Chocolat Frey and LoeschPack make a big impact with little Neapolitans

“Swiss-made” is a sign of quality around the world. The flag of the alpine republic is associated with values such as tradition, reliability, pragmatism and common images such as the Matterhorn, precise timekeeping devices and – of course – chocolate “made in Switzerland”. Chocolat Frey AG, based in Buchs, Aargau, is a large manufacturer of this sweet temptation. The independent subsidiary of the Migros cooperative society has recently expanded production of Neapolitans, the little chocolates that are in strong demand internationally. Together with project partner Loesch Verpackungstechnik GmbH in Altendorf, Frey implemented a space-saving and efficient packaging solution for the “petit chocolat suisse”.

It is rare for visitors to an industrial production facility to have their senses tickled in the car park outside the plant premises. At Chocolat Frey AG in Switzerland, however, it’s quite normal. The visitor to Buchs in Aargau will immediately notice the chocolatey aroma wafting in the air. People of all ages appear magically drawn to the chocolatier’s visitor centre, which opened in 2014. We are welcomed at the stylish reception by Manfred Leuenberger, Technology Team Leader, Confectionery at Chocolat Frey, with a warm smile and a firm handshake. He invites us on a tour of the plant with a chance to see the new Neapolitans production line. The near 2400 articles on the present-day production schedule are predominantly made for Migros cooperatives, to which Chocolat Frey belongs since 1950, and sold in their branches. Frey also supplies to catering businesses, bulk customers and downstream industries. “In 2014, over 43,000 tons of chocolate, confectionery, semifinished products and chewing gum rolled off the production line in Buchs,” says Leuenberger as he dons his protective clothing to enter the production building. “This allowed Chocolat Frey to generate an impressive annual revenue of 404 million Swiss francs. Of this sum, exports accounted for 138 million.” On the domestic market, the company is the leading chocolate producer with a 35.4 market share, according to the “Chocosuisse” information service. Chewing gum makes up around 10 percent of total revenue. Products made by Chocolat Frey are sold in over 50 countries on five continents: “The foreign market is now our main driver of growth.”, says Leuenberger. Continuously growing demand means Chocolat Frey has had to ramp up production. “Years before we took the decision to invest, our two Neapolitans production lines were already running at maximum capacity,” says Leuenberger. The age of the existing equipment meant that a simple expansion was out of the question. The company decided for a new molding unit with a powerful packaging system and took in 2013 the decision to make the necessary investment.

Thorough production planning at Chocolat Frey

Another few minutes on foot through the bright and friendly factory building and we are standing in front of the new molding unit. When running in full operation, the molding unit manages up to two tons of chocolate mass an hour. In the past, Frey could process 600 to 700 kilograms every hour on the existing systems. A virtual quadrupling of output in this area of production seemed excessive to the chocolatiers, which is why the production management provisionally decided on a chocolate mass processing capability of one ton per hour. “That equals the production of around 3,000 Neapolitans a minute that need to be picked, packaged and made ready for delivery,” says Leuenberger. Daily operations are 16 hours long in two shifts.

High performance packaging system from LoeschPack

Due to space constraints in the factory, Frey required a compact yet powerful system. Loesch Verpackungstechnik GmbH from Germany met the packaging brief with four twin-lane LRM/2-G-S fold wrapping machines plus buffer and conveying systems. The long-established company in Altendorf can look back on over 100 years of producing innovative packaging machinery, systems and solutions for chewing gum, confectionery, dry baked goods and chocolate.

Key arguments in favour of the decision, as the production manager says, included the high speed of the packaging machines and the quality of the modular system: “Other manufacturers were also in a position to offer the overall system performance we required. For the projected packaging system, however, LoeschPack needed considerably fewer packaging machines and thus less space than its market competitors. It simply offered better value for money.” During the implementation phase, the engineers from Chocolat Frey reviewed the technical details together with the project team from Loesch Verpackungstechnik. “LoeschPack provided many valuable ideas in the course of this development process. The engineers’ great expertise helped to ensure an efficient solution for our production operations,” Leuenberger says in praise of the outcome.

