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A ‘suite' spot for flex packs

GSC-EntranceFor CEO Bob Shapiro, the recent move of GSC Packaging into a new 100,000-sq-ft facility in Atlanta fulfills a long-held vision: To conduct packaging production the way it should be done from a quality-optimized, material-flow perspective. The facility features a state-of-the-art layout and design, the latest air-handling technology, lot-code tracking, real-time computerized inventory control, dust control and air-conditioned storage. The plant has a centrally located quality lab and an on-site maintenance shop. Additionally, there are data ports in the manufacturing areas so that personnel can input production information in real-time online. 

But what's at the focal point of Shapiro's vision-and literally the center of the building's layout-are 16 parallel packaging suites isolated from each other and from the rest of the plant. Each room is equipped with positive air pressure and subdivided by a cement wall into primary and secondary packaging operations. Personnel enter the front of each suite through a barrier of thick plastic curtains. 

While the packaging functions and machinery are segregated, so too are the upstream workers separated from the downstream. "Segregation was not feasible in the previous plant, but it's something that I always wanted," says Shapiro. "Essentially what we've done is removed much of the product contamination risk. Plant personnel are the main source of contamination in any food plant and with this approach we've minimized that risk."

Due to the packaging of nutraceuticals and dietary supplements, the plant adheres to 21CFR111 guidelines that are a higher standard than for food processing for all products. "That drives everything here," Shapiro points out (see "Adhering to a higher standard," below). In one example, batches approved for packaging are secured within a locked fence in the warehouse.

One of the 16 suites is currently empty, but the others have been earmarked for on-going or short-term projects. "We can quickly set up each suite and take them down per-project or we can dedicate rooms indefinitely without interfering with other operations," says Shapiro.

Typically 12 of the suites are actively packaging at any given time over the plant's six days weekly, two shifts of operation. 

Within the suites, the operations boast 15 packaging production lines comprising seven horizontal form/fill/seal (FFS) lines, three six-lane stick pack vertical FFS packaging lines, as well as various semi-automatic, large-format automatic, secondary packaging, shrink wrapping, banding and cartoning, kitting and point-of-purchase display packaging. 

Using these systems, GSC Packaging packages dry food-grade powders and particulates for products including nutritional and protein supplements, drink mixes, dry cereals, hot chocolate mix and cheese powders. In addition to powdered products, it also packages croutons, soup mixes and rice. Starting in early 2013, it is packaging stuffing for the first time, for a nationally recognized celebrity brand. This month [April] it was planning to package granola for the first time, corresponding to the startup of two custom-dedicated lines to package the granola into single-serve packages. The products are primarily sold through retail rather than foodservice channels.

These dry foodstuffs are packaged into three primary package formats, all of which are flexibles: stick packs, stand-up pouches and bags that range in size from a 2x2-inch sugar-packet size sachet to a large-format, one-kilo bag 18 inches tall x 12 inches wide. The secondary packaging operations beyond the wall are a mix of semi-automatic and manual operations.

Shapiro is a proponent of flexible packaging. "We hear all the time about reduced packaging for sustainability and for environmental friendliness-and flexible packaging is extremely conducive to decreasing the amount of packaging needed to package a product. Retailers like Walmart/Sam's Club continue to push companies to reduce the amount of packaging. For example, a conversion from a bag-in-box to a stand-up pouch with a zipper eliminates 30 percent of the packaging material. These flexible formats we offer are highly sustainable and on-trend."

The company remains as flexible as its packaging. "That large-format bag was something we didn't do a year ago," says Shapiro. "We went from producing zero of those to about a million a month now. If someone came to us and said ‘this is a format and volume I'm interested in,' we'll take a look at it."

Picking--and sticking with--a winner

Products arrive preblended in 50-lb bags, 500-kilo bulk sacks and everything in between. GSC Packaging prefers to use flexible screw conveyors from Flexicon to make the product transfer from bulk packages to its packaging machines. Due to the powdery nature of many of the products, the screw conveyors are paired with the plant's state-of-the-art dustGSC Sticks control from Donaldson Torit. "We have an enormous system for collecting dust throughout the plant for environmental and product quality reasons," notes Shapiro. 

Sticks packs have become one of the most popular packages the company produces. That's little surprise to Shapiro, who had such confidence in the potential of the format that he bought the company's first stick-pack machine about six years ago without having a single customer. "I considered the trend of such an efficient, handy format and thought it would be successful and lucked out," says Shapiro. 

