Equipment Innovations Bring New Level of Automation to Packaging Operations

Pack Expo Las Vegas to Showcase Latest Machine Innovations It’s amazing how much packaging is still done by hand, especially at the end of the line. For packagers with manual operations, robotic technology and new equipment designs are making it easier than ever to automate or transition to upgraded equipment.

Pack Expo Las Vegas to Showcase Latest Machine Innovations

It’s amazing how much packaging is still done by hand, especially at the end of the line. For packagers with manual operations, robotic technology and new equipment designs are making it easier than ever to automate or transition to upgraded equipment.

Packagers can research and review some of the latest trends in automated packaging equipment by visiting PACK EXPO Las Vegas, September 26-28, 2005, at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Sponsored and produced by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI), the show will display hundreds of machines capable of automating manual operations or upgrading automated lines.

Flexible Robots

Ergonomic concerns, labor costs and the need for flexibility are heightening interest in both hard automation and robotic systems on the packaging line. Robots are receiving increased attention because prices have dropped, reliability is extremely high, and advanced software and controls simplify setup and operation. Depending on the configuration of the system, the robot controller may be able to drive one or two additional servo motors so it also can control another device like a collating conveyor. This eliminates the need for a separate motor and controller. “Our overall goal is to reduce hardware and integration costs so systems are more affordable,” says L.P. Musunur, Ph.D., engineering manager, Material Removal/Palletizing & Packing at FANUC Robotics America, Inc., Rochester Hills, MI.

“Everyone is looking for lower cost manufacturing,” he explains. “Robots play a key role because they not only offer a lower total cost of ownership, but also higher flexibility.”

Schneider Packaging Equipment Co., Inc., Brewerton, NY, an integrator of FANUC Robotics, utilizes a FANUC M16iB six-axis robot with a 20-kilogram payload capacity to pack empty plastic bottles into corrugated cases. The robotic case packer provides the flexibility to handle a wide variety of bottle shapes and sizes, case sizes, and pack patterns necessary to satisfy the needs of the blowmolding industry. The cell provides a versatile case packing solution in a compact footprint.

Schneider, which manufactures a full line of conventional case and tray packers in addition to its robotic solutions, also offers a robotic Multiple Line Palletizer and a Robotic Case Packer-Palletizer combination. Based on a five-axis robot, the integrated case packer-palletizer loads, labels, scans and palletizes cases with a single robotic arm. “This increases automation while maintaining a small footprint, thereby saving plant floor space,” explains Pete Squires, Schneider’s vice president of Controls. Custom-designed end-of-arm tooling is flexible enough to pick and place various size objects, including boxes, bags, bundles, bales, cans, bottles, and jars.

Farther up the line, a robotic case packer loads different flavors of bagged product to create variety packs in display cases or regular slotted cases. Capable of flat or vertical packing, the robot in the two-lane Pick and Place Case Packer from BluePrint Automation, Inc., Colonial Heights, VA, picks up collated pouches from one lane and sets them flat into a corrugated case and then repeats the process with product from the second lane. To arrange pouches vertically in the case, the robot loads an intermediate cassette, which slides pouches into a tipped case.

Another flexible packaging solution, the stainless steel LRC-400i top load robot system from Langen Packaging Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, can handle a wide range of products and tray or case styles. The system relies on an M420i robot from FANUC Robotics and customized end-of-arm tooling as well as modular infeed, product collating and tray handling modules to ensure maximum flexibility. The LRC-400i is ideally suited for high-speed packaging of wrapped product while comfortably accommodating a variety of food and consumer goods.

Automating Manual Tasks

Automating what is often a manual operation, the six-position Distribution System from MULTI-FILL, Inc., West Jordan, UT, distributes small dimensioned, hard-to-fill products such as cooked rice and pastas, vegetables, fruits and refrigerated salads into trays, cups or formed pouches on multilane form-fill-seal or fill-seal systems at up to 15 cycles or about 80 packs per minute. If handled manually, “such repetitive motion can pose liability and injury concerns,” says Christine Marchadour, vice president, International Sales & Marketing at Multi-Fill. With few moving parts, the system is easy to clean and requires minimal maintenance.

Automation often means installation of relatively simple mechanical machines like the Econseal Spartan Cartoner from ECONOCORP, Inc., Randolph, MA. One recent innovation on the horizontal, end-load cartoner is the transition to an AC inverter motor, which replaces a motor, clutch brake, speed reducer, and indexing box. Unlike the previous fixed speed indexing, this improved design allows the drive to run at maximum speed while offering smoother indexing due to the capability to “ramp up” and “ramp down” at both ends of the machine cycle. The intermittent-motion, 40-carton-per-minute machine with programmable logic control also has added a touch screen interface to simplify control of flight chain speed. “Our philosophy is to keep it basic, simple and functional,” says Mark Jacobson, vice president of ECONOCORP.

To maximize productive time for forklift operators, stretch wrapping has become an increasingly automated process. The Spectra II, a turntable stretch-wrapping machine from Orion Packaging Systems, Inc., Collierville, TN, is designed to minimize maintenance while maximizing flexibility and reliability. Capable of wrapping pallet loads measuring up to 55 x 55 x 90 inches and weighing up to 5,000 pounds at the rate of 45 loads per hour, the Spectra II features digital variable frequency drives powered by brushless AC motors, which require less maintenance than DC motors. In addition, automatic chain tensioning eliminates the need for periodic adjustment of the turntable drive chain. An Insta-Thread Powered Prestretch carriage accelerates film roll changeover and maximizes film economy with a powered prestretch of 260%. Orion’s Insta-cut feature automatically severs the film web at the end of each wrapping cycle eliminating the need for the forklift operator to step down from the vehicle to cut the film tail.

Automated Quality Control

The demand for automated inspection is growing. One reason is the declining numbers of operators overseeing packaging lines. Another driver is the growing demand for 100% inspection to guarantee no packaging errors are shipped, especially in regulated industries like pharmaceutical where regulators are beginning to insist that periodic, off-line inspection simply isn’t good enough.

Banner Engineering Corp., Minneapolis, MN, continues to broaden its family of PresencePLUS P4 vision sensors to accommodate inspection needs such as label verification, fill level detection, date/lot code verification, orientation confirmation, lid inspection, vial stopper alignment, assembly verification, complete case inspection, syringe assembly verification and blister package verification. Original equipment manufacturers install the compact vision sensors with high resolution cameras in new machines, but equipment also may be retrofit to make it possible to perform new inspection tasks. “Inspection is more critical in the pharmaceutical industry, but we’ve had across the board interest,” says Bob Schlicksub, vice president of International Sales.