Pack Expo 2005: Equipment innovations bring new level of automation

By Control Engineering Staff September 29, 2005

Las Vegas —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 here; the show displays 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 that the systems are more affordable,” says L.P. Musunur, Ph.D., engineering manager, Material Removal/Palletizing & Packing at Fanuc Robotics America, Inc. (Booth C-4034).

“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.”

Today’s robots frequently are part of application-specific systems. One popular application for robots is palletizing. Robotic systems designed especially for palletizing include the PalletWorld system from Motoman, Inc. (Booth C-3540). The turnkey PalletWorld system features an integrated gripper package, a PC-based controller and menu-driven palletizing application software. It also is compatible with various models, including the SP100X and the EPL300, which handle payloads for 100- and 300 kg, respectively. An integral power-failure recovery process ensures that the PalletWorld system does not lose data if the power fails, while absolute encoders enable the arm to pick up where it left off instead of returning to home, as is more typical. These safeguards eliminate startup delays related to power failures, emergency stops or planned shutdowns.

The system also offers a number of optional modules, such as pre-engineered infeed conveyors, pallet locators, pallet racks and pallet outfeed conveyors.

Schneider Packaging Equipment Co., Inc. (Booth C-1630), a Fanuc integrator, utilizes a Fanuc M16iB six-axis robot with a 20-kg 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 blow-molding 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 floorspace,” explains Pete Squires, Schneider’s vp of controls. Custom-designed end-of-arm tooling is flexible enough to pick and place various size objects, including cartons, bags, bundles, bales, cans, bottles and jars.

Further 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. (Booth C-2708) 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. (Booth C-3134) can handle a wide range of products and tray or case styles. The system relies on an M420i robot from Fanuc and customized end-of-arm tooling, as well as a modular infeed, and 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.

A version of the servo-driven M420iB series, the four-axis M410iB/160, serves as the basis for a bag palletizing cell from Fanuc. Standard robot software packages such as PalletTool(TM) and PalletPRO(TM) provide palletizing setup, simulation and operation. Offering faster cycle times and higher payloads than any other robot in its classification, the M-410iB can handle bags weighing 100 kg at 28 cycles/min. With a maximum reach of 3,143 mm (10 ft), the M-410iB’s large work envelope enables it to service multiple lines at one time.

Automating manual tasks
Automating what is often a manual operation, the six-position distribution system from Multi-Fill, Inc. (Booth C-2928) 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/min. If handled manually, “such repetitive motion can pose liability and injury concerns,” says Christine Marchadour, vp, international sales & marketing at Multi-Fill. With few moving parts, the system is easy to clean and requires minimal maintenance. Two-, three- or four-position distribution systems also are available.

Automation often means the installation of relatively simple mechanical machines like the Econseal Spartan cartoner from Econocorp, Inc. (Booth C-2922). 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/min machine with programmable logic control also has added a touchscreen interface to simplify control of flight-chain speed. Capable of handling either paperboard or corrugated material, the stainless-steel machine offers several closing options, including hot-melt glue, hot-air sealing or tuck flap. “Our philosophy is to keep it basic, simple and functional,” says Mark Jacobson, vp of Econocorp.

“Easy maintenance is another goal,” notes Bob Baker, a field service technician for Econocorp, which generates a substantial percentage of its sales from overseas and has won awards for its level of export business.

To maximize productivity for forklift operators, stretch wrapping has become an increasingly automated process. The Spectra II, a turntable stretch-wrapping machine from Orion Packaging Systems, Inc. (Booth C-2528) is designed to minimize maintenance while maximizing flexibility and reliability. Capable of wrapping pallet loads measuring up to 55x55x90 in. and weighing up to 5,000 lb at the rate of 45 loads/hr, 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.

Other features include an Allen-Bradley Micrologix 1000 PLC, rugged, easily serviced industrial-grade buttons and switches, and an enclosed tower design that protects motors, gearboxes and electronics from damage. The Insta-Thread powered prestretch carriage accelerates film-roll changeover and maximizes film economy, with a powered prestretch of 260 percent. 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-percent 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. (Booth C-3807) continues to broaden its family of PresencePLUS P4 vision sensors to accommodate virtually any inspection need, including 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-pack 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, vp of international sales. “Ease of use has improved tremendously, and costs have dropped,” he adds. The modular design of the compact units makes it possible to address a myriad of inspection demands.

PACK EXPO Las Vegas 2005 News
Packaging Digest, Reed Business Information