Innovative feeder system with counter moulds

One particular solution involves feeding the dosed and cooled Neapolitans to the packaging machines. “Feeder systems usually operate with conveyors alone. In this specific case of producing a single product, however, we took the decision with the customer to use a solution with counter mould transport. This method of feeding is less prone to faults with small products such as Neapolitans and cheaper to maintain; it also takes up less space overall,” explains Tobias Heinze, Product Manager at LoeschPack, enthusing at the sight of the system running flat out.

The Neapolitans leave the molding unit in counter moulds and are transported to the packaging system on a dual-rope chain link conveyor. A fully automated system checks each counter mould for completeness and metal contamination, ejecting any items that fail.

Special 2-axis transfer robots with vacuum chucks pick rows of Neapolitans from the counter moulds and place them accurately on the feeder of the packaging machines. As the multifunctional touch display shows, each of the four LRM/2-G-S fold wrapping machines package up to 1,050 Neapolitans in coated OPP film in this application. “These facts measured in production prove the performance capability of our packaging machinery in continuous duty,” says Heinze with pride. The total capacity of the four machines combined with the overall line design makes efficient packaging of the tasty chocolate Neapolitans a simple affair at all times.

Buffer stations for efficiency

If a film tears, a product breaks or technical problems occur during production, causing the packaging machine to temporarily stop, the counter moulds are stacked at a buffer station. “Once the fault has been cleared, the product buffer gradually empties during normal operation of the molding unit. This means we can guarantee our customer maximum system efficiency,” says Heinze. If the molding unit has to be stopped, a second buffer station for empty counter moulds comes into play. The buffers, reliable running of the packaging machine and the easy accessibility of all areas for fault clearance make the daily work of the operators a pleasant experience. That, in turn, makes Heinze happy: “The confirmation of user-friendliness, top performance, gentle product transport and outstanding packaging quality in our production facility fully vindicates our joint development process.” From the packaging system, the wrapped Neapolitans are transported on a conveyor system for further packaging. “There, we pack the goods in various bag sizes, then in cartons and finally onto pallets. This solution saves us the need for temporary storage and optimises the logistics chain,” says Leuenberger, allowing us to try the milk chocolate Neapolitans.

A fruitful partnership

Just ten months separated the decision to work with LoeschPack and the commissioning of the system. “Project planning, mechanical engineering, delivery, installation and start-up all in such a short time is an outstanding achievement,” says Leuenberger with great satisfaction. The smooth-running process was in no small part due to the excellent relationship between the Chocolat Frey and LoeschPack project teams. “Staff in my technical team spent several days at LoeschPack in Altendorf, familiarised themselves with the design of the machinery and, together with LoeschPack’s engineers, shared their deep expertise in the production of Neapolitans,” recalls Leuenberger. As just one example, they provided key input for the specification of the packaging film used at Chocolat Frey, which is produced sustainably and to the highest standards. The two technical teams were also very closely involved in the setup phase and start of production at the plant in Buchs.

The system, with a total investment of several million euros, was commissioned in late August 2014: “We started off at around 50 percent output, and were already at full production by the end of September,” says Heinze as we remove our protective clothes. “And if there is ever a problem, we have online access to the system and can provide rapid assistance. When required, we can also offer swift help with diagnostics, maintenance, data analysis or optimisation from Altendorf. That saves our customer valuable time,” says Heinze, explaining the internationally tried-and-tested teleservice system.  

Efficient Neapolitan production in Switzerland

With the high performance system for producing Neapolitans, Chocolat Frey has the edge in an increasingly competitive global environment. The management is already thinking about doubling production capacity to process two tons of chocolate mass an hour. These are concrete plans Leuenberger tells us about as we return to the visitor centre. “The constant cost pressure in the food sector, the market entry of German discounters in Switzerland, high labour costs and the strong Swiss franc all demand products of outstanding quality and efficient production structures,” sums up Leuenberger. “Here, we have set new standards with our project partners and look to the future with great optimism.” We see it that way too as we leave Chocolat Frey’s production facility with plentiful samples of the art of Swiss chocolate and the fine waft of cocoa in the air.