Automating Your Cheese Stick Line? Consider These 6 Points

By Harpak-ULMA
Posted In : Automation, cheese

Cheese packaging automation affords several major benefits for CPG packaging manufacturers. It reduces operational costs by lowering labor costs and minimizing waste from human interaction, increases throughput and productivity, and creates a safer work environment by replacing strenuous, repetitive, manual jobs.

Cheese stick packaging is certainly a product that could benefit from this automation. Cheese stick lines often run at a very high speed. In order to load cheese sticks at rates of over 1000 PPM it will take several operators. This is a very demanding job that can be difficult to keep staffed. Adding automation would allow you to use the operators in a more meaningful and rewarding position within the plant.

Additionally, the process of getting the packaged sticks into a retail carton or bag can be quite labor intensive. Whether the sticks come out in groups or singles they need to be organized, grouped, or stacked so that they can be loaded properly into a secondary package. In this instance an automated system that organizes the cheese sticks and loads them into their secondary package can be a huge benefit. However, before deciding to automate your cheese stick line, there are several factors to consider, specifically for cheese stick packaging, and automating in general.

1. Do You have Plant Floor Space for Cheese Packaging Automation?

Automating an entire packaging line takes up a considerable amount of plant floor space. A complete automated packaging line consists of primary automation, primary packaging, secondary packaging, and palletizing. These steps use large machines, robotic cells, and conveyers that organize and package the product, in this case cheese sticks.

Quite often, packaging plants have been custom built to accommodate your current packaging line. Even with a dedicated team working toward your automation goals, available plant floor space is a common barrier to automating. However, there are ways to accomplish optimized cheese packaging automation if the desire is strong enough.

  •  You can alter your plant floor. This might involve knocking down walls or building additions to accommodate the line.
  •  While a complete automated line offers the full range of benefits, you could automate part of your line as space For example, a cheese stick line may automate primary automation, which involves feeding and loading while manually loading and palletizing the cheese sticks for shipping.

2. How Will Automation Pay You Back (ROI)?

A complete automated line, from product to pallet, is a considerable capital investment. However, there are several benefits automation offers that allows for a reasonable return on investment. First, a common pain point for packers in every industry, especially today, is the labor shortage. Not only is it difficult for packers to get labor, the turnover rates are extremely high with some plants experiencing more than a 70% turnover rate. Finding, hiring, and training new employees is costly. Automation can replace labor that would be doing the dangerous, dirty, or dull jobs.

Secondly, as mentioned previously, cheese stick lines run at a high rate of speed and it would require a great deal of manual labor, or it may be impossible, to accomplish the output of an automated system. Ask yourself how fast and what’s your output now without automation? Are you losing potential business because you can’t keep up with demand?  Is labor a constant battle for you? Having the ability to take on new business or package greater output is an obvious way to accomplish a return on you investment.

Another benefit of cheese packaging automation that would contribute to your ROI is the safety and assistance automation affords plant workers. For example, an employee in your plant may have to reach for pallets that are eight feet high when he’s only 5’8. Again, automation helps with jobs that are dangerous, dirty, or dull. Even a job that is doable by manual labor may be repetitive and lead to injury. If the job is dull, boredom could lead to an avoidable accident. According to OSHA’s website, employee injuries can cost employers upwards of $1 billion per week. That figure alone may be enough to convince you that cheese packaging automation would provide a reasonable ROI.

Still, some cheese stick packagers simply cannot afford the substantial upfront cost of a complete automated line. At that point you should work with a trusted automation partner to determine what parts of your cheese stick line would benefit the most from automation. Is feeding and loading the cheese sticks a point of concern? How about secondary packaging and palletizing?

3. How Flexible Should My Automated Line Be?

Trends in packaging and food preferences continually change. For example, consumers purchasing cheese sticks are looking for a wide variety of cheese types and flavors in various sizes with convenient packaging. Ask yourself if there’s a possibility of adding a new size cheese stick in the future? How about new flavors? Adding flexibility in an automated packaging line can help you keep up with cheese stick trends and eliminate the possibility of your equipment and line becoming obsolete.

