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Somic provides advanced mechatronics to cheese industry for retail-ready packaging

By Alyssa Mitchell

EAGAN, Minn. — Somic, a German-based provider of packaging machine technology with recently-expanded U.S. headquarters, provides retail-ready packaging solutions that give customers an edge in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

With more than 40 years of experience, Somic is a leading manufacturer of end-of-line packaging machine technology. Though engineering and manufacturing continues to be based in Germany, Somic in 2018 made an expanded commitment to North American packaged goods companies with its move to a new U.S. headquarters in Eagan, Minnesota.

Located just minutes from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the new facility features an equipment showroom, customer demonstration center, parts inventory, warehouse space and offices to accommodate a staff of up to 30 employees.

• Growth in the U.S. market

Prior to the establishment of a U.S. headquarters in 2014, the company had a small presence in the North American market primarily through independent equipment representatives. While it did bring some success, it was clear that market demands would be better suited by serving them directly through a wholly-owned U.S. subsidiary, says Peter Fox, senior vice president of sales for Somic America.

With this in mind, in 2014 Somic Verpackungsmaschinen GmbH & Co. KG established Somic America, with an office based in Bensenville, Illinois. While the first year was rather lean in regard to new projects, the market was being introduced to the unique approach Somic takes in regard to end-of-line case packing, with an emphasis on retail-ready formats commonly found in the European market, Fox notes.

“Somic America has been focused on introducing the Somic equipment methodology, which is built on the 424 platform,” Fox says. “This machine platform consists of an internal modular design based on functional groups common to case packing applications. These functional groups can be mixed and matched to satisfy a wide variety of end-of-line packaging needs.

“From standard wraparound case packing to tray and hood retail-ready case packing and everything in between, Somic focused on providing a specific machine that could provide both on this versatile platform,” he adds.

Fox notes the U.S. cheese market was a perfect match for these capabilities.

“This market was being challenged by the retail market to provide retail-ready solutions to replace the traditional pegboard display,” he says. “It was this particular industry, the need for retail-ready packaging options and the need to continue to run standard shipping cases that provided the springboard for Somic’s explosive launch.”

As Somic America began to take off in the Northern American market, it faced increasing demands and the need for customer service and spare parts support. This led to the relocation of its headquarters to Eagan, Minnesota, last year.

“We now have a larger spare parts inventory thanks to a large warehouse, as well as a production hall capable of running Factory Acceptance Tests for new machines,” Fox says. “Somic America now has seven service technicians throughout the U.S., along with a full support staff in Eagan.”

Fox notes that in addition to the cheese market, Somic is a strong player in the broader packaged food market, the confection industry, the coffee capsule cartoning business and the snack market. Somic America has more than 100 U.S. installations and is continuing to grow at an annual growth rate of more than 25 percent, he says.

• Mechatronics, offerings

Behind Somic’s growth is the ability to provide an almost endless array of retail-ready packaging options, with the tray and hood leading the way, Fox says.

He notes that there has been a lot of talk in the last decade regarding mechatronics — also called mechatronic engineering — a multidisciplinary branch of engineering that focuses on the engineering of both electrical and mechanical systems that includes a combination of robotics, electronics, computer, telecommunications, systems, control and product engineering.

“Somic embraced the opportunity to combine today’s computer technology with the mechanical requirements for end-of-line case packing,” Fox says. “The leveraging of computer hardware — along with significant software development — has provided Somic with the tools necessary to minimize the mechanical components required in our flexible and efficient 424 platform. This platform was launched in 2010 and has been the key driver behind Somic’s growth in Europe and around the world.

“The Somic 424 multi-functional case packing system is the right system, introduced at the right time, and in the right market,” he adds. “By orchestrating a seamless system of software, hardware and mechanical functions, Somic is able to provide these flexible systems with our plug and play groups captured in a unique frame design. This brings it all together to meet our customers’ varied format requirements.”

Fox notes the mechanical side of the Somic 424 primarily consists of decentralized Servo motion and control, providing both precision and programmable motion controlled through the human machine interface (HMI).

“In the dairy industry, many of the packages such as cheese are living products,” Fox says. “These products vary in size and shape, which increases the need for a precision machine to be able to handle this variation. The mechatronic structure of the Somic 424 offers these advantages.

