A major engineering project at Coors has delivered a packaging strategy as well as plant efficiency reports Pauline Covell

When Coors Brewers completed a £35M investment at its Burton brewery in June, the company achieved “a packaging platform of the future”, according to supply chain director Martin Thomas.

The separation of Coors from Interbrew in 2001 resulted in the transfer of 1M barrels of export business. The loss of 700 000 barrels produced at Coors Cape Hill site meant that the Birmingham plant’s days were numbered. However, Coors still needed the can and bottle capacity from Cape Hill for its Carling, Worthingtons, Grolsch and Reef FAB – fruit based alcoholic beverage – brands.

Peter Orgill, packaging manager at Burton and manager of what was known as Project Merlin, says “We were able to look at a one-off opportunity to rationalise the Burton site layout in order to maximise ongoing revenue savings, minimise capital spend while enhancing packaging capability.”

In addition, packaging strategy had to be delivered. This included “a greater range of can and bottle sizes and pack formats – multipacks, boxes and trays – cost reduction to target key price points and a continually changing SKU portfolio.”

It also had to allow for the ability to look at other developments in the future. Anything other than a complete reorganisation would not have allowed the possibility of investigating such things as direct palletisation, 202 cans, film multipacks, PET bottles, sterile filling and on-line can printing and pressure sensitive labelling.

In the course of 15 months, from March 2002, when the board decided to go ahead with the project, to June 2003, two lower capacity canning lines at Burton were moved to become one fast high capacity line.

Massive exercise

A widget can line was relocated from Birmingham to Burton and two Cape Hill bottling lines were moved to Burton in the space vacated by the can lines. In addition, the keg lines were transferred to a dedicated area in Burton.

It was a massive engineering exercise conducted on almost military precision lines by a team encompassing every angle of the project. A huge canning hall roof was constructed, a temporary beer pipeline built, and lines closed, moved and rebuilt to a very tight timetable and without disruption to supply.

Now the brewery operates three bottling lines, three canning lines and two keg lines (with another in mothballs) believed to be amongst the fastest in Europe, if not the world. In addition to the relocated machinery Coors invested in new conveyoring and accumulation equipment as well as depalletisers and palletisers to improve line efficiency.

“The heart of the lines are the conveyors and the controls. The conveyor philosophy is a most important part of this project”, comments Orgill.

In the bottling hall new KHS bulk glass depalletisers were purchased for two lines with Gebo conveyors for the bottles and ASI conveyors for the finished multipacks. Gebo and Alvey ASI were also the preferred suppliers when it came to the impressive conveyoring on the can lines with Ling chosen for the air conveyor and rinser.

The end of line packing on the high speed can line – the KHS filler runs at 2000 cans/min – is also well thought out. Five legs allow a choice of two Hi-Cone multipacks, new Kister/tray film packers, palletiser lines; two new Riverwood Twinstack box multipackers, Kister film wrappers and palletisers; and a Riverwood sleeve multipacker, Kister Combi and palletiser.

This can or bottle secondary packaging choice fits in with the desired packaging strategy. Cans may be packed in trays of 24 with Hi-Cone – rim or side applied – or in cases of six to 24. These boxes, running on the Riverwood machines, use coated natural kraft material also supplied by Riverwood. There are also corrugated board packs available for bottles with material supplied by Kappa and D S Smith.

“Structural development of all packaging is done in house, as is the artwork process from design through to print,” reports head of packaging development and graphics David Wiggins.

The range of packs now run are three can sizes – 500, 440 and 330ml in steel or aluminium – and the 500ml can is also produced with a widget to deliver the “creamflow” dispense. Graphic design and print requirements drive the selection of material used and Ball Corporation Europe supplies all the cans.

Glass bottles with crown finishes are the structure of choice in Burton. Sizes range from 250-330ml, with minimum diameter and height changes. Bottles are in flint, green and amber as required by the brand position and product protection and are sourced from the major suppliers in the UK – UG, Rexam, Rockware and Quinn. Bottle decoration is by pressure sensitive labels already applied to the glass or wet glue paper labels. Paper labels are purchased from Darleys in Burton.

Milestones met

At the end of phase one of the project all the lines have been moved and have been running since June. “All the milestones were met”, says Orgill, “127 staff transferred from Cape Hill to Burton and now efficiencies are improving towards our target.”

There is no doubt that the most impressive feat was to meet the Christmas, Easter and summer production needs throughout the project. To add to the challenge 2003 turned out to be a record summer.

“The superb weather meant unprecedented demand. Production was 25% over the level we expected,” he added. “We are immensely proud of our achievements.”