Gerhard Schubert drives forward with €30 million expansion plans

Having been named as factory of the year 2018, German-based packaging specialist Gerhard Schubert is enjoying a strong level of momentum with €30 million plans to extend its present headquarters, as Neill Barston discovered

When Gerhard Schubert first devised his original packaging machine, the SKA, in his garage in the mid 1960s, scarcely could he have imaged what its legacy would prove.
Yet, more than 50 years later and his company has grown to become a global enterprise with operations employing a total of 900 people around the world.

Though he’s now in his early 80s, the company founder still makes his regular journey to the firm’s substantial headquarters in Crailsheim, Germany.

It seems he’s eager to play his part in driving forward the business as it continues to develop amid a highly competitive packaging equipment market.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the scale of its ambitions is a fresh commitment for a €30 million extension to its headquarters. This will see a new production hall being added, which will also house extensive administration facilities over the next two years.

Such levels of investment follows in the wake of results for 2018, which saw the business grow to a total of over €284 million in sales across the world.

As Marcel Kiessling, the company’s managing director for sales and service, explains during a site visit, he believes the company’s approach to internal investment in talent has been a vital factor.

He says one of the real strengths of the business has been in ensuring a high level of turnover is consistently placed into research and development to enhance its equipment range, including machinery used significantly the confectionery, bakery and wider food and pharma markets.

Kiessling reveals the firm has come a long way since the development of its original SKA carton erecting system, which he says the company considers as its “Ford model T equivalent,” that initiated the groundwork for decades of developing new equipment lines. As he explains, this first piece of machinery is in fact still operating within the confectionery sector of some of its largest customers.
“When you look at the developments we have taken, we are clearly founded on innovation, which has been at the core of the company since it started out,” explains the sales director on the philosophy of the business.

He notes that it was Gerhard Schubert’s fateful decision to travel to America to examine robotics in the automotive industry and realised its potential for packaging.

Consequently, he adds that since the mid 1980s, the business has been at the forefront of developing robotics within the packaging industry, with manufacturers’ demand for greater emphasis on automation being seen as a vital element in raising all-important productivity and efficiency performance.

TLM packaging systems

The company’s specialism in top loading machinery (TLM) has seen it make a series of innovations including its first digitally-controlled packaging lines nearly twenty years ago that place it at the forefront of the segment.

As the company notes, beyond the packaging machines themselves, there are a number of key components that it believes are making a major difference.

Among these systems are the company’s Transmodul transport robot which the business believes is having a ‘revolutionary effect’ on the industry.

First introduced around a decade ago, it features an inductive power supply allowing it to move freely, with data and signals being transmitted wirelessly. It can accurately hold cartons and products in place using a vacuum blower system, and operates at speeds of up to 4.5 metres per second. The technology provides an advanced replacement for conventional conveyor systems used within the sector.

In terms of predictive maintenance, kiessling notes that industry is continuing to value its recently introduced digital platform.

Designed within a single user interface, it measures a number of critical equipment parameters to enable efficient ordering of parts and maintaining optimum servicing.

According to Kiessling, another major focus for its recent achievements has been with the continuing development of its Flowmodul flow wrapping system. This is designed with an enhanced level of product quality control of delicate items such as confectionery lines, as well as offering major savings in terms of a compact footprint over other conventional equipment formats.

He enthuses that it is continuing to prove a notable flagship for the business, which has also led on to the development of its lightline series. This comprises three machine types to handle the most important packaging tasks, including a cartonpacker, which has been developed to take on the role of a classic case packer when erecting, filling and closing cartons.

Meanwhile, the lightline pickerline is a pick and place line for picking up and placing products in trays, with the series completed with a Flowpacker, which packs products in flowpacks in conjunction with the pickerline.
Each machine type is based on preconfigured TLM modules. This enables Schubert to considerably speed up the planning and assembly process.

Optimism despite challenges

Despite present global trading uncertainties including the pending prospect of Brexit, he says the company remains ‘bullish’ about its prospects.
“During the past year we have grown the business on a worldwide basis and the company had a good year in Europe and an even stronger one in north America, where we have brought in our Flowmodul technology to market. We’re making number of inroads with applications and have installed a total of 60 machines so far, “ enthuses Kiessling, who adds that the line’s greatest asset is its flexibility in being used for a number of market segments.

He explains that the machine’s modular design is another major asset that customers continue to value in that it enables them to easily extend and upgrade their systems.

“Confectionery and bakery has always been among our most important segments. Within this sector, we are very proud we could recently supply one of our longest ever picker lines that we have ever installed, with 42 arms, picking biscuits (up to 5,000 per minute), which was a real milestone for us.”

The extent of its operations is clearly in evidence as we explore the production floors.
Around every area of the 50,000 sqm site, individual teams are working on key projects for machinery destined for every corner of the world, which poses a number of logistical challenges for the business in meeting demand.

But with decades of sector experience, it’s something they are all well used to now, and with production processes – including the development of its robotics components, all entirely in-house at Craislheim, it appears a well-controlled operation.

As Kiessling notes, there’s very much a strong community within its engineering teams, many of whom opt to remain in the company for a significant period of time.

The company presently has around 60 apprentices across the business, and there are a number of instances of three generations of the same family working within the company. Their collective efforts were rewarded last year in attaining a coveted factory of the year accolade, pitted against major businesses from a range of other sectors.

Future development

Consequently, as Kiessling explains, the company’s decision to expand its site further is set to herald a significant chapter in its development.

“We’re going to be investing around €30 million in the mid-term in our site here in Crailsheim, which will give us more room for final assembly with another hall. We’re strengthening our service team further, as well as looking into training facilities, so this is a big expansion for us.

“Our founder Gerhard Schubert has had this in mind for a long time, and is something that’s now becoming a reality, which we are hoping to complete by 2022.”

As we continue the tour, UK division director Mark Stepney explains that the company’s British operations are also enjoying notable fortunes.

He explains that the company is continuing to foster relationships with some of the country’s largest confectionery and snacks businesses, including Mondelez, Walkers Crisps, Tunnocks and Fox’s Confectionery.

The UK director notes that its manufacturing customers in Britain are seeking very similar qualities from their potential equipment, with flexibility and reliability being among the key elements demanded.
Stepney notes that the modularity of Schubert’s systems is certainly proving a major driving force in terms of a key point of difference with its machinery.

Over the last decade, he says there have been many changes, which have brought a number of positive challenges.

“It seems that every year we have something innovative coming through which helps us generate new sales. I can say it’s been the most exciting decade of my career – I’ve always worked within the packaging industry, but the approach of Schubert is quite different from other roles I’ve had, especially with the passion of those in the business,” adds Stepney of the business, which is showing no signs of letting up in its research and development.

With plans under development for the next generation of robotic, it seems looking to the future is very much built into the company’s DNA.

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