As products become more sophisticated, operations and equipment suppliers meet new challenges

Photo courtesy of Americana Foods, Dallas
While packaged ice cream sales are suffering the slings and arrows of consumer whims, sales of ice cream novelties continue to grow. The same stimuli continue to work on this subcategory of dairy foods-better products, better packaging, convenience and an impulse environment that may be less vulnerable to nutrition concerns.

While those changes at the product development and marketing level have been taking place, the operational side of novelty manufacturing has undergone a transformation as well.

There are fewer companies making novelties. Other than the most simple sandwiches or cups, fewer full-line dairies make their own products. Those who are in the game are more likely to see the novelty business as a core competency rather than a sideline and they are larger and more specialized, says Chuck Davis, an Arizona-based operations and quality consultant who works with many ice cream manufacturers nationwide.

"Novelty companies are getting bigger," Davis says. "You're seeing less of the smaller companies that have had one or two pieces of equipment. Novelty machines are an expensive investment and unless you have some volume, it's not worth it."

And those companies focused on novelties are shooting for longer runs, tighter quality, loss, and efficiency tolerances and more automation from their equipment suppliers.

"There are a lot of manufacturers who are running a 25 to 30% loss (of ingredients and packaging), without even realizing it," says Davis.

"But on a good novelty line you can get it down to 3 to 4 % loss and run about 90 to 95% efficiency."

Davis says the difference is training. The standard operating procedures (SOPs) are on the shelves in every plant manager's office, but are the employees on the line familiar with them?

Automation sought

When equipment manufacturers roll out new products at trade shows they like to talk about how the automation features allow processors to make more product with the fewer workers. And usually the discussion comes around to the idea of taking quality control to the production floor.

"When you introduce real smart automation to the equipment, the jobs of the people on the floor change," says Gunther Brinkman, v.p. marketing, of Norse Dairy Systems (NDS), Columbus, Ohio. "You end up with people who are more empowered to do quality work. They are doing more monitoring of data and they are empowered to make adjustments to the machine right there on the spot. It allows them to be process managers instead of material handlers."

At last fall's World Wide Food Expo, NDS introduced aline of products featuring its new Intellifill® technology, which utilizes photo sensors, servo motors and real-time control features to reduce waste and increase quality and output, and of course, empower the operators.

"For example-if you are running a cone product and you have some broken cones, it would keep track of where that took place and it would not dispense anything else to those spaces," says Mike Johnson, an equipment engineer at NDS. "The machine will continue to run, but the lane positions will not have product dispensed. It will reject the cone and not fill those spaces and the downstream equipment will adjust for it."

Most novelty manufacturers want long production runs and when they shut down for maintenance or for changeover, they want minimum downtime.

Servo-driven motion functions have taken the place of cam drives in newer machines, reducing changeover time from several hours to a few minutes.

More sophisticated novelty products, such as this cone from Byrne Dairy, Syracuse, N.Y., place new demands on operators and equipment suppliers.

New products drives suppliers

What keeps equipment vendors awake at night? Well, clients with busy R&D departments keep their operations departments looking for new solutions from their equipment suppliers. That's certainly the case with frozen dessert novelties, says Gustav Korsholm, managing dir., Tetra Pak Processing Systems, Lake Geneva, Wis.

"We are seeing more and more ingredients in novelties than we have ever seen," Korsholm says. "That puts new requirements on the freezer, filling devices and accuracy of fillers. We see more sophisticated small fruit feeders able to handle a wider variety of products and securing good distribution of the ingredients in the product. There are more kinds of inclusions, there are more varieties of dry-enrobed products and materials than ever seen -as an example CoolBrands (Markham, Ontario) just came out with (frozen yogurt) breakfast bars with a cereal coating."

Other novelty innovators have tried cookie crumbs, and even licorice has been seen in Europe, Korsholm says.

"The layoff devices on the novelty machine must be able to place the products gently and accurately into the wrapping lanes. It is not acceptable to be dropping and pushing products as much as seen in the past."

Packaging is a big part of the continued success of novelties, and a higher level of packaging expectations has also driven equipment manufacturers to raise the bar as well.

"We see a lot more use of photo registered wrapping, rather than the plain white," Korsholm says.

A higher percentage of novelties are now extruded, and the lines are faster, which takes us back to Davis' point about efficiencies and waste.

"The lines are getting bigger. An extrusion line running 300 pieces a minute used to be a big line, today we have lines available to run 450 and up to 600 pieces a minute," Korsholm notes. "There is great focus on uptime and efficiency and waste."

Novelty Equipment Vendors

Norse Dairy Systems

Tetra Pak Hoyer

WCB Ice Cream
201/784 1101

Tindall Packaging

TD Sawvell