Caotech continues expansion of global equipment solutions
For over 20 years, Caotech has been building up its confectionery and food sector machinery and supplying a range of global firms. Neill Barston visits the company’s HQ near Amsterdam to explore its operations
Having been involved with shaping confectionery equipment sales and projects around the world, Olaf Schepel has developed considerable industry insight.
As he explains from Caotech’s headquarters in Wormerveer just north of Amsterdam, there’s a strong sense of progress being made right across its combined international activities.
The company, which now has a turnover of between €12-14 million, has established a reputation for its turnkey projects in cocoa and chocolate production, bakery and ice-cream segments of the market.
Its location close to major ingredients firms and machinery manufacturers in the industry underlines the region’s importance to the sector – with Olam Cocoa, Tate and Lyle, Bunge Loders Croklaan, and Gerkens Cacao all being within close proximity.
As for Caotech, during the past two decades, it has specialised in machinery including beater blade mills for pre-grinding cocoa nibs, ball mills for grinding cocoa liquor, and mills for processing chocolate and compounds.
In addition, it has also engineered a broader series of industrial equipment for the sector from its Netherlands base including weighing, dosing, storage tanks and and pumps. Its flexible manufacturing strategy involves serving a broad range of global clients, ranging from small chocolate manufacturers through to major international food businesses.
“It’s lovely to be with a company that has grown from a small enterprise to a medium-sized business. There is a transformation that is happening which will require some restructuring of our operations.
“So, it is very interesting to see the progress that has been made within the business, and to be part of creating that success. It is also good to see our customers also grow their businesses alongside our own,” says Schepel speaking on his decade with the company. Recalling his early career, he was initially inspired by his father, who was a mechanical engineer. This led to a decision to study civil engineering, and later business administration in his early 20’s.
He then went on to gain significant experience working for Netherlands-based Wiener, as an area sales manager. This saw him tackle overseas projects in the Middle East and South America, which ultimately served him well for his present position with Caotech.
As he reveals during a tour of the site, like the business as a whole, there’s a considerable variety of production and logistical challenges to overcome.
This includes engaging with a host of companies from across the sector, through to ensuring the smooth delivery of all forms of equipment, and driving the company’s presence at key trade fairs.
“What I like most about my work is the contact with someone who is contacting you for the first time, visiting them and show that they’re important and that they get the right information and that you can meet their needs.
“When I hear people say they’re happy we have replied quickly and that we have the required knowledge for chocolate and compound production, that’s really satisfying,” enthuses Schepel.
Reflecting on the company’s development from its creation in the late 1990’s, he explains it was in fact former employees of his old firm, Wiener, who had the creative spark to set up their own business enterprise.
More than two decades on and Caotech has now grown significantly from a relatively small outfit that outsourced its production, gradually expanding to employ around 45 people.
The team has most recently appeared at ProSweets in Cologne, presenting several of its main ball mill lines to an eager international audience in Germany. Catching up with the business on its stand, the company’s sales team is fully engaged with handling a number of enquiries from its international client base.
“When ProSweets was first established, we visited and quickly found that the industry liked the idea that it would be running alongside ISM. But it was in 2009 that we first exhibited and through the years it has become even more important to us as a business,” says Schepel, who believes the show is equally as significant compared with Interpack in terms of generating new contacts.
As the sector specialist explains, it’s certainly been a busy and rewarding period for the company, which has seen it consolidate and expand its market position.
According to the 56 year-old sales and marketing manager, the business has worked particularly hard to gain a foothold in the equipment market in an especially competitive field.
“I think what makes our equipment stand-out is the technology that we improved from scratch.
“We knew how other ball mills operated, and we took from that and created new ones with less parts and lower running costs, which gave us an opportunity to be different from competitors. We also have a very good after sales team involved with installation of equipment,” says Schepel, who is well aware that there is no room for complacency in terms of the need to continually refine its ranges.
One area that it has been particularly mindful of is in applying industry 4.0 principles into its product design. This has centred on the company’s software developers delivering improvements to PLC systems to enhance equipment operating efficiency. As with others in the sector, there has also been a focus on developing predictive maintenance of equipment, which my host says ‘will be more and more important that everything is connected,’ with regard to internet-based evaluation systems in the industry.
According to the company’s sales and marketing manager, the business has enjoyed a strong response to its complete equipment range – which it has produced on site, along with assistance from sister manufacturing company Snelders.
He says that being among pioneers of direct drive designs for its equipment, as opposed to traditional gearbox-based systems had helped considerably in reducing maintenance requirements and the cost of machinery.
As the sales manager relates, delivering equipment for varying sizes of customers has seen Caotech’s range of equipment expand steadily.
One of its flagship models is the PG 6000 beater blade mill, for pre-grinding of cocoa nibs and hazelnuts. The machine’s high-speed design has been devised to offer optimum continuous pre-grinding.
Another key model in the series is its CAO 3000-choc In-line, which has been developed for automatic weighing and mixing of ingredients, as well as continuous fine grinding of chocolate, coatings and compounds.
On the smaller end of the scale, one of its main models is its Chococon 250 chocolate and compound processing unit for confectionery businesses.
This has been designed for mixing, fine grinding and conching operations, including being used by an increasing number of bread spread manufacturers.
Developed as a lower-speed machine to cope with heat-sensitive masses, the machine has been developed for a capacity of 500 kg batches. As the company’s sales manager offers a tour of the company’s production site, we explore another significant area for the business, containing its lab equipment.
With initial product analysis being of major importance for manufacturers, Caotech has responded in devising a series of equipment including the compact CAO B5 for fine grinding of chocolate under test laboratory conditions. Its key features include low energy consumption, small batch analysis of up to 5kg and 30-minute grinding time, with end-fineness being up to 18 microns.
“Our figures for 2018 have been very good, with almost €13 million, with the forecast for this year being good with the opportunities we have,” explains Schepel.
“Our cocoa division is recovering multi-national customers, who are replacing and expanding equipment – particularly in Europe, with replacement investment, and in Africa, we are seeing expansion of factories.
“In the long-term the economy might flatten in 2020, and we have to first look before we invest further, but in general, with the compound processing, bread spreads are important with more companies investing in this sector,” adds the manager, which offered further potential equipment sales opportunities.
He also noted that there was a growing trend for premium artisan producers have emerged seeking to develop high-end chocolate ranges and equipment.
On the company’s future development, he says its decision to retain a sole production base in the Netherlands is paying dividends in cementing cohesion and continuity within the business.
With the firm in a positive position moving forward, it is gearing-up towards preparations for next year’s Interpack, which the business says may see further equipment ranges emerge as it continues to raise its international profile.