A Bouquet of Automated Packaging Solutions

The stunning resort town of Ludington, Mich. features breathtaking beaches, delicious restaurants, and historic lighthouses, but beyond the tourist attractions is a factory focused on spreading the beauty of its hometown to the rest of the world. FloraCraft (https://www.floracraft.com/), a producer of foam and other craft and floral products, has been operating in Ludington for 75 years – a charming place to create products for the industries that beautify our lives.

Working in such a picturesque environment is not the only benefit for Steve Carlson, chief operations officer and FloraCraft employee of 22 years.

“This is a company that values its employees and creates opportunities for growth and advancement,” he said, adding this is one of many reasons why employees choose to stay year after year.

FloraCraft’s products are well known and respected throughout national retailers and wholesale florists, making them one of the top foam producers in the country. While FloraCraft manufactures several sizes, shapes, and types of foam, as well as floral tools and containers, making XPS foam from start to finish is its specialty, making it the largest producer of XPS products in this market.

Putting the Metal to the Petal

In 2018, the company had the chance to move into the dollar and value channel chain market, which primarily focuses on the affordability of its products. To better meet the price needs of this new market, FloraCraft sought out an automated solution for increased efficiency. Inline flow wrappers were already being used, but boxes of foam were being packed by hand, which Carlson saw as an area that could be improved by automation. The team talked to a few different manufacturers at PACK EXPO in 2018, before deciding on a proposed solution from Brenton Engineering (https://www.brentonengineering.com/), an Alexandria, Minnesota-based manufacturer of integrated end-of-line packaging systems.

“Our solution performed well within a challenging application,” said Brian Guzek, Regional Sales Manager, Brenton. “Foam is a lightweight material that can be difficult to handle, but we were able to show our concept was going to work well for them.”

Along with the challenge of maneuvering the materials, all the shapes and sizes of FloraCraft’s foam products made flexibility a must for any robotics. The solution from Brenton featured a two-robot system that went live in 2019. One overhead robot would pick the foam into a pattern, and then another robot would pick up that pattern and put it in a box. FloraCraft was able to use this solution on seven different shapes and sizes of products.

After seeing impressive results of 40% more product packaged with 80% fewer labor hours through the robotic case-packing lines, Carlson noted other areas of the business that could be improved by automation. The second engagement Brenton had with FloraCraft was with a large, awkward sized foam product that needed placing onto pallets.

“Palletizing these products by hand put employees at risk for lifting and twisting injuries,” Carlson said. “Implementing a robotic system meant workers could be reallocated to jobs that reduced the risk of injury and also where their skills could be better utilized.”

The third project between the two companies added an identical line to the first solution, along with a pallet stacker. This third project went live in 2022.

Carlson cites shared values as the reasons the brands continue to work together.

“We really like the team, processes, and culture of Brenton,” he said. “They lay out a practical, sound solution that makes sense for us; we’re in constant communication throughout the process, and they’re good at delivering what they promise.”

All FloraCraft’s machinery undergoes factory acceptance (FAT) testing at Brenton’s Alexandria facility prior to installation. Completing an FAT is an ideal way to ensure the solution performs to FloraCraft’s requirements prior to shipment. These tests also help train FloraCraft personnel on operation and preventive maintenance procedures.

Brenton has also supported FloraCraft in maintaining its investment in the people of the company. Carlson said that there is always some initial aversion to automation, but the fears of robots taking human jobs eased as the plan was communicated to employees.

“We’re not going to have a decrease in people, we’re going to increase training and skills in the people we already have, and our goal is to be able to grow the business at a faster rate,” he said in regard to bringing Brenton machinery onboard.

In addition to training provided by Brenton, FloraCraft sent employees to programs and classes to teach them how to program robotics. Not only has this increased the skillset of FloraCraft’s workforce and its overall throughput, knowing the machines better has allowed employees to take ownership of the work and even the robots themselves.

A Budding Future

As FloraCraft’s business continues to grow, Carlson sees increasing automation as a solution to achieve the company’s long-term efficiency goals amid anticipated staff shortages.

“The future will be a combination of automation and new people,” Carlson said. “It can’t just be new people, because of the challenges of recruiting in a rural resort town.”

“We’ve added automation to all the lines they have,” Guzek adds. “FloraCraft is expanding, and as they add more lines, we can offer more automated solutions to provide robots that are reliable and efficient.”

Luckily, Carlson has no shortage of potential for increased automation. FloraCraft has recently moved a significant portion of its manufacturing from an older three-story building to a modern one-story facility that is much more conducive for robotics. Potential new opportunities include a sideload case packer and material movement options, such as automated transport vehicles.

As for which company will be providing these machines, Carlson has no question in his mind that the established relationship with Brenton is the right choice.

“They stay in constant touch with us, and they are curious about learning how our business works and changes,” he says. “Brenton continues to help us streamline our business, and we have built a long-term relationship.”