In addition to keeping up with consumer trends, what if your cheese stick brand grows or you get additional co-packing contracts? Can your automated line handle the increase in output, or is not flexible enough to handle the increased demand? Do you have an idea or projections on company growth? These questions could help formulate an automation plan that incorporates enough flexibility for the type of output you plan to produce, not just what you are producing now.

What if you’re a co-packer and have multiple packaging customers, or have multiple variations of cheese sticks to produce? Another consideration you should analyze is desired changeover speed. The least amount of downtime due to changeovers is a general goal for packers. It’s smart to have a reasonable goal in mind so you and your automation partner can work to reach it by incorporating enough changeover flexibility.

4. What Should I Be Wary Of For Sanitation And Hygiene On My Automated Cheese Stick Line?

As cheese processors, you are likely already aware of the 3-A dairy standards. These are sanitary design standards for equipment that handles and processes dairy products, including cheese sticks. These standards cover a wide range of acceptable sanitary practices and designs such as fabrication, materials, specific considerations for product conveyers and cheese molds, and definitions to get a handle on the standards. Make sure your cheese packaging automation partner offers equipment that is 3-A compliant, or comparable, as there is no reason to move forward with that partner if they can’t provide proper sanitary equipment.

As you’re mapping out your automation line, consider if your cheese sticks can be conveyed to a separate secondary packaging room that does not require any 3A or wash down requirements. This can save you a lot of money on equipment.

For all food manufacturing equipment and as your analyzing equipment for your automation line, look for hygienic designs such as slanted surfaces and smooth surfaces free of crevices, sharp corners, and protrusions. Purchase equipment that is designed to prevent micro-organism growth, has easy to clean surfaces, and uses stainless steel. Additionally, equipment parts should be accessible for inspection, avoid liquid collection, hollow areas should be sealed, control elements are enclosed, and defeat product build-up. Consider that automating the packaging process can improve the plants overall sanitation and decrease contamination by human touch.

5. What Type of Primary Packaging Equipment Do I Need?

Thermoforming is a common primary packaging method for cheese sticks. This process happens when a tray or a cavity is formed on a thermoformer machine from rollstock, then another roll of film is placed over the product, or cheese stick, and sealed with the bottom film. This creates a horizontal form, fill, and seal. Thermoforming provides exceptional product presentation, an efficient use of materials as the film fits tightly around the cheese stick, and offers easy-open capabilities for on the go convenience.

Is thermoforming what you’re already doing and want to continue? Or are you flow wrapping or tray sealing your cheese sticks? Or maybe your just shrink wrapping?

Whatever your primary packaging method is, consider how your method may affect the automation process and your goals with automating. Which method is most efficient? What are your output goals? Which method creates the least amount of waste? How many more steps of packaging will you need with a certain packaging method? Is product presentation the most important factor for you?

6. What Type of Secondary Packaging Do I Need for My Cheese Sticks?

First, in order to be properly packaged at the secondary level and palletized, ask yourself if your cheese sticks need to be nested or stacked? Also, since cheese sticks are packaged at a high rate of speed, wouldn’t your cheese sticks need to be  boxed or cartoned (at the secondary level) at high speeds as well? Packaging at high speeds is one of the reasons you may be considering automation.

While considering your secondary packaging needs, it would be smart to ask yourself how your cheese sticks will be presented on the shelf. Will it be part of a large pack sold at a club store? Will the sticks be sold individually at a convenience store on a peg? How are your cheese sticks packaged in a grocery store? Does the box need to be retail ready? These questions not only affect the primary package design, but also answers what type of box the package will be secondary packaged in.

The answers to those questions will help to answer what type, and how many different steps are needed during secondary packaging and palletizing. For example, ten thermoformed cheese sticks may be individually thermoformed, but are supposed to be sold as a 10-pack at a grocery store. The packer may flow wrap the ten individually thermoformed cheese sticks to form the pack. At that point, the 10-pack will probably be case packed, palletized, and ready to ship. For a C-store, a set of individually thermoformed cheese sticks may directly enter a box that is shelf ready, case packed, then palletized and shipped.

Asking yourself a variety of questions about the above six topics, will help you map out your automation plan, or decide if automation is the right decision for your company.

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