Like every delicious success story, at ULMA Packaging, it started with chocolate.
It was 1961 in Oñati, Spain, when six young mechanics found an old dilapidated building where they would set up shop to focus on servicing equipment for the then local and thriving chocolate industry.
Fast forward almost 60 years, and that unassuming workshop has grown into a global corporation that includes a presence in the U.S. In 2010, ULMA announced a joint venture with Harpak, a family-owned company based in Taunton, Mass., that was established in 1994 by the Harlfinger family. Today, Harpak-ULMA Packaging, LLC, is a cooperative company committed to its people, the environment, the machines, and most of all, its customers.
Harpak-ULMA serves the food, medical, bakery, and industrial segments, designing and manufacturing a variety of packaging platforms, including: horizontal form/fill/seal (HFFS) flow wrappers, vertical form/fill/seal (VFFS) machines, thermoforming machines, tray sealers, stretch film wrappers, shrink and sleeve wrappers, and carton forming and packing. The company also offers complete automation for fully integrated packaging lines including robotic loading, foreign matter detection, weigh pricing, case packing, palletizing, and tote handling systems.
“Many people don’t know we offer such a broad portfolio of packaging equipment,” says Harpak-ULMA CEO Kevin Roach. And, perhaps more surprising is that the company does not just focus on building machines but integrating entire packaging lines. “We’ve transitioned from machines and maintenance to sophisticated automated complete lines with many machine types. Our philosophy is “product to pallet,” and we have all of the equipment to go from primary packaging—taking the product out of an oven, cutting line, or freezer—to secondary and tertiary packaging.”
As part of ULMA Packaging, a $308M business under the ULMA Group (~920M€), the company has a presence in 23 countries, which extends to subsidiaries and more than 50 distributors around the world, all of which support the company mission to be “a global organization with local support.”
That local feel is present at Harpak-ULMA, but unbeknownst to most, the Massachusetts-based OEM has the largest market segment for ULMA Packaging from the standpoint of geography, and it is in the midst of expansion. While still minority family-owned, this is no small mom and pop shop. Since the joint venture took place 10 years ago, Harpak-ULMA has grown 300% while operating from its Taunton headquarters in the U.S. and another facility in Atlanta. Now, the company is getting ready to move to a larger place in Taunton—nearly double the size of the current 32,500 sq. ft. space—with additional plans to open west coast and Canadian sales, support, and parts depots facilities.
With such exponential growth, there has to be the ability to seamlessly scale the business. And that can only be done when the organization works as a unit. At Harpak-ULMA, getting the organization to operate like a well-oiled machine stems from six core values that define and guide the company culture.
- Service (the customer comes first)
- Integrity (be honest, ethical, and respectful)
- Excellence (continuous improvement)
- Commitment (dedication and accountability)
- Teamwork (partner, respect, and grow)
- Innovation (solving tough problems)
These foundational principles of the company feed into everyday decision-making, influencing workforce development, project lifecycles, and client education. One of the things that Roach emphasizes about the organization and its products is that it’s not just about “the machine,” but about, well, “the total package.” Harpak-ULMA prides itself on delivering comprehensive solutions that minimize risk and optimize total cost of ownership (TCO) of equipment.
“Our big focus is always on TCO and ROI. We try to educate that acquisition price is an important component, but it’s one factor in the total cost of ownership,” Roach says. To that end, Harpak-ULMA has worked with PMMI and the OpX Leadership Network to aid the educational efforts in this area. “I’m on the industrial relations committee with PMMI and they’ve done a lot of impressive work around OEE, quality, sustainability, and connected machines.”
Taking one step back from it all, an outside observer can see there’s an even bigger picture forming in the background here. While all of the company’s guiding principles are important pillars, perhaps the most compelling endeavor underway at the company comes in the form of innovation. This innovative team has patents on new packaging designs, is working on adapting to eco-friendly materials in its machines, and is always working on building faster, more efficient systems via automation.
But the gamechanger for this OEM is digital transformation.
To help its customers, the manufacturers, meet new consumer demands for convenience, freshness, and sustainability in packaged products, Harpak-ULMA is integrating intelligence and connectivity into its machines. In partnership with Rockwell Automation and PTC, Harpak-ULMA is introducing the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, Big Data, predictive maintenance, and augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) to the world of packaging.
