Automating For Results

Read so far

Automating For Results

February 28, 2003 - 20:00

Status quo won't work in today's competitive environment. The economy and the fate of U.S. manufacturing are forcing many companies to re-think their product mix and their customer base.

Fruit Growers Supply Co. (FGS), a 216,000-square-foot corrugated plant in Ontario, Calif., is a perfect example of a board converter caught in a market shift.

The company, founded in 1907 by Sunkist Growers, Inc., initially produced wood shook boxes. Today, it manufactures corrugated boxes primarily for citrus fruits.

Three ALF robots keep the flexos running at top speed.
Three ALF robots keep the flexos running at top speed.

The plant is unique in that it is owned by the Sunkist growers, says Fielding Thompson, vice president, Supply Division, FGS.

Until recently, Fruit Growers was dedicated exclusively to running a very limited mix of box styles for the growers. The majority of Sunkist boxes are C-flute half slotted containers. They are typical produce boxes, full telescoping HSCs.

The current state of the U.S. citrus market, however, is forcing Fruit Growers to make some changes. For the first time since its founding, the company is opening its doors to what it refers to as "nonmember" business. This means that Fruit Growers is providing boxes for companies other than Sunkist and as a result, is diversifying its product mix.

Getting Squeezed

Like many U.S. box plants today, Fruit Growers' customer base is shrinking.

"The citrus crop that Sunkist moves was typically about 90 million cartons a year. The last four years, it has been about 70 million," says Thompson.

A lot of citrus now sold in the United States comes from overseas.

"The most important thing is it's a global market. That's having an effect on our export market," Thompson says.

This framed photo hanging in the conference room shows the first Sunkist box converted to three-color.
This framed photo hanging in the conference room shows the first Sunkist box converted to three-color.

"We do a lot in the Far East. We've been here for a long time and didn't used to have that competition."

Fruit Growers ships about 32 percent of its Sunkist boxes overseas.

"We lost 20 million cartons and they're two pieces, so that's 40 million pieces," says Plant Manager Tom Deering. "That equates to 280, 300 million square feet that we've lost."

The plant had to take an unprecedented amount of downtime as a result. In 2001, Fruit Growers had 14 weeks of four-day workweeks. Last year, the company only had one.

It is the addition of nonmember business that is helping Fruit Growers thrive again.

Nonmember customers include brokers, distributors and even other sheet plants. The nonmember product mix is primarily produce boxes. Currently, about 19 percent of FGS' corrugated production is sold to non-Sunkist customers.

Making A Case for Robots
Making A Case for Robots

"This is a good venture for our company," Thompson says. "We're the supply side of Sunkist Growers, and the growers in their wisdom thought that it would be a good idea to be more diversified to keep efficiencies up."

Because of the way the company is structured, it has no sales force and until recently, had no customer service department. Most of the nonmember business has been generated through word of mouth.

"The produce side is still a lot different from industrial," Thompson says. "It's a lot of who knows who connections."

In order to be prepared for the diversity that it sees coming in the citrus marketplace and to accommodate this new business, the company has made a significant investment in new equipment.

"It was up to Tom to orchestrate what machinery changes we would need and when could we put it in," Thompson says. "(In 2002), we spent about $6 million in upgrading the plant."

The stacks coming off the flexo folder-gluers average 1,000 boxes and are about 100 inches high. Almost all of the boxes are bagged.
The stacks coming off the flexo folder-gluers average 1,000 boxes and are about 100 inches high. Almost all of the boxes are bagged.

The Need for Speed

Known for its optimum efficiencies, Fruit Growers has always been a proponent of automation to help it achieve its high-speed and high-volumes. The plant was one of the first in the corrugated container industry to use automated palletizing. In addition, the production facility is fully conveyorized, and converting machines run constant and at top operating speed.

When the company broadened its product mix to include nonmember business, it did not want to slow down production and lose any of the efficiencies already in place. To keep its three flexo folder-gluers running at optimum speed, the company turned to Alliance Machine Systems, LLC, Spokane, Wash.

Alliance proposed new Feedmaster prefeeders on the front end of Fruit Growers' flexos and full ALF® (automatic load former) robotic systems on the take-off end. The robots replace three mechanical palletizers.