“After PACK Expo in Las Vegas in 2017, we sold many of our multi-purpose, retail-ready case packaging systems that collate and package soft or flexible products,” he adds. “Since then, we have installed units with a major produce manufacturer in the southwest U.S. and with dairy providers in the Midwest. More machines will be installed in the coming months. A Midwest-based supermarket chain and one of the largest non-chocolate confectioners purchased 15 of our systems between the two of them.”

Another key offering in Somic America’s line up is the Somic-Flexx III, introduced to the North American market in 2018. The Somic-Flex III was been created to address requests from retail chains in the North American market that are looking for upright, two-part cardboard packaging, Fox says. The Somic-Flex III is intended to take multi-purpose, retail-ready packaging machinery to the next level.

He notes the reaction to the introduction of the Somic-Flexx III at the PACK Expo held last fall in Chicago was overwhelmingly positive.

“We engaged in conversations with and have leads from more than 150 companies, so it far exceeded our expectations for the show,” he says. “We talked with companies representing a wide variety of industries, from food manufacturers to medical and hardware providers and others. We received a tremendous amount of positive feedback.”

A new concept that allows manufacturers to pack primary packages in a flat, nested position or a standing display orientation, Fox says the introduction of the modular Somic-Flexx III opens the door to solving more North American retail packaging challenges.

• Rockwell Automation technology

Somic America also is proud to offer Rockwell Automation technology to its customers.

Fox notes that while the standard control platform of machines like the Somic 424 is the Schneider-Elau decentralized system, it was evident from the onset that the North American market would demand the Rockwell platform.

“Somic is driven to be a dominant player in this market. In order for us to achieve this goal, a secondary Rockwell platform was required,” he says. “Somic worked closely with the Rockwell team to develop a platform in which we could operate the 424 in the same fashion as our Schneider platform. The look and feel had to be the same. It was an arduous effort, but the result was well worth it. Furthermore, it was a learning experience for both the Somic controls group and the Rockwell team.”

Fox says Somic describes its customized machines as “uniquely configured standards.”

“In the end, all of our customers want to provide a unique format to the market, and this is especially true when it comes to retail ready,” he says. “Our customers are looking for a non-commodity solution — a competitive advantage. Many of these formats are developed by our customers, which we tweak to perform in a production environment. We allow our customers to determine what package is best for their market, and we have the flexibility to run it on the 424.”

Fox notes a fundamental key driver for Somic’s growth has been its ability to configure its standard 424 machine platform to the unique needs of its customers.

“What this means is that we are using standard functional groups to achieve these requirements, not a new, one-off design. The result is a battle-proven design with the flexibility to change for future needs,” he says. “Our machines also have the flexibility to run the standard case configurations while adapting to the retail-ready configurations increasingly being demanded by the market.”

Additionally, Somic’s European experience with retail-ready, especially the tray and hood designs, gives the company strength in the U.S. market, Fox adds.

• Looking to the future

As the company continues to grow, Somic plans to install about 20 new machines with several high-profile customers in the first half of 2019, Fox says.

“The two reasons for these specific cheese installations are flexibility and our small footprint,” he says. “We are placing these machines in very small production areas, and this was a critical component. The flexibility to add future formats also played a major role — and the simplicity of the machine design with the elimination of unnecessary mechanical components was seen as a very attractive feature.”

The Somic philosophy is that “less is more,” Fox adds.

“We have a very low compressed air consumption rate, and our goal is to reduce this further — ultimately to an airless machine,” he says.

“We also focus on reducing corrugated consumption by utilizing two-piece designs that are very efficient die cut blanks. While this may seem counter-intuitive, one of our most common two-piece designs for doypacks (shredded cheese) actually uses 19 percent less material than the popular one-piece ‘one size fits all’ designs in the market today” Fox says. “Furthermore, the two-piece design enables our customers to use a higher quality graphic display tray, while using a standard kraft cover for the distribution environment.”

Fox notes that while machines like the Somic-Flexx III provide the maximum flexibility for a wide variety of formats, it is a large footprint machine for Somic.

“That being the case, the more compact 424 T2(D) is a machine configuration that was developed specifically for the U.S. market,” he says. “This machine offers the ability to run retail-ready packages (tray and cover) along with standard wraparound cases. It also is compact and provides the long-term flexibility desired by our forward-thinking customers.”

In 2019, Somic will continue to develop new format configurations for dairy producers, specifically the cheese business.

“Our customers continue to work towards the optimization of retail-ready formats and see this as a competitive advantage in the marketplace,” Fox says.

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