The OEM first unveiled this idea at PACK EXPO International in 2018, with the announcement that Rockwell Automation’s Integrated Architecture production control and information system is now integrated with the company’s thermoforming lines. The technology enables operators to better manage overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and key performance indicators (KPIs) across lines composed of a variety of equipment. It also taps into IoT and augmented reality applications from PTC, which provides 3D step-by-step work instructions using available tablets, smartphones, or glasses.
This past October, the company announced the same Rockwell/PTC automation platform was implemented into the Trave line of tray sealing machines, built by G. Mondini—for which Harpak-ULMA is the North American distributor. “This is an important milestone in Harpak-ULMA’s technology vision and roadmap to introduce disruptive innovation across our served markets,” Roach says.
The smart, connected packaging strategy is rolling out in four phases: Phase one and two—establishing the automation platform and rolling out AR/VR for training and maintenance workflows—is ready to go. Phase three of incorporating IoT devices will be commercially available next year, and predictive analytics, phase four, within the next three years. [See sidebar: Smart Machine Roadmap]
The company continues to deemphasize proprietary controls in favor of leveraging the power of a single, integrated and open controls architecture which will lower TCO and be a catalyst for customers as they embark on their own digital journey.
Indeed, the company has a plan for taking smart machines to the manufacturing masses, and, by doing so, is truly trailblazing a digital transformation path, serving as a model for other machine builders to follow.
To understand where Harpak-ULMA is going, one must first understand where the company has been. Despite being part of a large global company—Harpak-ULMA remains rooted in its core values, which starts with family.
Linda Harlfinger-Vogel, chief operating officer of Harpak-ULMA, is a second-generation packaging professional, and the founder of the current business that thrives today. But it was Linda’s father, Charlie Harlfinger, who, in 1974, started a company called Kutter, and thus began the family’s first foray into packaging. Linda started working with her father as a 13-year-old, helping with parts pricing on a calculator at the kitchen table. She went on to drive forklifts and manage the accounts payable and receivables. After college, in the 1980s, she decided to join the family business, which was then named TW Kutter due to a merger. Around that same time a young engineer named Kevin Roach also joined the business as the director of automation.
During the time that Linda and Kevin were at TW Kutter, they built the first packaging machines with programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) controls. Up until that point, packaging machinery shipped with relay controls.
“We revolutionized controls and audit trails,” Roach says. “When you think about the evolution and digital transformation going on now, we did the first digital transformation in packaging in this space and in this region, and it was very successful.”
In addition, according to Roach, TW Kutter went from having no medical packaging experience to being a leader in medical packaging equipment. “That was because of the controls’ capabilities for consistency, audit trials, security, and all of the regulatory requirements we were able to satisfy, which couldn’t be done with mechanical and electromechanical controls. We also introduced the first on-demand digital printing for packaging back in the day,” he notes, remembering the large format printer from Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), which the Kutter team reengineered and mounted onto a packaging machine to create a digital solution for printing serial numbers and dynamic data on packages.
The technology advancements and equipment initiatives eventually attracted a buyer, resulting in the sale of TW Kutter to Tetra Laval (which was subsequently bought by GEA) in 1990. At that time, Roach went his own way, taking a position at GE, and later moving on to executive roles at Rockwell Software, Activant Solutions, Epicor Software, and Intelligrated, a Honeywell company.
Linda Harlfinger-Vogel, on the other hand, stayed on with Tetra Laval for a few years, until a business trip opened her eyes to other opportunities. “We went to Interpak and looked for a company not represented in North America that had a good offering in packaging,” Harlfinger-Vogel says. “We had been successful with thermoforming, but we had never carried a tray sealing line. So, we met with Mondini. We liked the family. And, as we got [serious] about considering starting a new venture with them, I traveled around Europe with other Mondini distributors to get a feel for what they do, what they say, and if their customers are happy.”
Their customers were indeed happy. It was a good fit between the two companies and culture, but more importantly, the quality of the equipment was excellent, which provided the motivation to move forward.
