How End-of-Line Packaging Automation Supports Sustainable Economic Success

Sep 22, 2016

Background Information

Hostess Brands, LLC - From Twinkies to Ho Hos, Ding Dongs and Cup Cakes, Hostess’s various product brands are a part of the childhood memories of many Americans. Not surprisingly, the news of them vanishing forever from store shelves at the end of 2012 started a large public outcry with last supplies being bought out within hours of the news and the temporary development of a flourishing market on eBay.

While inefficient operations and high labor costs lead to the closing of the iconic brands’ umbrella parent, newly formed Hostess Brands, LLC, both, under new ownership and management was determined to bring Twinkies and many of the other Hostess brands back into American kitchens in its “Sweetest comeback in the history of ever.”

Customer Challenge:

To become economically successful, operations needed to be completely reevaluated. The previously manual secondary packaging process was costly and inefficient. To reduce labor cost and expenses, minimize injuries from repetitive motions and ensure consistent output quality as well as preparing for future productivity increases, the new management team at Hostess Brands, LLC decided to automate.

At the same time, however, products had to return to store shelves as quickly as possible to satisfy customer demand, leverage the momentum of the public attention and to start developing shareholder return on the purchasing investment. With a hard deadline and less than twelve weeks to implement, Pearson Packaging Systems and Hostess Brands, LLC agreed on a phased approach.

Phase 1: Automate those functions that can be done quickly; specifically case erecting and case sealing.

Phase 2: Automate as much of the process as possible by retrofitting areas that could not meet the deadlines in Phase 1 and continue to use automation as production expands.

Solution Provided - Phase 1

In the first phase, Pearson Packaging Systems enabled Hostess’s packing process to become semi-automated by providing a total of fourteen VP15 Hand-Pack Systems. The preconfigured but versatile solution consisting of a slow-speed case erector, a hand-pack station and a case sealer, allowed for quick delivery of all fourteen machines in time to start operations. The solution also satisfied the new management’s focus on modernizing the plant’s equipment with state-of-the art safety and advanced ergonomic set-up features to support a safe working environment and minimize repetitive stress injuries.

Designed as an entry-level solution for automating end-of-line packaging processes, the VP15 offers the unique flexibility to separate the case erector and sealer from the pack station enabling easy redeployment of the individual packaging equipment once packing processes are being automated as well.

Due to the production stoppage, change in company ownership and myriad of prelaunch activities, engineering product samples for design and testing purposes were not available. Committed to a successful start-up and smooth operation, Pearson provided on-site service support to assist in training and operation simultaneously with the start of the production in June of 2013.

Solution Provided - Phase 2

The second phase of the secondary packaging automation project followed in less than a year. Encouraged by the successful and on-time deployment of phase one, the ability to offer a complete erect, pack, seal and palletize solution as well as continuous support through Pearson's Service, Parts and Aftermarket Teams, Hostess again selected Pearson Packaging Systems to further advance its operational efficiencies through the addition of automatic case packers and a robotic palletizer.

However, instead of retrofitting the existing lines with an automated case packer, Hostess Brands opted to maximize the efficiencies of its newly added production lines through a fully integrated end-of-line system. A CE15 case erector with dual opposed erecting mechanism as well as positive case selection and transfer, tolerant of knock-down case variances forms the shipping boxes. Conveyors then transfer the cases into a Robotic Top Loading Cell (RTL), where a Fanuc M10iA articulated arm robot loads cartons filled with the snack cakes into the cases. The cartons enter the cell broad side leading where they are being collated into an entire case layer. The robot picks and places a layer of cartons into the case and repeats the sequence until the case is full. Using its multiple axis of articulation, the robot places the cartons into the shipping box using a unique motion that tips the carton into the case and spreads the case flaps with the carton alleviating the need for a traditional flap control mechanism. This greatly simplifies the case loading station, improves reliability, reduces maintenance, and lowers the cost of the robotic top loader solution. Full cases are then transferred from the RTL to a CS15 Case Sealer with patented independent roller system ensuring smooth transfer through the taper. Finally, a Robotic Palletizing Cell (RPC) places sealed cases of cartons from multiple production lines onto pallets before stretch wrapping them.

Result/Outcome:

Due to a highly successful marketing campaign surrounding the re-launch of Hostess's snack cakes, consumer demand severely increased with product turnover as much as six times higher than the period before the brand's bankruptcy. The implementation of the secondary packaging automation allowed the company to keep up with the demand and continuously expand production lines as new variations and flavors of the popular snack cakes hit store shelves. The automation process further resulted in significant improvements in operational efficiencies, mainly due to a labor reduction from eight to two operators per line and associated direct and indirect labor savings. As Hostess Brands, LLC continuous on its growth path, it is well equipped to run higher line speeds without adding extra labor.