The Belgian company Maaz specializes in the processing, packaging, and distribution of cheese. Their main products are various types of sliced cheese and grated cheese. For the manufacturing process, the company uses a complete solution from the German manufacturer Weber from slicing to automatic transportation and feeding up to packaging.
Different types of cheese packaging is the day-to-day business of the Belgian company Maaz. The company, which was established in early 2018, is headquartered in Maaseik near the Belgian-Dutch border. It is part of the Maaz Group, which also includes Maaz Netherlands, which specializes in cheese powder. For this business segment, a distribution center is currently being set up in the Netherlands.
Maaz Belgium packages and distributes sliced cheese in thermoformed packs and vertical flowpacks for the Belgian and worldwide market. Their customer base includes many large exporters and wholesalers in Europe, mostly long-standing partners. The portfolio of packed sliced cheese not only comprises hard cheeses such as Edam, cheddar, Emmental, and Gouda but also grated cheese. The raw materials are procured worldwide from leading dairies.
Due to a growing customer base and increasing product quantities, the existing systems in Maaseik already reached their limits at the start, explains Bertho Moors, CEO of Maaz Belgium. To create new capacities, it was therefore necessary to look for a new solution for sliced cheese in the area of hard cheese. The decision was ultimately made for a complete solution from the German manufacturer Weber Food Technology. The line has a total length of 34 m and increases the capacities from 4,900 t in the past year to 7,800 t per year now. The formats to be processed range from 150 g, 200 g through 500 g, up to 1 kg packages for large consumers. The Weber line consists of an X-ray scanner, a high-performance slicer, the automatic infeeding system CompactLoader as well as the Weber thermoforming packaging machine VMAX and the intelligent separation and buffer system VMAXIMUM. The final packaging is then done manually in corrugated cardboard boxes that are stacked on pallets and shipped throughout Europe by truck.
The journey of the cheese through the line starts when it reaches the X-ray scanner after the bar cheese raw material has been fed in by a conveyor belt. In comparison to laser or LED scanners, even Swiss-type cheese can be sliced with weight accuracy thanks to the X-ray scanner, since the density of products with large density differences is also precisely determined. The products to be sliced are fed to the X-ray scanner in several lanes next to each other and individually scanned in a continuous process. The individual products are subsequently weighed at the integrated weighing station on a lane-related basis, so that a precise overall picture of the products is obtained.
After the X-ray scanner, the cheeses reach the first core element of the high-tech line, the slicer. Thanks to slicing speeds of up to 2,000 revolutions per minute and the particularly large product throat with a width of 520 mm, an extremely high throughput can be achieved. One equipment highlight of the high-performance slicer is the newly developed vacuum grippers. These are installed in Maaseik for long-term testing and allow the size of the end pieces to be significantly reduced from 180 g to 20 g, thus making the best possible use of the product – cash savings for the Maaz company. “Such tests are only possible with an existing relationship of trust,” emphasizes Bertho Moors. The “Durablade Performance” involute blade, developed specially for the new slicer, ensures perfect cutting results as well as precise placement of the slices. A lane-independent guidance of the products to the blade is to ensure a consistently high slicing quality. In addition, the slicer has a 4-fold lane-independent high-speed interleaver. In combination with a lane-independent guidance of the products to the slicing edge, incomplete portions are completed, interleaved, and transported away as required. This means extra hygiene, as manual intervention in the production process is minimized. The hygienic design also makes cleaning easy.
The sliced products reach the CompactLoader next. The compact, automatic feeder forms format sets and is designed for film widths of up to 590 mm. The CompactLoader transports the sliced goods via a conveyor belt with integrated sorting conveyor to the central element of the line, the Weber VMAX packaging system and the intelligent VMAXIMUM separation and buffering system.
The central element of the packaging line is the high-performance thermoforming packaging machine VMAX. Its modular design allows it to be precisely adapted to different applications and requirements. It is designed for film widths of 420 to 660 mm and pulling lengths of up to 1,400 mm. In addition to very high output, the focus is also on operator and service friendliness, which is taken into account by the low frame height of 850 mm, for example. A stable machine frame and high-quality materials ensure a long service life. The existing slicing systems enable film, strip, and complete slices. All format and cutting tools come from Weber’s own production. The absolutely precise workmanship of the tools ensures very high quality for the produced packages. Depending on the application, the machine is able to process different film materials. It does not matter whether it is monomaterial, paper composites, or standard films such as APET-PE in this case. This means that the machine is also equipped to meet any requirements for packaging material of the future.