Obviously, it was more foresight than mere luck. 

The VFFS maker, Viking Masek, had been recommended by a consultant. "It ran well and we had success with it," he says of the first machine. "It's the only machine I've ever had that was uncrated on a Monday and running product at production speeds on Thursday. That's uncommon for a major piece of equipment."

Several years later in 2008 he bought a second Viking Masek system; GSC Packaging's newest Viking Masek Model ST560 stick-pack machine, built with the latest automation controls including servo drives, was being commissioned during our Q1 2013 visit. It can produce six stick-pack styles.

The stick-pack machines run at 50 cycles/min, and with a 6-up system the output is 300 packs/min. Product netweights are from 2 to 10 grams. Recently, one line produced 180,000 sticks on one shift, Shapiro boasts.
"The Viking Maseks are extremely well-made, just beautiful machines that have been refined over the years," states Shapiro. "When we bought our second line, it just made sense to buy another one because, beyond their reliability, the operators' familiarity allowed them to operate either line. That familiarity was also a big plus for our maintenance staff where standardizing also permits us to maintain a reduced number of spare parts. That has worked out well for us. When it came time to buy our third machine, I went right back to Viking Masek. The people there are nice and their technical support is tremendous."

In one example, Shapiro made a call at noon for a critical problem and the technician from the company's Minnesota headquarters arrived at the Atlanta plant by 7 p.m. that same day. 

Shapiro claims that stick packs are the least flexible of the packaging it makes due to the fact that, though the package length is adjustable, the stick packs have a fixed width of 22 millimeters. However, they can be produced with a pour-spout seal and with a tear notch. 

Shapiro feels stick packs continue to have staying power. "We still view stick packs as one of our big opportunities for growth," he emphasizes. "There are few companies with our capability in the U.S. and none in the southeast. I receive one or two inquiries a day on stick packs."

GSC-KHS'Dazzling' improvements in HFFS

Most of the HFFS machines are from KHS Bartelt, though GSC Packaging also operates other makes as well. He purchased his first KHS machine in 1999 and has added several more since. "They really own this market," he says of the decision.

The most recent addition was a used RPM (rotary pouch machine) Model 950 KHS Bartelt started up in early 2012 that produces pouches with widths from 4 to 9.5 (hence the model designation) inches and from 4 to 15 inches high and with a 4-inch gusset for standing upright. The machine was rebuilt by KHS with upgraded electronics and new photoelectric sensors.

Shapiro likes that the Model 950 maintains positive control of the pouches using two clamps rather than one while they are transported through the machine. 

"You can drop a large dose and it maintains a solid grip, which then helps produce a good seal," he points out. According to KHS, it can accept up to a 5-lb fill and is rated at 65 cycles/min with up to two fill heads. These larger packs are mainly protein supplements with multiday servings for 10-, 20- or 30-day portions. Other products packed into the large format include stuffing mixes and other foodservice items.

Shapiro liked the refurbishment so much he decided to do it for all seven of the HFFS machines, timed around the relocation. The motivation for the machinery makeover was as much for looks as performance. "This is a bright, shiny new plant and I wanted the equipment to be bright, shiny and like new," says Shapiro. "We want visitors to be dazzled by the facility, the people and the equipment. While our sanitation crew is second to none, there's only so much you can do with older equipment."

Coordinated by his special projects manager and done before and during the move, each machine was stripped down to the frame, which was then sand-blasted, prepped and repainted. All drive motors were replaced and all wear parts were evaluated and replaced as needed by an outside contractor. As the machines were reassembled, current model parts were used exclusively. 

It took about two weeks per machine at a cost of $10,000 each. For Shapiro, that extra work and investment at an already crazy-busy time was worth it. "The machines look brand new," he says. "It worked out great." (See "On rebuilding equipment vs new," below.)

Flexibility in materials and purpose

GSC Packaging's film selection-driven by product and customer needs-is based on moisture- and oxygen-barrier requirements as well as graphics needs. The majority of the films used are metallized. Because he is not a films expert, Shapiro says he collaborates with several film manufacturers. 

"I become the focal point and bring all the parties together," Shapiro explains. "I work with some film companies and folding carton companies and with suppliers of other packaging components. We provide a turnkey solution. We're not necessarily the expert, but we partner with experts." 

