Keeping Cheesecake Pretty

Keeping Cheesecake Pretty

Culinary Art’s Specialties’ new automated packaging line uses smart conveyor technology to process 2,700 frozen cheesecakes per hour—with a product integrity rate of 99.9 percent.

Forty-five undamaged frozen cheesecakes per minute. That was the goal Culinary Art’s Specialties, Inc. (Culinary Art’s) had in mind when this cheesecake manufacturer expanded its production and built a new manufacturing facility in Cheektowaga, New York outside of Buffalo. This project entailed a switch from manual packaging to an automated system.

Critical was the need to move the delicate frozen desserts through the packaging cycle with placement precision and without defecting the cheesecakes while toppings were applied and plastic-domes put in place, and the cakes were shrink wrapped, individually boxed, labeled and case packed.

To achieve this, Culinary Arts applied a conveying solution from Shuttleworth, Inc. incorporating multiple features for handling the company’s extremely delicate product line. The end-of-line conveying system provided precise product placement for shrink wrapping, labeling and case packing, minimized product contact with the conveyor and virtually eliminated cheesecake damage, a problem the company was experiencing with its prior manual packaging.

The Cheesecake Business

Culinary Art’s is all about cheesecake manufacturing. The company was founded in 1982 by Arthur P. Keller, a Swiss pastry chef who developed an exclusive Swiss baking process now used in the company’s famous New York cheesecake. Today, Culinary Art’s produces dozens of different cheesecake varieties with an apparent endless variety of toppings.

With such unusual products like its Big Apple Signature Series New York cheesecake, swirled with whole apple and topped with a combination of cinnamon streusel, whipped cream and caramel strings, it is no wonder why Culinary Art’s sales are continuing to expand – 2009 was its biggest year yet.

Its main focus is in the private label retail segment which accounts for 80 percent of its business. The company delivers a full line of in-plant contract manufacturing services ranging from product development to manufacturing to packaging. Its research and development team customizes products to fit its customer’s precise needs.

Culinary Art’s services many supermarket chains throughout the world in both the frozen grocery and bakery divisions, in addition to food service distributors, and serves as a co-packer for some of the most well known internationally-branded retail and institutional cheesecake labels on the market today.

The company also packages and markets its cheesecakes under its own brand, Arthur Pauls.

Having recently expanded its production space from 18,000 square feet to a 53,000 square-foot plant, the company’s cheesecake making operation is new from the ground up. The facility has the capacity to produce, freeze and ship 150,000 pounds of the dessert each week – 30,000 cheesecakes each day.

To sustain this throughput, Culinary Art’s has added a slew of new production equipment, including five new mixers – 1,300-pound, 800-pound and 400-pound capacity; eight new filling machines to improve filling line versatility handling everything from dry crumb filler to piston fillers; new baking ovens; three new freezers, a -30° F blast freezer for freezing the cakes after baking, a 0° F holding freezer and another 0° F, 40-foot-high, 200-pallet freezer for holding finished product; expanded cooler capability was also put into the raw materials storage area.

Additionally, one of the two original manual packaging lines was converted to an automated system. This line handles product exiting the holding freezer and moving through various packaging steps to final case packing.

Another manual packaging line (also carried over from the original plant) is currently under conversion into a second automated pack line.

Cheesecake Making

Before the cheesecakes reach the packaging line, they start out as empty pans that are filled with a layer of crumbs, on top of which piston fillers deposit the cake batter. Some cheesecake recipes may get three batter deposits from separate filling machines – in addition to the basic batter, a flavored swirl batter or fruit batter might be added. These batters are mixed previously to recipe specifications.

The cheesecakes are then baked in ovens, removed and put through the -30° F blast freezer, then moved into the 0° F holding freezer for staging before being released for packaging.

Packaging: The Finishing Touch

Engineering a Conveying Line to handle delicate cheesecakes requires a delicate touch so as not to mar the cakes.

The visual presentation of the product is a significant factor in its appeal to customers. Nowhere in the production process is the handling of the product more critical than in the end-of-line packaging, and particularly in the conveying of the cheesecakes through the packaging cycle. Yet many systems that handle such delicate desserts run a high defect rate resulting in damaged products, lessened throughput and increased production costs.

“When we planned the move to our new building, we redesigned the entire production process,” says Art Keller, Vice President of Operations for Culinary Art’s Specialties. “Our prior packaging lines were largely manual. We manipulated the cheesecakes by hand. One of the challenges we needed to solve in the design of the automated system was how do we now move our cheesecakes through the packaging line before they are shrink wrapped without having them touch anything, as this would mar the product.

Additionally, we wanted to minimize the amount of cheesecake residue deposited on the conveying system for food safety reasons. We looked at a number of conveyor systems but they permitted too much contact with the cheesecakes. It was a huge issue for us.”

In Culinary Art’s packaging line, the frozen cheesecakes, still in pans, exit the holding freezer after being baked in the ovens, and are placed onto a conveyor system where they are turned upside down to release the cake from the pan. The cakes are then placed right side up onto a small coated cardboard ring and conveyed to a topping station where the specified toppings (such as whipped cream, shaved chocolate or fruit, for example) are put onto the top of the frozen cheesecakes. The toppings are not frozen, so a plastic dome is placed over the top of the cake to keep the topping intact through the next process of shrink wrapping.