What is particularly impressive about the machine, however is its high flexibility. There are two reasons for this: on the one hand, a format change can be carried out virtually at the push of a button, since the machine is equipped with two complete tools in the forming station. Secondly, the VMAX has a motorized drawing depth adjustment in both forming tools, so that the desired drawing depth in the packages can be set via a simple input at the control panel. In the sealing station area, the VMAX has a built-in top film printer, so that Maaz does not have to maintain a large storage area for different films but can print the packages directly and in different languages. As a result, the company will also be flexible in this area in the future. To further increase flexibility with regard to the range of applications, the possibility of producing perforated double packages was created.
It is actually difficult to identify a central highlight of this line solution, since each individual module considerably contributes to the performance and efficiency of the entire system. However, the intelligent VMAXIMUM separation system as a downstream module to the VMAX thermoformer stands out on closer inspection. On the one hand, the VMAXIMUM is used for lane separation, on the other hand, it can store entire format sets in buffer cabinets. The machine is thus able to buffer production for up to six minutes. This feature eliminates the need to stop the line for regular operations such as changing consumables or reloading product. Even if there are jams in the upstream or downstream process, the line continues to run. According to information, this leads to an approximately 3-6% increase in OEE. As a pleasant side effect, it also enables more relaxed working on the line. The buffer effect gives staff more time to react to disruptions and to carry out their daily work. Ideally, this can save on personnel, since with several lines in a row, one machine operator is sufficient to maintain safe production.
The automated rejection of bad and empty packages by the VMAXIMUM also increases process reliability. In this way, only high-quality packages are supplied to the food retailer and expensive product recalls are avoided. The quality drawer integrated VMAXIMUM further contributes to quality and process reliability. At freely selectable intervals, the drawer can be used to conveniently remove entire pull-outs in order to regularly check the packing quality and the residual oxygen content.
The system is finished off by a checkweigher from Wipotec, Weber’s long-standing OEM partner. The scale is networked with the slicer and thus provides feedback on pack weights. Based on the feedback, the cutting unit can then automatically adjust the slicing parameters in order to reduce give-away, if necessary. The checkweigher also has a metal detection option.
“We are very satisfied with the complete line,” says Bertho Moors, summing up his impressions so far.
The Belgians did not chose Weber for this line solution by chance. In addition to the fact that thirteen Weber packaging lines are already in operation at the Dutch sister company and the company finds the unique technology convincing, a friendly relationship of trust built up over many years on both sides also played a role in the decision. Bertho Moors and Weber Food Technology have been working together since the early 1980s. Long before he founded the new Maaz company, he had worked for other customers of the machine manufacturer. “I have never bought another slicer in all these years,” explains Bertho Moors. There are many reasons for this. “On the one hand, there was of course little choice in the market in the 80s. All the other machines were very difficult to operate,” he recalls of the early days. In addition, there are no compatibility problems when technology comes from one supplier. Above all, however, Weber is an exceptionally innovative company. Focusing on the market and customers, Weber has always had a flair for innovation and found ways to develop the right solutions for individual customer requirements. “Weber has always been one step ahead when it comes to new developments that optimize the manufacturing process,” Moors summarizes. Another important aspect is the possibility of developing and adapting the system together with Maaz on site.
The purchase of the new system itself went very quickly. “The purchase of this line, in particular the purchase of VMAX and VMAXIMUM, was also a matter of trust to some extent,” according to Moors. “I hadn’t even seen the machines before. For me, however, the decision was still immediately clear: if we were going to procure something, then the entire line from Weber, including packaging.” And he does not regret the decision, quite the opposite. Above all, Moors finds the service and the personal, direct contact with only one central contact person for the entire line to be extremely positive. “On the one hand, this simplifies communication, of course, and on the other hand there are no interface problems whatsoever – neither technical nor human.”
The new system is an importance piece of the puzzle for the further development of the company. The capacities gained in this way made it possible to complete the planned entry into to supplying supermarkets. The necessary IFS certification was completed in February. Interest from supermarket chains already exists. This adds another option for the customer base of distributors and wholesalers. Should the new capacities in Maaseik not be sufficient in the too distant future, provisions have already been made. In addition to the existing production area of around 4,000 m², further space is available for production expansions. For this, too, Maaz will certainly rely on the support of their German partner. And this partner will certainly have new, innovative solutions on offer.