This is one of three articles about our food packager of the year, General Mills. To read the other stories, click on the headlines below.

Packaging a big part of General success

Portion packs cater to on-the-go consumers

Packaging operations across General Mills' diverse portfolio are constantly upgraded through broad, companywide principles.

General Mills has a diverse product portfolio that’s loaded with unique products. But its operational imperatives are the same as everyone else’s: Make things faster, cheaper and better.

To that end, the company has implemented broad strategies for continuous improvement, employee training, supplier relationships and other operational aspects. The results have included faster speed to market, more consistent employee performance, increased throughput and reduced costs.

Michael Ballard, director of packaging engineering, makes a distinction between innovation and invention. “You can invent and not commercialize,” Ballard says. “Innovation entails taking it to a practical level.”

One way General Mills has improved its way of taking packaging innovations to a practical level is through establishing high standards for how fast new packaging lines are installed.

“We have established a new bar around speed,” Ballard says. “There was once a time when, to install a new packaging system and make a multimillion-dollar investment required several months of testing, trial, securing capital and then starting it up. We have streamlined our processes to achieve vertical start-ups and bring up a line in record time, which has now become the new bar. Every time we install a packaging system, the expectation is that we do it fast and we do it well.

Six weeks to one

”Six weeks to oneInstallations have improved to the point where a line that might have taken six weeks to get up and running in earlier years can now be done in about one. A key element to the increased speed is bringing in technicians and floor operators from the plant where the line is to be installed to learn about the new equipment before it’s even built and shipped to the plant.

Another element in installing lines quickly, and running them efficiently, is good relationships with suppliers. General Mills divides machinery suppliers into four categories:

1.Strategic suppliers, who can serve as partners to drive innovation. Strategic suppliers often furnish equipment used across several categories of General Mills products.

2. General suppliers, who meet General Mills’ standards for aspects like machine design and electronic controls.

3. Niche suppliers, who furnish what Ballard calls “one-off solutions,” usually specialized equipment. General Mills doesn’t use them very often.

4. Emerging suppliers, which is a sort of probationary category for suppliers with whom General Mills has had little or no experience. The company basically tests them to see if they can graduate to another category.

When it comes to materials, a unit called Packaging Quality and Regulatory Operations (QRO), headed by Wynn Wiksell, manager of packaging QRO, manages materials specification and owns the ongoing technical relationship with suppliers once the decision to use a given material is made. “We hold our suppliers to the highest quality standards in food safety and runnability,” Wiksell says. (Wiksell is chairman of the newly formed Food Safety Alliance for Packaging, a group of about 20 food companies formed to further the cause of food safety in both materials and equipment. He will speak on the subject at this year’s Pack Expo.)

Next generation

One of the most important functions of strategic suppliers is to work with General Mills on next-generation technologies. “We look at modular solutions that give us the most flexibility for our dollar,” Ballard says.

Robotics is one such technology. Like most high-volume packagers, General Mills has been using robotics at the end of the line for years now. But it’s been looking into how robotics can add to speed and flexibility farther upstream.

A good example is Nature Valley granola bars. Granola comes out of the tunnel oven in a continuous sheet, which is cut into bars. Orienting the fragile bars is critical if the flowrapper is to run efficiently. Orientation had been done manually at first, then with semi-automatic equipment.

In early 2007, one of the company’s major granola lines installed robotic pick-and-place equipment between the size-reduction equipment and the flowrapper. The equipment comprises two robot arms at each of four conveyors perpendicular to the main conveyor. The arms, guided by photoelectric sensors, pick up the bars with suction cups and stack them two high for wrapping. The line uses servo technology and electronic communications for coordination, allowing, for example, the flowrapper belts to adjust their speed to match the case packing operation immediately downstream.

Granola bars also serve as an example of a packaging improvement that, while inconspicuous to the consumer, resulted in a significant savings. The paperboard carton, which holds six bars, was revamped: downsized and redesigned to use interlocking tabs that allowed it to be erected with less glue. The result is a reduction in fiber and glue consumption, as well as increased safety thanks to less use of hot glue. The new carton is even more robust than the old one, because it doesn’t have glue beads that could warp the edges.

“Conceptually, we had to first work with our packaging R&D group to ensure that we could die-cut a carton that could give us all of the billboard requirements,” Ballard says. “Then we worked with our equipment supplier to ensure that the order in folding and inserting one tab into the locking slot could be done at the same rate that we could if we were to glue that carton.” On the packaging line, the cartons’ open lids are shingled on the conveyor belt, allowing the carton bottoms to form an unbroken, gapless line for ease in cartoning.

Another example of a recent packaging improvement took place with Yoplait yogurt cups. General Mills had been using preformed cups for single-serve Yoplait sold in all retail channels. But the company determined that club stores were looking for more variety packs, which made it complicated to keep the right variety of premade cups on hand. General Mills is now transitioning to cups thermoformed on-site from rollstock for club store packages.

“With this new technology, we were able to simultaneously fill multiple flavors all at once and put them in the carton, without a rework of individual cartons,” Ballard says.

Investing in newer automated packaging machinery technology and optimizing machine/material interaction pays dividends. For its Pillsbury Toaster Strudel packaging line, General Mills recently installed new wrappers, cartoners, case packers and robotics. Not only did the company see significant labor and material savings, but it was also able to improve packaging sustainability through material reduction and conversion from virgin fiber to recycled material.

Practicality is the cornerstone of packaging operations at General Mills, Ballard says: “We turn ideas into business solutions as our overall mission.”F&BP