Technically, the crisis may be over, but the challenges remain. For Sollich, a global supplier of confectionery processing equipment based in Bad Salzuflen, Germany, the economic crunch that chocolate manufacturers faced during the past year and half, coupled with the constant pressure for product innovation, reaffirmed the company’s role as a processing solutions provider.
It’s familiar territory for the company, asserts Thomas Sollich, president and ceo of the company. He cites his grandfather’s role in developing the first vacuum cooking machine, the Sollkoch, back in 1928. That innovation established a precedent for the company, one that the second and third future generations continued to reaffirm.
Thus, it was Thomas’ father, Helmut, who first-hand experienced the ongoing development process. In 1956, Sollich unveiled a circulation tempering process for feeding, enrobing and moulding machines. The following year, it developed the first chocolate enrobing machine with a built-in tempering system.
In 1966, Helmut found himself responsible for spearheading the development effort upon his father’s death. In quick succession, the Decormatic (1966), the Minicoater (1969) and the Conbar candy bar production line (1970) followed suit.
The list of notable processing machines continued through the ‘80s, with the debut of the Caramat, Fondamat, Sollformat, Turbotemper and Sollcofill units, all examples of the company’s engineering strength.
The next decade proved as significant, with the company acquiring Chocotech, developing the Clusterformer and the Shellmaster, and then officially transitioning to the third generation in 1997 with the retirement of Helmut and the installation of Thomas as the head of the company.
Entering his 13th year at the helm, and the 60th year of the company at its present headquarters and manufacturing site in Bad Salzuflen, Thomas expressed gratitude for his father’s handling of the transition.
“Whenever there’s a generational change, it’s often difficult for those who have run a company for years to let go,” he says. “My father experienced that with his father and he wanted to make sure that it would be easier for me. It was a smooth takeover.”
It wasn’t just a generational transition, however. The move also coincided with a shift in technology, from mechanical to electronic, from step motors to servo drives.
“The challenge for my generation is to continue with the inventiveness that’s become a trademark for the company,” Thomas continues. “We’re working on taking further steps in developing controls on our processing equipment, but in a more scientific way. Naturally, there are additional opportunities with computer technology, software intelligence.”
But it’s not just changes in technology that Sollich has implanted into its heritage of innovation; there’s also been a key corporate culture shift, one from a patriarchal style to that of a team concept.
“We give a lot of freedom and responsibility to our engineers, to our technicians,” he says.
And it’s such freedom that allows the company to use its years of experience to help customers address the challenges brought on by efficiency demands and new product innovations.
Consider one of the company’s most recent solutions to a problem many chocolate manufacturers face: rework. As Ralf Schäffer, the company’s executive director, explains, rework typically accounts for 2-3% of a production run.
“Manufacturers want to reuse this, of course, but it usually takes a long time,” he says. “Our engineers were able to develop a small, compact machine that tempers the material and feeds the rework back to line while the line is running. Given today’s demands for traceability, manufacturers can count on being able to use rework, which is 100% good material.”
At a major German chocolate manufacturer, five moulding lines now feature a Reworktemper as part of the processing system. Thus, chocolate bars that are rejected by quality control parameters, even ones with liquid center fillings, are feed into a large capacity feed hopper that is equipped with a mesh screen.
A continuously operating screw, which is jacketed internally for hot water, open over half its length and running within a heated jacketed stator up to 60° C, gathers the broken bars and progressively melts them to feed the second stirred hopper kept at 45° C.
A second continuously running worm operates within a jacketed tempering stator to “temper” the resultant mass down to about 27-28° C. This worm is frequency-controlled in order to determine the percentage rate at which the “re-tempered” material is introduced into the moulding line’s hopper.
Thanks to the Reworktemper, the German chocolate manufacturer will save 15-17 tons of wasted chocolate annually, says Schäffer.
“They will see a payback in less than two years,” he adds.
Consider another customer-driven innovation that Sollich has introduced: Clean-In-Place (CIP) sanitation in enrobers.
In this instance, the company partnered with a major English chocolate maker to reduce the sanitation requirements in an enrobing line that featured production of bars using peanuts and raisins.
“To clean the enrober, it would take them two shifts,” says Andreas Thenhaus, Sollich’s sales and marketing manager. With CIP, the cleanup process takes between two to three hours.
As with the transition from mechanical to electrical, there’s been a transition from an engineering-only emphasis to that of a marketing orientation.
“Companies are looking to invent new products, to add new lines,” Thenhaus explains. “It’s no longer just an investment to add capacity.”
Oftentimes, the company becomes totally involved in a project, one that may span two years, with a confectionery manufacturer.
“Customers trust us; we trust the customer,” Schäffer says. “They know we have the capability and the know-how to deliver solutions.”
Part of that capability stems from Sollich’s commitment to research and development. Eight engineers oversee a research and development lab featuring the company’s full range of processing equipment, from tempering and bar-forming to enrobing and cooling.
To continue the generational legacy upon which the company was founded, Thomas decided to oversee the company’s research and development efforts last year.
It’s not a move he takes lightly.
“The heart of our company is R&D,” he says. “Today, the innovation cycles are shorter, and it’s a challenge to keep pace.”
Noting that today’s confectionery customers rely more and more on their suppliers for processing knowledge, Thomas remains confident that the Sollich team has the experience, expertise and élan to continue the legacy of inventiveness.
After all, it’s in the bloodlines.