By Eric Peterson | Feb 24, 2014
Canning for beverage industry
A spinoff of Ska Brewing, Ska Fabricating has boomed making automated canning equipment for other craft brewers.
Matt Vincent bought into the brewery with co-owners Bill Graham and Dave Thibodeau in 1997 after working as head brewer at the smaller Durango Brewing Company since age 22.
Ska has since emerged as the largest brewer in Southwestern Colorado at 30,000 barrels in 2013.
In 2011, Vincent started working with Jim Krall to develop canning products for craft brewers and launch Ska Fabricating.
"The first machine I built was an automated six-packing machine," says Vincent, the company's president and co-owner. He developed a device that used off-the-shelf technology to put the rings on the cans and integrated a bar-code scanner to make sure the front of the label faced out, a task previously accomplished by hand.
"I didn't want to lose that touch of the facing of the cans," he explains. "It got my brain spinning. How can we do this?"
That didn't take off, but something he'd made years before did -- a depalletizer for small craft breweries' canning operation. A depalletizer takes cans off of a shipping pallet and feeds them through a rinse cage en route to the canning line. "It takes a full stack of empty cans -- which is 324 cases -- and it raises the cans up, rinses them out, and sends them out to the filling line," says Vincent.
But the depalletizers on the market weren't designed for small breweries. "The prices were either exorbitant or they said, 'We don't do that small,'" says Vincent.
So Vincent designed one that worked for Ska's canning operations to replace manual methods with no intention of marketing it to other brewers. In April 2012, a group from Austin Beerworks paid Ska a visit and asked if they could get one.
Since then, Ska Fabricating has sold nearly 50 depalletizers at about $25,000 a pop. (Larger depalletizers are typically $150,000 or more.) Customers range from Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida, to Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau, Alaska.
"The response is a little overwhelming," says Vincent, noting that there are about 400 craft breweries who can their beer in the U.S. and Canada.
For 2014, he is forecasting substantial growth from the 24 sold in 2013. "My goal would be to sell 40 more machines," he says. "We're producing about one depalletizer a week now and I'm sold out through May."
Expanding from four to nine employees since late 2013, Ska Fabricating recently moved from a 500-square-foot garage to a 5,000-square-foot facility in Durango and partnered with Dan Morris, who relocated his shop from Pagosa Springs to Durango to work with Vincent.
"He brought more business to the table," says Vincent, citing work with Powder-Jack (snowmobile jacks from Pagosa Springs), Skiboards in Bayfield, and other clients.
Challenges: "Currently, it's keeping up with demand," says Vincent.
But he's looking ahead to new products, and the challenge is "staying on top of what craft brewers need. What can we develop next?"
Opportunities: Moving into other "small-batch" markets with the depalletizer. "It can depalletize anything that is lightweight," says Vincent, citing makers of food and energy drinks as potential targets.
Needs: "Capital for new machinery," says Vincent. The end result would be a boost to productivity.