Follow these steps to take the stress out of this difficult task.
This case packer loads a six-pack.
Buying quality packaging machinery can be a daunting undertaking. Use these five essential steps to help ensure your purchase is successful to your brewery - and your bottom line.
1. Establish a Budget for the Process
The fact is that you and your buying team know your process better than anyone. The desire to purchase a case packaging machine for your craft beverage is typically driven by the desire to more efficiently package your product, improve ergonomics (eliminate repetitive motion injuries), and/or improve the aesthetics of your package. You must analyze your present process as well as your goals to improve this process. In some cases, it may be nothing more than to make your case more aesthetically pleasing, in other cases, it may be to eliminate as much labor in the process as practical.
This decision to automate your case packing operation should be done with the objective of also minimizing the material cost of the package. Justifying the cost of the machine is a one-time event while it is reducing the cost of material that will truly pay dividends over the long run.
Don’t be easily swayed with the idea that a project’s goal should be to eliminate all labor on the line. The reality is that you should know the true cost of your labor on the line and, in most cases, the cost of the special engineering element to eliminate all labor turns out not to be justifiable, either from a price and/or a technological point of view. Consider that in many cases, the use of labor on the line, providing that it is properly planned for ergonomically, can actually enhance the performance of the line. Vision systems and other methods of quality control are readily available as add-ons to the packaging line. However, there are certain products and processes that still make human inspection, especially on lower volume lines, more practical.
In any event, whether you are seeking a semi-automatic case sealer or a totally automated product handling and case packing system, knowing your present costs and your objectives for return on investment can easily set the stage for a budget range going into a project that should prove economically feasible.
2. Your Product Should Determine the Choice
Before you look at possible suppliers of case packers, level of feasible automation, etc., it is critically fundamental that you consider the nature of the product first. In many cases, the nature of the product will actually dictate the type of cartooning machine necessary to do the job. By employing this step early in the process, you could very well eliminate several critical path choices up front that will keep the task focused and more efficient.
For example, if you are case packing twenty-four 12 oz bottles in to a case with a divider, you need to limit your search strictly to vertical style case packing equipment. If you are case packing a twelve pack of 12 oz cans in to a typical carrying case, then you should be searching for a horizontal load case packer that can seamlessly integrate with your filler/seamer machine which will sit before it in the line. Simply jumping in and looking at all suppliers in the market would be time consuming and distracting.
3. What Speed do You Need?
As simple as this question may seem, I have seen many customers struggle with it over the years. One of the most popular answers to this question is, “What speed can you give me?” This critical step is where I have seen many make the wrong purchase decision, either by under-buying or over-killing the project. Answering this question as accurately as possible will work wonders for immediately eliminating all of the choices that are not relevant for this project. In determining the answer to this question, first determine whether the case packing operation will be on-line or off-line production. What are the differences?
- On-line Packaging: If it is on-line (i.e., packaging the product as it is made), the formula becomes much easier. Simply calculate the maximum rate that it is possible to make your beer divided by the number of beers that go into each case. To that number, you can certainly either add some factor to “surge capability” or potential to increase the rate over time via new processes or product making technology.
- Off-line Packaging: When considering off-line speed requirements (i.e., packing from pre-existing inventory), objectively consider the daily, weekly, or monthly quotas necessary to ship out the door. Make sure that when you calculate this into the cases per minute required, you use a realistic number with regard to days per week that you will really pack as well as a realistic number for true hours per day, rather than just dividing by eight for a one shift operation.
This tray packer speeds up the packaging process.
Regardless of whether you need to case pack your product on- or off-line, be careful. When making this critical path decision, avoid letting your ego get in the way. I have seen many make the mistake in both directions. When making volume estimates, be realistic of the current picture and the probability of increasing the current volume over the next few years. Some overestimate their needs and end up with a case packing machine that is larger and more expensive than what is really necessary to do the job. If higher volumes are really needed, don’t be quick to sacrifice those capabilities for price. I have witnessed many that have let price rather than volume determine their final decision and end up with a machine that falls far short of their true needs. In other words, don’t fool yourself into buying the economy of a KIA if you really need, expect, and can maintain the performance of a Lamborghini.
4. Know Your Company's Capability and Needs
A step often overlooked in the process is a self-assessment of your company’s true capabilities when it comes to technical expertise and ability to maintain a case packing machine. The type of equipment that you investigate must, in your best opinion, match your company’s technical prowess. Unless you have, or plan on making an investment in qualified technical staff, acquiring a machine that incorporates a high technical content could prove disastrous. Match the machine to your capabilities. Buying a machine with servo technology and not having any staff capable of working with it spells trouble. Build a list of factors that are both important qualifications and match your company’s skill sets.
Perhaps the best way to help you determine if a machine matches your staff’s skill set is to do a reference check during the supplier investigation phase of the process. Since you are a small craft brewer, do not limit your reference to a visit or phone call to a large multinational. Getting additional feedback from a large company is fine, but you really need to talk to a company of comparable size and skill level to determine if this equipment is something that will perform and be manageable for you.
Beyond the basics of budget, machine type and speed, typical factors that can also play a part in your decision may be specific needs such as delivery time (for time sensitive market roll out projects), changeover time between sizes (especially for short run environments), parts availability (if located in a remote area), and service capabilities (if weak on in-house ability).
5. Research and Differentiate Your Supplier Options
Now that you have narrowed your search to a specific style of machine as well as the speed requirement, it is time to analyze what is available in the market. You have established a clear enough road map to go out and look at your viable case packing machine options. Many ask, “Now that I know what I need, where do I start?”
Here are a few suggestions:
- Trade shows – The Craft Brewers Conference occurs every spring
- Machinery buying guides
- Advice of machinery representatives that have successfully helped you source other types of equipment in the past
- Advice of your industry acquaintances and peers
Most machinery suppliers have a particular niche that helps set them apart. It is your job to determine which attributes make you feel most comfortable in making your decision. Some examples would be as follows:
- More experience with your type of product than the others;
- Geographical proximity to your plant, which makes visits and building a relationship a bit easier;
- Positioning their product as cutting edge - and your staff prefers, and is well equipped - to deal with and want the latest technology;
- A more simplistic approach to size changeovers, which may appeal to those without highly trained technical support in house;
- Offers a higher level of integration and automation, offering to automate your process further up and downstream on the packaging line.
The ultimate goal is to decide on a supplier that you are not only comfortable working with, but also one that can offer you the most “bang for your buck” for your particular needs, budget, and capabilities.
If you liked reading this article, you may also like: Canning Craft Beer and Hard Cider: To Go Mobile or Purchase a System?