Staying true to the Harlfinger packaging legacy, Linda founded Harpak in 1994, selling equipment that included the G. Mondini tray sealer. But they went beyond just selling the equipment and became a trusted partner, engineering new capabilities for the machines. For example, at that time, the Mondini machine was leaving 5% oxygen in the package, which means the product will go bad within just a few days. To extend shelf life of products, Harpak helped enhance modified atmosphere capabilities which takes the oxygen out and then backflushes the package with certain gases, leaving only 0.5% of residual oxygen to minimize bacteria development.
“We quickly realized our depth of experience and resources was in meat, so if we didn’t have a good offering for meat [in North America] it was going to be long, uphill battle,” Harlfinger-Vogel says. “We sent our technology group over to [Italy] and when we finished our work together, we had 0.5% residual [oxygen] which is what you need for modified atmosphere.”
There were other innovations along the way—like case-ready packaging, which a major multinational retailer wanted. “When they wanted to get away from the traditional over wrap and move to sealed trays, we were ready,” Harlfinger-Vogel says. “If we hadn’t done that beginning development work, we would have missed that wave.” In fact, Harpak did a lot of work with a number of major retailers to prepare case ready proteins for a more efficient supply chain, better shelf life, less labor and fewer safety issues as it pertains to cutting and packaging meat.
As Harlfinger-Vogel built out the business with her father Charlie as CEO and sister Heidi as the VP of Marketing, the team saw a need to continue to evolve and expand the offerings. They also needed a succession plan, as Charlie was moving into the role of Chairman of the Board. So, in April of 2018, they recruited longtime friend Roach to come back and serve as CEO—providing the progressive vision to move forward in the age of smart manufacturing.
An innovation engine
Unlike some other industry segments, like automotive, the food industry is not known for being on the cutting-edge of technology. But Harpak-ULMA wants to change that.
Today, Harpak-ULMA can lay claim to numerous design innovations and patents. C-PAK, for example, patented by Charlie Harlfinger, is a re-closable package system manufactured to maintain freshness and optimize marketability. The system includes high-speed tray sealing combined with a re-closable packaging method that is ideal for sliced meat or cheese, dried fruits, and vegetables. But any shopper will recognize this package in the dairy aisle, where pre-cut cheese slices—ideal for crackers—are sitting on a black tray bottom with a top that clicks back into place after opening. The consumer preference for convenience has made this design a complete success. “A hundred plus million pounds of cheese go out in that package,” Roach says.
Also, as the industry moves away from using too much plastic, Harpak-ULMA is experimenting with alternative materials, like plant-based plastics and paper with minimal plastic laminations. Another sustainability play is the Mondini Paperseal system which replaces modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) and vacuum skin packaging (VSP) plastic trays with barrier lined cardboard. The trays offer a superior package appearance at the lowest total packaging cost—and easy recycling.
And, speaking of trays—the sales team would love to introduce you to the G. Mondini Platformer, the missing link in the packaging line, as it can form trays on-demand, in line, from a reel. By cutting the tray footprint before the forming process occurs, the Platformer can reduce scrap to just 2%. [see sidebar: Meet the G. Mondini Platformer]
According to Jerry Rundle, Harpak-ULMA’s vice president of sales, the company is always focused on modernizing customers’ packaging processes. “We do more than sell equipment. We want to optimize and get them to the next level.” And that means catering to the customers’ needs. For example, Harpak-ULMA now offers an automated tote management system which supports reusable packaging, which is consistent with #ULMAWeCare sustainability initiative announced in 2020.
In another example, one customer in the cheese industry asked ULMA to create a line that could package multiple sizes of cheese without any operator involvement, nor any downtime. To do that, the OEM installed three lines that monitor what cheese is coming down the line and, using a row distribution system, sends the cheese of a particular style off to one of three thermoformers. Each thermoformer has complete redundancy with two forming stations, two robotic loading stations, two seal stations, and two cutting systems, so that the machines automatically changeover to adapt to whatever cheese size is coming down the line. There is no manual intervention required for machine changeover.
“Again, we do product to pallet. We let our customers concentrate on what they do best. You worry about your product, we’ll worry about the packaging,” Rundle says.
