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End of the line for manual packaging?

21 July 2017

In common with most industrial processes, bringing an element of automation to packaging activities can be of great benefit - today's automated packaging equipment is capable of working with various designs and multiple sizes, optimising the packing of small, large, and fragile products in a speedy manner, eliminating human error and helping to ensure zero variation in the packaging process. Charlotte Stonestreet reports

Even if you are not directly involved in the packaging sector, unless you have an existence of self subsistence, packaging will have an impact on your life. In fact, although you might not realise it, packaging actually has an important economic role. According to the World Packaging Organisation without packaging, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a country would significantly reduce in value. This is simply because product cannot be shipped from source to manufacturer to retailer to consumer, through the supply chain, without proper packaging. Packaging must be developed from specific materials, into specific shapes and texture, scientifically designed to suit the product being packaged, to suit the hazards of the transit journey, to maximise the shelf life of the product and to ultimately positively influence the consumer purchase decision, resulting in a contribution to the GDP of the country.

Packaging must protect the product, not only from transit and physical damage, but also from microbial and bacterial deterioration as well as climatic hazards, like heat, cold, moisture, frost etc. In this role, especially with respect to food product, packaging significantly reduces the wastage of food during the transit journey. Packaging can also aid in identifing, tracking and tracing the product. Consumers are now more than ever aware of product shelf lives, product traceability to the packer/product originator, enabling effective product recall in instances where product integrity is questionable.

A recent report, “Packaging Automation Market - Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast 2017 - 2025” points to the importance of packaging automation in attaining maximum profits in the light of intense competition and increasing globalisation of manufacturing. One of the factors highlighted is the way in which standardised HMIs help in reducing the learning curve required for training machine operators, as is the growing concern surrounding safety regulation in the pharma, health care and food and beverage sectors, more so in emerging economies such as India, China, and Latin America. Safety regulations can be adhered to by developing applications which include automated reporting capabilities that helps in generating reports for each packaging line.

Investment in automated equipment is cost a that is easily recoverable

The report also point to applications where many bulk of items are packed per minute, requiring robotic automation to fulfil the packaging demand. Use of automated machines means it requires less labour to accomplish the packaging process, thus reducing the labour cost in the long term period. Investment in automated equipment is cost a that is easily recoverable; but in cases smaller companies do not want to invest huge amounts as they do not want to take risks at the preliminary stage.

Diving deep

With average human arm measuring just 63.5cm, placing heavy loads of products into deep food Bulk Display Units (BDUs) can be challenging and subjects manual handlers to the risk of repetitive strain injuries. Torso twisting and bending to reach into low corners is especially hazardous when repeated throughout the working day.

With BDUs being an increasingly common sight on the retail shop floor nowadays - particularly within wholesale and supermarket fresh produce aisles - automation specialist Pacepacker Services regularly recommends switching to a robotic solution.

Combining palletising reach and payload with gentle case loading end of arm tooling, these BDU robots are far less risk adverse, and can also significantly reduce product waste from bruising and damaged packaging, notes automation solution team manager, Ian Merchant.

Examining the basic physics of palletising and the torque required to support the weight being moved, robots provide the logical solution, and overcome the issue of poor body mechanics and risk of back strain. “If you compare the reach of the FANUC M410 robot, at 3.1 metres it’s almost five times the reach of the average human arm,” says Merchant.

He expands: “When working in a confined space, which most end-of-line palletising BDU cells are, moving shaped or unstable loads and excessive weights when stooping and twisting will increase the likelihood of workforce injuries. BDUs are typically 1 metre high by 1.2 metres in depth. Even with the front access gate open, reaching repeatedly into the back corners to place and layer sacks of potatoes or other root vegetables weighing anything from 2kg upwards will take its toil on even the strongest person’s body. Yet, if you drop product in from a height, you increase the risk of product bruising leading to unhappy customers and consumers. Both these scenarios impact profitability.”

Used in many palletising applications, the M410 robot can effortlessly handle anything from 25kg potato sacks, to tubs of animal feed and bales of pet bedding. Other robots, like the M20 or M710, can easily circumnavigate a 1m-unit wall and reach into the furthest and nearest corners. 

The type of end effector used will vary by application. But with 80+ to choose from, including multifunctional tools, there are plenty of options. For bulky agricultural products, Pacepacker created a unique cradle gripper and this is proven to work especially well for loading BDUs.

Formed of two opposing finger sections, the grippers incline and taper to form a wedge. These fingers gently lower to cradle fresh poly bags of produce, delicately moving and placing them into BDUs. The tips of the gripper are rounded to prevent bags from being pierced. However, the motion of enveloping products in a cradle style is also designed to ensure the fingers don’t penetrate bags.

During the release stage, the gripper is angled to rotate and adjust according to the depth and positioning within the BDU. For corner placement, the fingers closest to the wall open, gently sliding the bag down into position.

Modified prototype

Mitsubishi electric used interpack to showcase the latest advances in its Smart Carriage technology which have been developed in cooperation with e‑F@ctory Alliance partner, APT Automation. The newly modified prototype features high-speed performance, on-board intelligence, real-time synchronisation with other processes, assured safety and the ability to switch between vertical as well as horizontal tracks.

