KENTWOOD — For months, Advance Packaging Corp. has been trying to fill nearly two dozen openings at its facility in Kentwood.
Unfortunately for the company, it’s become a “very difficult” process to hire the needed mechanics, maintenance managers and technicians for second and third shifts at its facility at 4459 40th St. SE, according to Vice President Scott Wilcox.
The Kentwood-based Advance Packaging, a manufacturer and labeler of corrugated board, faces labor challenges common to many area manufacturers. To help alleviate that bottleneck, the company invested $13 million into a German-made printing process machine to drive throughput and add capacity without having to add to headcount.
“If we can produce more per hour with the same amount of people, that will put us in a good position and allow us to grow,” Wilcox told MiBiz.
Advance Packaging’s new printing machine can churn out 10,000 high-resolution sheets per hour and inspects each piece of material to ensure it’s free of flaws. The machine prints on corrugated board, which can then be turned into packaging for consumer goods such as a carton for beer.
According to Wilcox, the labor shortage has pushed packaging manufacturers and their customers to embrace automation technology and resort to additional training for workers.
“There’s a lot of automation being brought on right now,” he said. “We’re having a very difficult time, as most people are, in finding the staffing and finding the people to run the equipment. It would be one thing if there was just a plethora of extra people, (but) it’s really not the case anymore. You’re really struggling to find good people and good help.”
With more than 20 machines at its 500,000-square-foot facility, Advance Packaging will become more vertically integrated with its new investment in equipment, which is expected to be operational by later this month.
According to Wilcox, Advance Packaging is one of the only manufacturers in North America to offer this type of technology, which will allow the company to “serve clients on a national level while keeping manufacturing jobs here in Michigan.”
By adding capacity, the company is combining two presses to print and die cut on one machine. Wilcox hopes that by adding this “new process, the amount of inherent downtime is going to be significantly less, giving (the company) an overall higher output.”
“We’ll be able to allow part of the crew to concentrate on printing, and then part of the crew to concentrate on die cutting,” he said. “That’ll really allow us to raise the quality levels of both the printing and the die cutting and increase the overall efficiency of it.”
Advance Packaging generates less than $100 million in annual sales and ships 60 percent of the high-end packaging it produces to sites more than 500 miles from West Michigan.
Most of the company’s business comes in the consumer products segment, which makes up about 40 percent of its overall operations, according to Wilcox.
Since 2007, the company’s grown by 300 percent after moving into its current facility.
“It’s strong,” Wilcox said of Advance Packaging’s business. “I can’t speak for all of our competitors, but we’re very busy and I’m assuming from what I’m seeing in the marketplace, everybody else is. … There isn’t any sign right now to tell me this can slow down anytime soon.”
Despite Wilcox’s optimism, Cleveland-based Freedonia Group, an industry market research firm, expects the “growth in corrugated and paperboard box demand will be relatively slow through 2020,” as “market maturity and competition from other packaging formats continue to limit gains.”
However, Freedonia noted in a recent report that corrugated and paperboard box manufacturers will benefit “from greater demand for boxes with high-quality graphics,” including a greater emphasis on image clarity.
Along those lines, Wilcox is seeing more opportunities for Advance Packaging to evolve its printing strategies to make better products. One way is to focus on the retail packaging industry by creating high-end direct-print products, which include colorful display boxes that customers can find at club stores and retailers such as Meijer, Kroger and Target.
To focus on the high-end business, Advance Packaging needs to be able to print in color at a high resolution, said Scott Kloss, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing. Think beyond typical brown boxes to a visually appealing case of craft beer as one example, he added.
The high-end direct-print product has always been a part of the company’s business, Wilcox said.
“We really thought that this high-end part was a way we could grow and expand out of West Michigan,” he said. “We did that, and we’ve been very successful with that over the last 10 years. This new press we put in is basically a backup to our current press. It’s also giving us a lot of additional capacity.
“We pretty much filled out most of the capacity we had on that current press.”