For many consumer packaged goods companies, the pandemic threw a massive monkey wrench into business as usual, with ongoing labor shortages and supply chain disruptions. But for EnterpriseCP, LLC (ECP), a contract manufacturer/contract packager (CM&P) of shelf-stable pasta-based meals in Long Prairie, Minn., there was one upside: With restaurants shut down, more consumers were cooking at home, which sent ECP’s sales soaring.
In fact, the demand for ECP’s products grew so significantly during COVID-19 that in 2020, the company was forced to expand, moving from its existing facility—a former Kmart store—to a new 314,000-sq-ft plant and adding two new cartoning lines. According to Nolan Wolkow, ECP president, over the last two and a half years, the company has doubled in size. In 2021, ECP produced 65 million units; this year, it’s on track to product 105 million. “Sales-wise, in 2022, we’re up 138% over 2021,” he shares.
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Given the type of low-margin products ECP produces, “there is little room for error,” Wolkow explains. “You’ve got to make a lot of units, and you’ve got to do it really well. It comes down to speed, efficiency, and managing your waste.”
That’s why, when selecting packaging equipment for its two new lines as well as new equipment for one of its existing lines, automation, efficiency, and speed were important considerations. Meeting these requirements were two new Syntegon SVE 1820 MR vertical form/fill/seal baggers for its new lines, and a new Bulk-Out model BFF bulk bag discharger with a Bev-Con flexible screw conveyor from Flexicon for an existing line.
New bulk-bag discharger solves sticky situation
ECP is a fairly new company. It was launched in 2015 as a co-packer of pasta, pasta-based meals, pancake mix, potato flakes, and stuffing for food banks. Co-founding the company were Brenton L. Smith and Bruce Satrom. Brenton, the founder of Brenton Engineering, now part of ProMach, and founder and CEO of Aagard Group, provided the startup with the needed engineering and packaging equipment expertise, while Satrom, previously with the Abbiamo Pasta Co. and Bektrom Foods, lent his pasta and food packaging experience.
In addition to co-packing products for other companies, ECP also produces its own product line under the Premier Pantry brand. The line includes macaroni and cheese dinners, both with powdered cheese (standard) and cheese sauce (Deluxe), other pasta-based dinners, skillet meals, pasta sides, and stuffing. Of the company’s annual output, 30 million to 40 million units of 7.25-oz cartons of standard Macaroni & Cheese go to food banks. Its Premier Pantry brand is also sold in Menards, Dollar Tree, and regional grocery stores.
To package its myriad products, ECP operates six packaging lines. Five of them are cartoning lines equipped with pouch fillers that package the seasonings or cheese sauce. The sixth, one of four brought from ECP’s former facility, is a pouch filling line dedicated to several dinner products, for example, a lasagna skillet dinner and an alfredo fettuccini side dish. These products have seasonings that vary in stickiness, an attribute that was causing several issues during the packaging process.
As the line was originally designed, the ingredients were discharged from 2,200-lb bulk bags suspended from a frame above an open-top hopper, from which a screw conveyor transported the powder to the pouch filler’s feed hopper. However, the non-free-flowing seasoning were making operation labor-intensive and inefficient. “Employees had to manipulate the bag to get the powder to flow out, and then had to hammer on the hopper,” Wolkow says. “There was a lot of operator intervention.”
In search of a system that could handle a wide variety of poorly-flowing materials, ECP contacted Flexicon, which evaluated the seasonings at its test laboratory in Bethlehem, Penn., and proposed a Bulk-Out model BFF forklift-loaded bulk bag discharger with an integral Bev-Con flexible screw conveyor. According to Flexicon, the new equipment simplifies the task of discharging and feeding the seasonings and reduces unnecessary operator labor.