The thermoforming machines have been built to reduce risk around sanitation, safety, ergonomics, and ease of maintenance. One example of an innovation in this area is a servo lifting system, which is a maintenance-free four post lifting system with Igus Bushings self-lubricating bearings. While seemingly simple, “how to maintain lift systems is a big issue in thermoforming,” Rundle says. Similarly, Harpak-ULMA’s hygienically designed transport chain rail system enables quick and easy removal for cleaning. In addition, a fast format-changing system with ULMA L Extraction, provides a way to access parts within the machine without the need for jib cranes or hand tools. “This is a design we came up with many years ago and continued to enhance it, and now it’s to the point where you can get a heavy tool out of a machine in two minutes.”
All of these machine enhancements originated as a result of Harpak-ULMA’s unique perspective. “We think like the owner of the equipment, not the builder of equipment, and we always think about what can be done to make it easier and more efficient,” Rundle says.
Another area of differentiation for Harpak-ULMA equipment is that it is all made in-house, not outsourced. For example, the flow pack wrappers (HFFS) working in high-speed environments, like a snack bar line, will require row distribution, chicaning modules, in-line feeders, and stacking systems. “When you are talking about a high rate of speed it’s more about how to get products to the wrapper,” says Hugh Crouch, product manager for flow pack vertical and stretch machines. “And all of these systems are built completely by ULMA, including the conveyors and we even have a stainless-steel division that produces all of the components. That’s the difference. We don’t have to outsource.”
That’s important to customers, since it means they can have a full line factory acceptance test (FAT) done in one of their facilities without coordinating multiple vendors, which reduces customer risk.
Getting ahead of lead times
Harpak-ULMA’s U.S. sites can do light manufacturing and tooling, but the large lines are configured and tested in Spain (or Italy if it is a G. Mondini machine), which is where the FAT takes place. The question, however, is how Harpak-ULMA handles demands from customers for shorter lead times when the equipment is built and tested overseas. According to Roach, a standard machine can be turned around in three-to-five weeks. “For some of our lines we build inventory and configure to order.” But the more customized lines can take between 12-to-18 weeks.
However, the company’s smart, connected machines are built for flexibility, with digital controls that help adapt a line. And, as customers ask for more integration, the company has responded in the form of the ULMA Packaging Automation group, which can build out automated, flexible lines.
There are many different reasons to automate a packaging line. It could be to increase productivity and throughput, to reduce operational costs by minimizing waste and lowering labor costs, or to create a safer work environment by giving repetitive operations to a robot.
“If you purchase our packaging equipment and add automation to it, you can do the FAT in Spain and a half a mile down the road we build the automation at the same time,” says John Weddleton, product manager of automation. “It’s all set up so that you can be 100% confident that your line is ready for production before it ships to your facility and we install it.”
Harpak-ULMA offers a full line of automation solutions from primary to secondary to tertiary packaging, as well as palletizing, tote management systems, and ancillary equipment including check weighing, labeling, metal detection, and shrink wrapping. The group works with food, medical automation and industrial applications, and it is always about integrating as much capability as possible. For example, a tote management system may include the integration of X-ray, stacking and de-stacking, robotics, vision/inspection, and more.
“Flexibility is always on our mind,” Weddleton says. “These are big capital expenses and space is important. If [the equipment] is taking up a lot of space, you have to be sure the system is flexible and able to adapt to new requirements.”
People and partnerships
Of course, even with the best technology and automation in place, a company needs good people.
The company is collaborative internally and externally, and in fact, view customers as partners, Harlfinger-Vogel says. And with the core values in mind, the company has made a large investment in finding the right people and in continuous training. To that end, they’ve developed a number of “snack-size” courses curated from a variety of sources—including PMMI. The company uses a cloud-based learning management system built on gamification, enabling a person to access it on any device—and from anywhere. About one-third of the OEM’s employees are remote in the U.S., and flexible hours are provided for better work/life integration. “We want to be a place that blends with the reality of today,” Roach says. “We realize that the world is integrated, so we have friendly policies.”
And, while the company is committed to being customer-centric, it is also process-focused with a continuous improvement mindset. To that end, there are KPIs and metrics that all employees need to know as it pertains to their part of the business. Those numbers are reviewed monthly, and if they are not on track, there is a path correction. “We are data-driven vs. assumption-driven,” says Roach.
No matter what angle you look at Harpak-ULMA from, anyone can see the company is indeed driven. This packaging OEM has come a long way since that small chocolate shop service center in Spain. Now, they’re indulging customers as a global, tech-savvy cohort.