The Smart Carriage addresses industry challenges such as greater production line flexibility, improved productivity and increased overall equipment effectiveness. It offers significant benefits in a range of industry sectors, but perhaps most significantly in both secondary and end-of-line packaging applications within the food and beverage as well as life science industries. Possible applications include magic belt product grouping, side loaders, wrap-around cartoners, shrink wrappers, as well as transport packing applications in conjunction with carton assemblers, robot top loaders, carton closers and palletising robots.

By offering on-board intelligence and data memory, as well as integrated power for on-carriage devices such as sensors, the Smart Carriage can store product information and production data. It can then communicate information from one station to the next which also allows the carriage to detect different products and then decide on optimum routes and destinations. This is supported by a high maximum speed of 4m/sec, plus, acceleration / deceleration of 3g and a positioning accuracy of ±0.01mm. With this solution, packaging conveyors are entering a new era of speed and accuracy. Together, these features considerably increase the efficiency and flexibility of the packaging process.

Features considerably increase the efficiency and flexibility of the packaging process

Increased OEE

Optima Nonwovens, a member of the OPTIMA Packaging Group, develops leading-edge technologies for packaging paper hygiene products. A recent project for a nappy bagger/stacker features the iTRAK Intelligent Track System from Rockwell Automation, which as well as enabling greater flexibility for rapid product-format changeovers, has also helped to increase the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) of the machine.

The previous-generation machine used a long belt, with fixed-pitch paddles for transportation and grouping of the product to be packaged. This configuration meant that any product changeovers – especially those relating to the size of the product – required significant re-engineering to adjust the belts to match the new product sizes. In isolation, these changeovers were not too long, but when four or five were required on a shift, the cumulative downtime soon added up.

The iTRAK solution comprises multiple movers running on straight and curved paths, all of which can be independently controlled; instantly removing the limitations of fixed-pitch belt systems. Its highly innovative capabilities combine both linear and rotary motion, resulting in a flexible, fully integrated solution that can increase production throughput, reduce maintenance and overall machine size and, in this instance, slash machine changeover times.

The iTRAK system is part of a Rockwell Automation Integrated Architecture solution, which is used to both actuate and control the majority of the machine’s primary functions.

At the heart of the automation infrastructure is an Allen-Bradley ControlLogix programmable automation controller (PAC) working in conjunction with an Allen-Bradley PanelView Plus 7 operator interface. In addition to the iTRAK servo solution, the machine deploys a number of more-traditional servo motors and Allen-Bradley Kinetix 6000 multi-axis servo drives. These servo solutions are used for a number of steps and functions, including pushing the diapers/nappies into the packs, driving the belts to move the products between stations, the turntables, the two product compression steps, product positioning, bag welding, bag extraction and final movement to the take-out conveyor.

Horizontal flow wrapper

Another Interpack debut – this time for Paramount Packaging Systems, the UK and Ireland’s exclusive distributor of Fuji’s horizontal and vertical form-fill-seal equipment – the Fuji Alpha 8 Horizontal Flow Wrapper has evolved to incorporate a stronger, simpler and more accessible end seal system, which is quieter, more reliable, with higher sealing pressure. The Fuji Vision System (FVS) is further enhanced with “auto teaching”, which includes automatic detection of film registration, allowing for easier setup and product change, and the detection of correct print for product, thus avoiding incorrect film. 

The high-specification machine is complemented by a new interface, with a larger screen (now 15.6”), which is customisable to allow for immediate access to main and most commonly used functions. A 500mm shorter film path and film rollers made of stainless steel for increased hygiene are other notable developments. Following the introduction of this new technology and optimised processes, Fuji has attained a 20% energy saving, a reduction in setup and changeover times and a further reduction in film waste.

High speed strapping

A high-speed solution with minimum wear, the new Evolution SoniXs MS-6-H marks the arrival of Mosca ultrasonic technology into horizontal strapping machines; the unit triple-straps up to 180 packages per hour. This machine is practically noiseless and energy-efficient with minimal wear.

Manufacturers of furniture and household items primarily use strapping to protect their products with corrugated cardboard or other materials for transport. Along with processing speed, one of the key challenges in preparing packages for transport is the variable product heights. The Evolution SoniXs MS-6-H masters both problems with ease. Up to ten individually programmable settings ensure a wide variety of products can be securely strapped. The operator simply selects a program on the touch panel. Alternatively, a sensor on the Evolution SoniXs MS-6-H can measure the height of a product. The machine then straps products automatically based on the parameters set by the customer. The SoniXs side sealing unit and reduced wear electromechanical components ensure smooth, reliable operation, even at high cycle rates.

one of the key challenges in preparing packages for transport is the variable product heights

Mobile monitoring app

The Beumer Group has developed the Beumer Overall Operation Monitoring app, an application which enables staff to maintain an overview of all the relevant parameters of their packaging line on their mobile devices at any time. The application shows availability, performance and quality levels, as well as energy and compressed-air consumption. This ensures efficient operation of all systems. The program can be adapted to customer-specific requirements.

With this development, the Beumer Group is taking a further step towards Industry 4.0: Beumer Overall Operation Monitoring enables users to keep a constant eye on the current status of the filling, palletising and packaging machines connected to their system using their mobile devices. The app clearly shows all lines with their most important parameters. This gives staff important information on the effectiveness of the entire line: availability, performance and quality level of the line or single machines, energy and compressed-air consumption. The customer can quickly evaluate all data and have them displayed in a target-performance comparison or diagram.

Users can adapt the app to their specific requirements. Parameters can be added, line constellations changed and further dashboards added.