One of those expert resources is The Lithotype Co., which for many years has provided the company with rollstock film for stick packs and other products.

"Lithotype is extremely capable across many different formats," says Shapiro. "They have wide- and narrow-web presses to do jobs both large and small."

The vendor provides four basic film structures using various combinations of polyester, metallized low-density polyethylene, paper and foil. For example, a typical HFFS film is paper/LDPE/foil/LDPE. A common stick-pack structure is polyester/LDPE/foil/LDPE. Stick packs are offset-printed in as many as eight colors, though six is typical.
A new, fifth film structure introduced in February 2013 that is currently being evaluated by GSC Packaging consists of an outer layer of cellophane to replace the LDPE for stick packs. According to a Lithotype manager, the resultant EZ Tear material is an improvement over tear notches and laser score opening because the material can be easily opened at any point.

Another key film supplier is Chromatic Label, based in Irvine, CA. "We've worked very successfully with them," says Shapiro. 

Shapiro's go-to company for folding cartons, which he prefers to source locally due to shipping costs, is Printed Specialties in Carrollton, GA. The vendor provides GSC Packaging primarily with offset-printed solid bleached sulfate (SBS) cartons in the 15 to 18 pt range for carton counts from 10 to 200. The print may include specialty metallic inks. "They do a tremendous job for us," adds Shapiro.

He says that customers often provide their own qualified suppliers: "We're happy to work with any supplier."

They are also open to work with just about any customer as well. While the company is 100 percent devoted to flexibles, GSC Packaging is open to non-flexibles, too. "We are a contract packer," reminds Shapiro. "I tell prospects there's nothing I like more than buying machines. If someone wanted to package into rigid containers, we'd consider it. While we're exclusively flexible packaging, that's as of today." 

Some time ago Shapiro realized that companies that call on contract packagers want an extension of their own packaging operations--they don't they want to hear about any limitations. Remaining flexible will remain fundamental to GSC Packaging's continued success.


Chromatic Label, 949-475-2300

Donaldson Torit, 952-887-3131

Flexicon Corp., 610-814-2400

GSC Packaging, 404-505-9925

KHS Bartelt, 941-359-4000

The Lithotype Co., 800-871-8973

Printed Specialties, 770-832-1341

Viking Masek Global Packaging Technologies, 920-564-5051




On rebuilding equipment vs new
GSC Packaging CEO Bob Shapiro knows a lot about the concept and reality of refurbishing something old to make it new again. He's done it not only for more than a half-dozen packaging machines, he's had it done to the very building in which all this machinery resides, whereby most of the interior has been gutted and rebuilt from the ground up with new systems and walls installed.
We asked him more about his lessons learned from the pouching machinery upgrades that were done over the past six months: "To me, rebuilding is a good solution. The capital expenditure is lower so the return-on-investment is quicker. You give existing and familiar equipment a new life and bring it up to the standards of new equipment. We have had a very positive experience considering cost, timing and re-commissioning of the equipment. Feedback from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive as well since the equipment looks great and functions at or above original OEM specifications."


GSC LockAdhering to a higher standard
Rather than following food processing guidelines, GSC Packaging adheres to the more stringent pharmaceutical-level standards for all products. Examples include:
• A formal internal audit program is supplemented by monthly unannounced audits by GSC's QA staff;
• Card-access security systems and surveillance cameras throughout the facility control personnel access to manufacturing areas and provide 24/7 inspection of all products and processes;
• Electronic inventory management system relies on the scanning of printed bar codes to ensure thorough ingredient identification, as well as forward and backward traceability;
• Sanitation and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) are augmented by validation of cleaning processes through lab testing of product samples.


A contract packaging perspective
Shapiro has a long history in contract packaging from his early days with Georgia Spice Co., a predecessor company of GSC Packaging. He offers his perspective on the business environment:
"Over the last decade people have been reticent to invest in plant and equipment. With the current economic environment, it's become even more difficult and somewhat risky for especially big companies to be making these investments. That's particularly true in start-up products or products that might have a limited life span. The trend we've seen is that there's been an increased interest in contract manufacturing and contract packaging.
"We see a lot of opportunity with companies that don't want to make their own capital expenditure investments or that want to concentrate on marketing rather than focus on running a manufacturing plant. We become that manufacturing plant and we just see opportunity after opportunity coming through because of that-a trend I expect to continue."


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