The registration of the now topped cheesecakes into the shrink wrapper require that the cakes not only be separated and equally spaced from each other, inline, but that they be centered on the conveyor for induction into the wrapper. Achieving this was no easy task considering that the cheesecakes could not touch the conveyor or the other products.

Material Handling Expertise

Culinary Art’s brought in Shrink Packaging Systems to handle the integration of the shrink wrapper, and Shuttleworth to engineer a solution to the conveyor handling of the product and also to set up the cheesecakes for induction into the shrink wrapper.

“We needed the conveyor to automatically center the product for infeed into the shrink wrapper,” says Charlie Meyer with Shrink Packaging Systems. “And we needed to generate as little backpressure as possible to not only protect the cheesecakes from banging into each other, but to properly set up the cakes for induction into the wrapper. The spacing had to be very precise, a tolerance of 0.25 inch to 0.5 inch. We required the right spacing for the seal to take properly. Shuttleworth had the conveyor technology to accomplish these needs.”

Aside from the self-evident problem of product defects caused by cheesecakes or other delicate desserts touching conveyor components or other food products during production, Meyer explains that improper shrink wrapping accounts for a significant percentage of product defects. “Where shrink coverage is not complete over the product, it can go unnoticed until later when the product has spoiled due to exposure,” Meyer explains. “Improper sealing is primarily caused by poor infeed and misregistration.”

The shrink wrapper used on this line is an automatic horizontal continuous-motion side sealer rated at a maximum100 cycles per minute.

Shuttleworth engineered two different solutions. First, to keep the product from touching the sides along the 16-foot stretch of conveyor prior to entering into the shrink wrap unit, and to center the cheesecakes, they designed a sequential series of different height rollers that form a type of funnel into the middle of the conveyor. Each row of rollers has a slightly taller roller toward the edges that the cheesecakes gently bump into without touching the conveyor sides. The rollers then become progressively shorter toward the center of the conveyor, gradually centering the cheesecakes on the conveyor system.

Second, the conveyors are also equipped with slip-torque technology which minimizes cheesecake damage by creating extremely low back-pressure accumulation. Low line pressure throughout the continuous-motion accumulation conveyors allows for precise product placement throughout the line and into the shrink wrapper.

The conveyors can continue to take product flow from the upstream line for a period of time instead of stopping. A low-pressure accumulation buffer absorbs irregularities in the production flow, and provides a smooth, even flow on the line, which minimizes the cheesecakes from bumping into each other.

Slip-torque utilizes individually-powered rotating roller shafts and loose-fit rollers, which become the conveyor surface, powered by a continuous chain to control the drive force for the cheesecakes. The size and weight of the cheesecakes determine the driving force of the rollers.

When the cakes stop on the surface of the conveyor, the segmented rollers beneath them also stop, generating low back-pressure accumulation, minimizing cheesecake damage.

The conveyor is all stainless steel construction, food-grade, heavy washdown and rated for 2,000 psi.

When the cheesecakes leave the shrink wrapper, they are placed into cartons. The conveyor runs parallel to the cartoner and is synchronized with it. As a cheesecake passes on the conveyor in front of a worker, the cartoner presents an open carton and the worker manually slides it into the carton.

The conveyor/product and carton are precisely sequenced.

The conveyor then rotates the cartons and indexes them into a printer which stamps a date code on the carton as they pass the printer.

“Shuttleworth designed this part of the conveyor with tightly spaced rollers so we get a perfectly smooth motion as the boxes go by the print head,” continues Keller. “The resulting code is very legible. With our prior system, we were having difficulty with blurring of the printed codes because of vibration as the cartons were passing.”

“Depending on the client, they require the code to be placed in different locations on the box,” explains Keller. “The new conveyor integrates an adjustable post that tilts the box slightly to allow the printer to imprint at the desired box position.”

The conveyor then routes the cartons to a case packing machine, where again, the low back-pressure accumulation system of Slip-Torque is used to stage the cartons for induction into the case packer.

This 40-foot section of the conveyor from the shrink wrapper to the case packer, similar to the front 16-foot section of conveyor, is equipped with motorized rollers that have the ability to modulate the speed of different sections of the conveyor via a central control HMI. As the product is moving down the line, the rollers at the back end of the conveyor can be moving faster than the ones at the front end of it. So the product can be moving at variable speeds on different sections of the conveyor as dictated by throughput requirements.

Improved Product Quality

For Culinary Art’s, such conveying capability has enabled the company to automate and streamline its entire packaging line. While improving on the product quality it had with its manual processes, it has been able to transfer this product integrity to its automated system.

“The packaging line automation has significantly reduced our product defects to less than one-tenth of one percent, while increasing our throughput,” Keller explains. “This significantly surpasses what we could do on a manual level. With the success of this line we are now building-out a second automated packaging line to further streamline our cheesecake production.”


Jim McMahon writes on automation technology. He can be reached at [email protected].

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