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Small engineering component packaging

23 July 2021

James Cawkell looks at how component manufacturers and distributors can seal small parts in pocketed tape produced in-house, as a cost-effective and space-efficient solution for storage and shipping

TINY COMPONENTS such as small springs, miniature machined or stamped parts, and moulded parts present many handling challenges from the point of manufacture to the point they are fitted in the end product.

Items are usually packed in bags, small boxes, or component trays for transit and storage. Neither is ideal. Bags and boxes do not protect individual components and can allow bulk-packaged parts such as springs to become interlinked. Also, bags and boxes are not well suited for presenting components to a customer’s automated assembly processes and mis-counting can occur. Trays provide protection for individual components and can be used with tray-feeding mechanisms for automated assembly. However, sufficient numbers of the right types of trays must be available to package the parts ready for shipping. Also, trays are not well suited to shipping very large numbers of components.

Bags and boxes are not well suited for presenting components to a customer’s automated assembly processes and mis-counting can occur

Pocketed tape offers an alternative that provides individual protection for parts while also allowing large numbers of components to be stored efficiently on a reel. Carrier tape is created by embossing small pockets at pre-defined intervals into a semi-rigid backing. A transparent cover strip is added to seal the components in their pockets. The packaging cost per pocket is low. Component tapes supplied on reels are widely used in high-speed automated manufacturing scenarios such as surface-mount electronic assembly. There are already reliable and economical mechanisms for feeding the carrier tape, removing the cover strip, extracting the components, and discarding the used materials.

On the other hand, some of the challenges that apply to trays apply equally to pocketed tape. Enough tape, of the right width and with pockets the right size, must be available to package the components. Without enough tape, parts cannot be despatched to fulfil customers’ orders. Also, holding large quantities of tapes, with different widths and pocket sizes, occupies a significant storage space.

Bring tape forming in-house

Producing pocketed tape on demand can help overcome these inventory and supply problems. Cost reduction and the flexibility of producing just the amount of tape required for each application reduces cost, stock levels, space, and wastage. With such capability, part manufacturers and distributors can take advantage of pocketed tape for protection, space-saving storage, convenient and efficient shipping, and compatibility with automated manufacturing. Flat tape is easier to store than pre-formed tape. In fact, the space needed to store stock carrier tape can be reduced by as much as 95%. There is also potential for a recurring financial saving by purchasing unformed tape instead of pre-formed pocketed tape.

Even companies that do not intend to produce all their own packaging in house can benefit from having an independent pocket-forming capability. In the event of an emergency, having the option to produce a small quantity of tape on demand to fulfil an order can mean the difference between delivering on time and delivering late.

Payback time

The up-front investment needed to start making tape in house can be surprisingly low. Adaptsys’ Re-flex II system comes at a price that enables companies to recoup their investment in as little as 12 months, depending on usage. The latest model incorporates upgrades to the motor-control system that allow tape speed up to four metres per minute thereby ensuring high throughput. Its compact footprint, measuring just 75cm x 35cm occupies minimal real-estate in a factory or packing area and the system requires only a standard AC supply and compressed air.

The system can handle tapes up to 88mm wide and gives users the flexibility to create pockets in standardised or custom dimensions simply by changing the tooling. The pockets may be simple shapes, such as a square, rectangular, or rounded recess, or may be specifically shaped to fit a particular component or provide certain functions such as protecting vulnerable pins or protrusions. Adaptsys can help customers create custom tooling where required and has successfully developed solutions for various special components such as small electronic modules and electrical connectors.

The system is designed to allow tooling to be designed and produced quickly and cost effectively. Changing the tooling to a different tape design in a production setting requires no special skills and takes just a few minutes, enabling users to produce pocket designs in almost any quantity from low and medium to high volume. In addition, Re-flex II provides quality inspection and traceability of each formed pocket.

Re-flex II can be used with any standard-size input and output reels up to 22” (560mm) in diameter, taking flat tape from the input reel and delivering formed pocketed tape to the output reel. It is also possible to create pocketed tape in real-time to be fed directly into a component taping process for packaging large numbers of components.

Here is a simple example. The Re-flex II supply reel can contain up to 1000 metres of flat tape. In contrast, the same size reel can carry only about 40m of pre-formed carrier tape assuming a pocket depth of 6mm. If the taping process operates at 2 metres of parts every minute, the operator needs to change both the supply and output reels every 20 minutes. When feeding the taping process directly from the Re-flex II system, the supply reel only needs to be changed once every eight hours – equivalent to once per shift, or less - thereby greatly reducing stoppage times and raising the overall productivity of component taping.

Efficiency-boosting option

While Re-flex II is intended primarily for feeding pocketed tape directly into a component taper, the new Crosswinder option now enhances owners’ flexibility to produce tape onto reels to be stored for later use.

With the Crosswinder, Re-Flex II gives extra flexibility to store more components on a reel by increasing the reel width. Crosswinder neatly winds tape of a standard width, say 12mm, across a 100mm-wide reel to increase the storage capacity by a factor of 8 compared to an ordinary 12mm reel. In the end-customer’s factory, a crosswound reel can supply significantly more parts to a high-speed component taper before needing to be replaced thereby reducing changeovers. The Crosswinder ensures the tape is neatly ordered to unwind smoothly, which helps avoid problems that may otherwise require the taper to stop. Crosswound reels are available in various widths to provide high maximum capacity.

Tape and reel packaging is a proven solution widely used to protect parts such as electronic components

Tape and reel packaging is a proven solution widely used to protect parts such as electronic components during shipping and present the parts for automated assembly. In fact, the packaging is suited to a wide variety of component types across many industries.

The Re-flex II offers a compact and affordable tape-forming solution, capable of operating at high speeds to synchronise with downstream component-taping equipment. Delivering the flexibility to produce pocketed tape on demand, to custom or standard designs, and in almost any quantity, the equipment is easily able to repay the initial investment within a year.

James Cawkell is technical director at Adaptsys