration to the system. Toolless adjustability makes the semi-automatic line changeovers quick and easy. The FHA 5000 is also portable, allowing for easier relocation and reconfiguration down the road.

“Our maintenance guys feel pretty comfortable about moving things around as long as they know how to set it up. If they don't, they just make a phone call [to Ska Fab], and somebody's going to help,” says Vrana.

Consolidated Mills also purchased a side-grip lowerator designed to safely lower containers from high elevations and an ionized air rinser, which serve as a dry-clean system as the containers go into the line. The small footprint of the FHA 5000 helps save valuable floor space, especially in smaller facilities.

Consolidated Mills also purchased a side-grip lowerator designed to safely lower containers from high elevationsConsolidated Mills also purchased a side-grip lowerator designed to safely lower containers from high elevations.“Ska Fab came in, did all the measurements and tried to figure out how to put this thing into our facility, which is tight, we don't have a lot of room. And so, we had to be creative to do it. [They] came down and helped put it all together, [and taught] us how to use it. It is amazing how much faster we're going in with less people involved,” says Vrana.

The FHA 5000 arrived in the Consolidated Mills facility last November and was running product the next month. Since then, the automatic depalletizer has increased Consolidated Mills’ capacity by 10% and the co-man has reduced the number of employees on that line from seven to four.

Vrana says even though his team was hesitant at first about a machine being implemented, they became comfortable enough with the FHA 5000 to start making modifications to enhance the equipment.

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Challenges and benefits

As installation began, Consolidated Mills realized its warehouse had too low of a deck to upright the unpacked depalletizer the way Ska Fab had suggested, but by renting a larger, heavier forklift the co-man was able to find a workaround for the issue without hitting the deck. A Ska Fab field tech then came out to help install the equipment and had it running two weeks after the machine’s arrival. The tech stayed three days to ensure setup had been done properly and to answer questions from the Consolidated Mills’ team.

“We had it set up to run maybe two or three glass jars that [Ska Fab had] already preprogrammed in there,” says Vrana. “So, we just needed to make sure it was going to run right. And [the tech] stayed as long as we needed him to.”

The depalletizer has increased Consolidated Mills' cooked liquids line production by 10%.The depalletizer has increased Consolidated Mills' cooked liquids line production by 10%.Vrana explained that good customer service is something Consolidated Mills strives for as “it's not all the good things you do that people remember, it's how you handle the problems.” The co-man has been very pleased to see that Ska Fab takes its customer service as seriously as they do in all aspects of the companies’ interactions. Ska Fab has connected on video calls with Consolidated Mills’ maintenance specialist to troubleshoot issues the team was having as they got better acquainted with the equipment every time the co-man has called.

Ska Fab continues to provide support and assistance to Consolidated Mills as an ongoing partner as the co-man engages in different product runs and challenges arise, whether they be caused by, related to, or affect the smoothness of the line run with the FHA 5000.

“Scott and I have always tried to partner with companies that have the same kind of philosophies we do and take care of our customers. That's one of the things that I think really made this partnership work.”


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