The flexos include a new 50- by 113-inch, four-color Ward SV2000 with a rotary diecut section, which was installed in July, and two older Langstons. One Langston, which was installed in 1970, is equipped with an underside folder-gluer and can run 250 boxes a minute. The other, a Saturn 3, was installed in 1994 and runs 300 boxes a minute.

California weather doesn't affect the boxes waiting to be shipped. Fruit Growers stores a lot of its product outdoors.
California weather doesn't affect the boxes waiting to be shipped. Fruit Growers stores a lot of its product outdoors.

The robots helped Fruit Growers maintain those speeds, regardless of the types of boxes being run.

"Their objective was to not turn those flexos down and they've achieved that because they've brought everything closer to the operator and the operator has a lot more visibility," says Gerry Mazur, senior territory manager for Alliance.

In addition, the robots offered other advantages in terms of worker safety. The robots do all the bending, twisting and lifting when they load boxes onto a pallet.

Fruit Growers continues to run each flexo with a two-man crew. About 78 employees run three shifts at the box plant.

Another benefit of the robots is the flexibility of expanded stacking patterns.

"The main reason we had to go to some type of new palletizing was to allow all of our machines to do different stacking patterns," Deering says. "In the past, two of the three (flexos) couldn't do anything but one style."

Adds Mazur, "The computer takes care of patterns and memory. The robot itself is absolutely the most reliable piece of componentry that a box plant has ever seen."

The floor space requirement for the ALF robot is approximately 16 feet wide from guard to guard, and the length is about 18 feet from guard to the back of the bottom sheet system.

Prior to the installation of the robots, there were three individual take-off lines running from each of the flexos to three palletizers out to shipping.

"This is much more compact," Deering says. "Plus, with the robots are TEI or ASC load formers that you might see in a standard box plant. If for any reason the robot goes down, we can still use the load former just like you would in a regular box plant."

Last year, Fruit Growers contracted with Systec Conveyors, Indianapolis, to upgrade its plant-wide material handling system. This included conveyorization, interfacing with the ALF robots and transfer cars to transport products from the production line to the dock door.

Weyerhaeuser, which also has ALF robots in some of its plants, assisted Fruit Growers with the production floor layout, according to Deering. Fruit Growers is one of Weyerhaeuser's largest customers. In 1979, the integrated company helped FGC relocate from City of Industry, Calif., to its present location.

"We went to Weyerhaeuser's box plant in Jackson, Miss., and they've had (a robot) there for about five years and really love it," Deering says. "That's really what swayed us."

Fruit Growers has a 1979 United Vanguard 87-inch corrugator, which in certain sections has been upgraded to 100 inches. The corrugator's Marquip downstacker is the second one ever built.

The corrugator runs only C-flute using primarily heavyweight liners and medium.

Until recently, the three-man corrugator crew could easily handle the Sunkist business because it required only a few setups a day.

"Now with the nonmember business, we're having six or seven setups a shift," Deering says. "The person who was on the dry end of the corrugator was making setups and nobody was watching the downstacker, so we were having to add people over there."

In February, the company installed a Fosber automatic Razorset slitter-scorer to automate the setups. This year, it is planning to install Amtech's Top Gun scheduling system.

Closing In on Full Capacity

In terms of volume, Fruit Growers ran just under eight million nonmember boxes in 2001, which translates into about 115 million square feet. Last year, the company ran close to 17 million boxes or 200 million square feet of nonmember business.

"Our goal initially was to get to 250 million square feet to justify this new equipment, but we really think we're going to grow to 300 million square feet," Deering says. "That would pretty well take us to full capacity."

Growth will come from several directions, including the addition of nonmember business and the display ready tray, which currently represents about 1 to 2 percent of the citrus volume. Thompson says it has the potential to go to five or six million this year.

Last year, Fruit Growers supplied two million trays to its customers. It buys the sheets and runs them through carton forming equipment.

"Because of the unique position that we have, our responsibility is to provide the Sunkist growers with what they need in the way of packaging so they can ship their product to market. At the moment, it also includes plastic and corrugated trays," Thompson says.