Safe filling of baby formula

Two brothers captured a niche market in just four years. Swiss Can Machinery supplies its food-powder filling lines to food manufacturers around the world, including Europe’s largest milk-powder producers. The brothers’ recipe for success is digitalization.

Anyone looking for a Swiss machine manufacturer would usually expect to find a traditional company with a long history and dignified managers. Visitors to Swiss Can Machinery in Berneck in the Canton of St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland are in for a surprise. When they open the door, the two young entrepreneurs Marc and Michael Grabher are bursting with enthusiasm and energy. In 2013, they founded a startup, and today they’re a major player in the market, exporting up to four plants per year to places like Portugal, New Zealand, China, Korea, and Singapore.

Plants for a growing niche market

Swiss Can Machinery builds plants that fill, sterilize, and seal cans and jars of food powder. The company occupies a growing niche market, specializing in foods whose production and packaging require extreme hygienic conditions. Its largest customer group is the baby-formula sector, including milk powder for infants suffering from allergies or lactose intolerance.

Complete plants from Switzerland

The company supplies complete plants, from the removal of empty cans and jars to their sterilization and filling – all the way to palletizing boxes containing the finished products. The plants are developed and built in Switzerland.

Competitive, thanks to digitalization

How does a company succeed in holding its own against international plant-builders despite high staffing and site costs? “Other countries have significant advantages in terms of production costs,” confirms Michael Grabher, who’s in charge of finance and sales. He provides an example: “One square meter of factory space in Switzerland costs many times more than it does in England.”

 

But that hasn’t stopped these brothers. Marc Grabher, who handles all technology-related matters as CTO, adds, “We confront these obstacles in the market by being extraordinarily efficient – in both development and production.” Swiss Can Machinery has been making consistent use of digitalization and optimized its processes from the very beginning. “Each plant is unique, but the workflows are always the same.”

Each plant is unique, but the workflows are always the same.
Marc Grabher, CTO, Member of the Board, Swiss Can Machinery

Half the startup capital was invested in software

During the first year, the founders invested half their startup capital of 100,000 Swiss francs (roughly €92,000) in software – including Teamcenter, the product lifecycle management software from Siemens and the 3D CAD system NX.

Powerful software required

Every plant that Swiss Can Machinery has built over the past few years, every CAD drawing, and every bolt is recorded in Teamcenter. “A plant consists of about 180,000 individual components, and we have almost 250 suppliers,” says Marc. “Managing this amount of data requires powerful software like Teamcenter.”

Modular plant design

One decisive factor in the company’s efficiency is the modular design of its plants, which comprise up to 40 individual machines: for example, a cleaning station, a disinfection station with UVC light, or a weighing station. “The modules and components are designed to permit the broadest possible use and are simple to modify,” Marc explains. Because each line is unique, the modules usually require customization.

 

“For the four plants that we deliver each year, we produce 10,000 CAD drawings. In other words, we develop 50 new parts a day,” says Marc. “And we do it all with just five designers. That’s why we need to be able to produce a new drawing quickly. Otherwise we would be much too slow and too expensive.”

 

In addition, 3D models of customers’ production halls are produced in Teamcenter. “More and more customers want to expand their existing plants,” says Michael Grabher. “To integrate new modules, we need precise information on the interfaces. If they’re modeled in Teamcenter, it means we don’t have to measure the production halls on site, which can save us a trip to China or Singapore.”

If the interfaces of our installed plants are modeled in Teamcenter, it means we don’t have to measure the production halls on site, which can save us a trip to China or Singapore.
Michael Grabher, CEO and Sales, Chairman, Swiss Can Machinery

High hygienic standards

For its plants, Swiss Can Machinery values quality over quantity. The standards are high because the products are filled in a cleanroom environment. The residual oxygen in the filled cans is especially critical. Swiss Can Machinery leads the market with a residual oxygen value of 0.5 percent.

 

All metal components that come into contact with products are made of stainless steel and designed so that no impurities can lodge in corners or recesses. The plants meet the stringent requirements of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and its European counterpart (EHEDG).

 

The plants are configured and commissioned with the aid of the TIA Portal. The company has also supplemented its software with the Multiuser Engineering option package. This means that designers can work on a project in parallel and independently, thereby substantially reducing engineering time. To achieve the consistent storage, management, and updating of all the machine data, Teamcenter is linked to the TIA Portal.

Exploiting the data’s full potential

Digitalization at Swiss Can Machinery doesn’t stop with its plants. With each new generation, the mechanics becomes simpler. The company relies on automation and programming. As much as possible, manual buttons and switches are eliminated: The goal is to control everything with software. This means that all settings and data are available in digital form, enabling comprehensive remote maintenance.

Our goal is to correct faults without having to leave our premises
Marc Grabher, CTO, Member of the Board, Swiss Can Machinery

Here again, Marc is thinking ahead: “Our goal is to correct faults without having to leave our premises.” Swiss Can Machinery monitors its plants distributed around the globe from the company’s location and offers software updates via remote maintenance. Another goal is to perform preventive maintenance and even to achieve the self-optimization of its plants. “If a cylinder is operating more slowly, we know that it will soon need to be replaced,” explains Michael. “This allows us to prevent an unplanned production outage and guarantee high availability. It represents a major advantage over our competitors.”

Prepared for increasing quantities of data

Swiss Can Machinery equipped itself to handle the large quantities of data produced by plant monitoring and purchased new servers. Altogether the company invests about 100,000 Swiss francs (roughly €92,000) in software and hardware every year. Says Michael: “The amount of data is always growing, there’s no preventing that. But if it’s correctly stored and utilized from the very start, it offers tremendous potential – and we’re going to exploit that.”

Swiss Can Machinery AG develops and produces machines and plants for filling and sealing cans and jars containing powder and dry products. The company specializes in products that require filling and sealing under extreme hygienic conditions. In particular, these include special formulas for babies with allergies or intolerances. The plants are produced in Switzerland and exported worldwide. Swiss Can Machinery was founded in 2013 and currently has 15 employees.

23. October 2019

Photos: Swiss Can Machinery AG

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