With the new system, bulk bags at floor level are attached to a bag-lifting frame by means of Z-Clip bag strap holders that secure the straps while allowing rapid insertion and removal, after which a forklift places the lifting frame, with suspended bag, into receiving cups on top of the discharger frame posts. The clean side of the spout is then secured to the clean side of the discharger’s hopper interface by a dust-tight Spout-Lock clamp ring, which is raised pneumatically by a Tele-Tube telescoping tube to make the connection. It is then allowed to descend by gravity, maintaining continuous downward tension on the clamp ring and bag spout as the bag empties and elongates, promoting material flow. According to Wolkow, the telescoping tube is a big plus. “It definitely makes things cleaner,” he says.
Material flow is further enhanced by Flow-Flexer bag activator plates, which raise and lower the opposite bottom edges of the bag on timed cycles. The bag ultimately forms a steep “V” shape that promotes total discharge into a 3-cu-ft floor hopper equipped with an air displacement port and filter sock to contain dust. The hopper employs internal agitators and a wall-mounted vibrator to promote the uninterrupted flow of seasonings into the charging adapter of a 3.5-in.-dia Bev-Con flexible screw conveyor, which extends 20 ft at a 41-deg incline to the pouch filler.
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“Flexicon recommended the Bev-Con spiral to make sure we could handle the different flowabilities of the powders,” Wolkow says. “It’s a different-style spiral than what we have on our other lines and works well.”
The screw is the only moving part contacting the material and is driven by a 3-HP gear drive located beyond the point of discharge, preventing material contact with seals or bearings. A PLC activates the discharger and flexible screw conveyor according to signals received from high- and low-level sensors on the hopper of the pouch filler, while a low-level switch on the discharger’s hopper prevents the conveyor from operating in a “starved” condition.
The new discharger eliminates the need to promote flow using paddles and hammers. “We spent too many staff hours focused on that,” says Wolkow. “Now we hook the bag up, and the operators leave it until it’s empty. The discharger does exactly what we need it to do.
“We prioritized the feeding on this line because that pouch filler is our biggest and most challenging packaging machine. We also wanted to spend a good amount of time on the new Flexicon system before we committed to putting it on more lines.”
Since the initial Bulk-Out system was installed, ECP has added two more, both with the Tele-Tube telescoping tube and Flow Flexer bag activator plates.
Twin-tube baggers meet speed, film requirements
ECP’s two new packaging lines consist of one for 7.25-oz cartons of Deluxe Macaroni & Cheese and one for 7.25-oz cartons of standard Macaroni & Cheese, installed in 2020 and 2021, respectively. As Wolkow explains, given that ECP is a unique business built off the packaging equipment side, all of its cartoners, including four from Aagard and models from BW Integrated Systems and PMI Kyoto, are used machines that were rebuilt in-house.
On each of the two new cartoning lines, ECP has installed Syntegon SVE 1820 MR vf/f/s baggers that package either powdered seasonings or cheese sauce in a small, gusseted pillow pouch. Wolkow shares that the primary requirement for the pouch-filling system was its ability to operate at speeds up to 240 packs/min while running film-based pouches. ECP uses metallized polyester for its sauce pouches and low-density polyethylene for its powdered cheese product.
The SVE 1820 MR is a twin-tube continuous motion vf/f/s bagger that Syntegon engineered for very high output in a minimum amount of floorspace. Its twin-tube concept allows for bag widths up to 7 in. and enables the output of two baggers while only using one weigher and the floor space of one machine. The bagger operates at speeds to 400 bags/min and features maintenance-free servo technology and an intuitive HMI for easy operation and short operator training time, which is especially important for ECP, given the current labor situation.
To feed the finished pouches into the paperboard cartons, ECP designed a custom infeed. For the cheese sauce pouches, an Intellifeed feeding unit is used to sort, condition, and feed the pouches into the cartons.
No slowdown post-pandemic
With pandemic lockdowns in the rear view mirror, you might expect to see consumers purchasing fewer pantry staples, but ECP is still going strong. The company is currently operating at full capacity, running two shifts, four days a week. “But we need to flex to five days to meet the increased demand for our products,” says Wolkow. “We are exploring opportunities to expand our capacity to fully maximize our current facility.
“Our focus continues to be on building strong partnerships with our customers by providing high-quality products, on-time delivery, and top-notch customer service, day in and day out.”