Bean box is scaling up — and fast. The Seattle, Washington-based company’s artisanal coffee subscription service is a hit with customers across the United States, earning Bean Box more than 100 percent year-over-year growth since it was founded four years ago. But to keep up with that growing demand, Bean Box had to take its startup operations to the next level. The company recently installed an automatic rotary premade pouch filling machine to increase the speed and scale of its packaging process and reduce labor costs.
When Matthew Berk and Ryan Fritzky launched Bean Box in 2014, they created a coffee-of-the-month-club concept that capitalizes on Seattle’s reputation as a coffee mecca. Members sign up for the subscription service online at Bean Box’s website, where they indicate their roast preference (light, medium, dark, espresso, decaffeinated or all roasts). Every month members receive four varieties of coffee beans in 2-oz bags from independent, award-winning, small-batch roasters in Seattle. Bean Box ships out the coffee beans within 48 hours of roasting to ensure freshness and quality of the product. Customers may also order full-size 12-oz bags of any coffee from their subscriptions as well coffee gift sets. The company has since added small coffee roasters from Portland, Oregon — another city known for its coffee culture — to its subscription service.
Bean Box packages and ships about 35 tons of coffee beans a year. Half of that volume is processed in December during the holiday season. Every week Bean Box receives about 200 different types of coffee beans from the 30 Seattle and Portland artisanal coffee roasters it works with. The coffee beans arrive at the Bean Box facility within hours of being roasted. The company then only has 48 hours to package the beans and ship the products to customers. Outside of the holiday season, Bean Box now ships between 2,500 and 3,000 boxes of coffee a week.
To accommodate its growing customer base and meet its stringent turnaround time for shipping, Bean Box ditched hand-filling its packages in favor of an automated packaging system. It installed a Viking Masek 8S-235 automatic rotary premade pouch filling machine in the fall of 2017 that accelerates the packaging of its coffee beans, particularly during the company’s busy holiday season when it packages and ships about 15 tons of coffee beans in three weeks.
“Being able to package coffee at real throughput is everything to our business. First, we needed to support packaging at a greatly enhanced scale to meet our demand for our holiday season peak. Secondly, we’re really growing our baseline outside of the holidays,” says Berk, co-founder and CEO of Bean Box. “And when you have that commitment of shipping the freshest possible coffee hours after roasting the beans, time is at a premium.”
The daily grind
When the beans arrive at the Bean Box facility in tubs of up to 100 lb, operators load them into a hopper. A pneumatic conveying system transports the beans into a secondary hopper mounted above the scale, which is integrated into the Viking Masek 8S-235.
An operator then manually loads Bean Box’s preformed Kraft paper stand-up pouches into the bag magazine at the front of the filling and sealing machine, shingling them in a single-file line. A bag feeding roller conveys the bags to the machine’s first station. When the machine’s proximity sensor detects the bag, a vacuum bag loader picks up the pouch and transfers it to a set of grippers attached to the machine’s rotating head. These grippers will hold and secure the bag as it makes its way through the remaining stations.
Because Bean Box pouches have resealable zippers, the Viking Masek pouch filling and sealing machine has a mechanical zipper opening station to separate the zipper and the sides of the bag to make sure the pouch is open for filling. Vacuum suction pads open the gusset of the pouch, while opening jaws with suction cups catch the top sides of the bag and stretch them outward. At the same time, a blast of filtered air is blown into the bag to ensure it is fully opened.
Based on the specifications the operator entered into the human machine interface (HMI), the scale then doses a specific amount of coffee beans into a plunging funnel, which is lowered into the bag. The funnel ensures the coffee beans are dispensed into the bag and prevents them from spilling over into the machine. The grippers then close the bag tightly.
A hot seal bar seals the upper part of the pouch. A cooling bar passes over the seal to strengthen and flatten it and reclose the zipper. The bag is then transported down the line for packing into Bean Box boxes.
Brewing up benefits
The Viking Masek 8S-235 fills and seals Bean Box’s preformed stand-up pouches at speeds of up to 44 bags per minute for the 2-oz pouches and 30 bags per minute for the 12-oz pouches. That’s a huge improvement over the manual, hand-filling method the company used in its first three years of operation, which only yielded about four to six bags per minute.
Before it installed the Viking Masek machine, Bean Box used four linear scale and volumetric filling systems to package its coffee beans. It was a labor-intensive, inefficient process that required the operators to manually load only about 20 pounds of beans at a time into the hopper, hold each pouch beneath the vibratory infeeder tray and funnel, and release the beans by pressing a foot pedal. When the operators were working diligently, they could fill about nine bags per minute. But they usually only filled about four to six bags per minute, taking into account breaks, hopper reloading, pulling stacks of bags for filling and other tasks, according to Berk.
In addition to enhancing Bean Box’s packaging speed, the Viking Masek machine has also reduced labor costs for Bean Box. The new automated machine only requires two people to operate it. The previous packaging line consisted of four machines that each required an operator, who worked at his or her own pace. To keep up with customer growth in 2017, Berk estimates Bean Box would have needed eight to 12 of those linear scale and volumetric filling machines, which wasn’t feasible from a staffing standpoint.
“On the [Viking Masek] equipment, the machine operates at 40-plus bags a minute, no matter what the operators do. It scales to handle batches from as small as 20 pounds to as large as hundreds of pounds,” Berk says. “The automation sets the pace, and the operators keep up with that, as opposed to the operator setting whatever pace they want [with the previous packaging equipment]. It’s a major difference in terms of how people work, and the output is incredible.”
With the labor savings and increased speed of the packaging process, Berk calculates that Bean Box now spends less than 1 cent per bag fill using the Viking Masek equipment, as compared to at least 10 cents per bag with the previous packaging system. “It’s a pretty dramatic decrease in labor costs,” he says.
Berk is also impressed with the changeover time. When switching between the 2-oz bag and the 12-oz bag, the operator inputs the dimensions for the width of the bag into the HMI so the grippers adjust accordingly. He or she then manually adjusts the magazine guide rails to accommodate the width of the pouch, moves the suction cups to adapt to the length of the bag and changes the size of the plunging funnel. “We can go from a small bag to a large bag or the other direction in probably six or seven minutes,” Berk says.
Since installing the Viking Masek 8S-235, Bean Box has not only advanced its operations, but the improvement in packaging speed and scale has allowed the company to concentrate on enhancing its products. “The biggest overall advantage for us is that it’s changed our business from struggling with a low-value operation, which is stuffing beans in bags, to allowing us to focus on higher-value operations,” Berk says. “The most value we provide is featuring a variety of different roasts from great roasters and combining them into novel products that are beautiful to experience. That’s where we want to operate.”
“We thought we were going to upgrade our packaging process, and, in the end, our packaging process upgraded us,” he adds. “It’s changed our game.”