Case packers and wrappers are becoming more versatile

Imagine the perfect beverage production line. Ideally, the process runs smoothly from the very first pick of ingredients to the very last point as the finished product is stacked on a store shelf. In reality, however, a snafu here and a kink there inevitably need to be worked out. As new technologies continue to improve equipment pieces that are imperative to a production line, the 100 percent perfection mark isn’t a pipe dream anymore.

Toward the end of a beverage line, case packers and wrappers are an integral part of making the manufacturing process as smooth as possible. These days, manufacturers are looking for equipment that is up to the challenge of increased production as more and more products hit the shelves.

“The big buzzword of the year is flexibility,” says Ed Orick, director of beverage sales for Alexandria, Minn.-based Douglas Machine Inc. “[The machine] has to be able to do many things on one machine, because the last thing an operations guy wants to do is tell a marketing guy that a new machine they just bought can’t do something. The operations guys are trying to outthink the marketing people, so that they can say, ‘Yes, there is a lot of flexibility in this machine, and it will do just about anything you want it to.’”

Geoffroy Bretzner, key account manager for Norcross, Ga.-based Cermex, agrees about producers demands for flexibility. “[Beverage producers] want full flexibility, the ability to pack a broad size or type or range of bottles,” he says. “It may be film only, or cardboard plus film, depending on the customer. The machine must also be tolerant of the raw materials like cardboard or film. No matter what the quality of the material, the machine must be able to effectively control the handling of the materials and the products.”

New moves

New production technology can take on a variety of forms, and in some cases, that form includes the use of robotics. Brewerton, N.Y.-based Schneider Packaging Equipment Corp. recently introduced a case packer and palletizer combination that uses a robotic system that performs both case packing and palletizing of, for example, cases of wine.

“We’re seeing an increased use of robots for these types of applications,” says Terry Zarnowski, director of sales and marketing for Schneider. “Conventional case packers, of course, are typically servo- and pneumatic-driven machines. In many applications, however, the process can be cost-effective to use a single, articulated armed robot.”

As an added bonus, the case packer palletizer combination can be contained in a very small footprint, freeing up space in plants.

Along with new technologies, machines that can work quickly and efficiently are also high at the top of the priority list for a beverage manufacturers’ ideal equipment. The speed factor, particularly, is an element to case packing and wrapping machinery that has grown in importance. For example, MG America, the U.S. subsidiary of MG2 of Italy, offers beverage producers the GSL20 horizontal case packer, which can pack up to 20 cases per minute. Additionally, the machine doesn’t need to change parts for case sizes and has main machine movement through servo-motors with drivers controlled by Elau soft PLC technology.

“Speed and efficiency are certainly top priorities for beverage bottlers,” says Bryan Sinicrope, vice president of sales and marketing for A-B-C Packaging Machine Corp., Tarpon Springs, Fla. A-B-C’s Model 360 unpacker/case packer, for instance, can be designed to pack and unpack multiple cases per minute for increased volume.

“For years, there has not been a desire to speed up packers, but the marketplace likes smaller packs with smaller pack counts per case,” says Mike Weaver, vice president of engineering for Standard-Knapp, Portland, Conn. Weaver adds that Standard-Knapp’s 989 Pakmore can run up to 75 cases per minute. Recently, the company also introduced a twin lane case packer on its Versatron equipment line that can pack two lanes of cases at the same time. This allows it to run up to 100 cases per minute on a conventional drop packer.

Besides speed, producers want easy changeovers on their machines to reduce or eliminate downtime.

“The industry seems to be continuously demanding reduced changeover time,” Bretzner says. “It’s essential to reduce the machine downtime in every method possible.”

“At the end of the day, you’re looking to save costs, which dovetails into efficiency,” Schneider’s Zarnowski says. “Our equipment is designed to minimize the cost of ownership for the customer. We build everything to be very robust and very quick and easy to cover for many issues. In other words, downtime is minimized. We strive for our design to minimize downtime, maximize efficiency for the customer, and therefore maximize the return on investment.”

Environmentally friendly

One thing that is quickly shooting to the top of everybody’s minds in the beverage industry is the green factor. What in beverage production can be reduced or reused, and how is production impacting the world around us? No part of the production line has been left unturned, especially the packaging portion and the machines that do the hard labor.

“We’re going through a whole green revolution, and that means, for us, we’re going to handle thinner, lighter weight bottles that are more material efficient,” Weaver explains. “That requires some imagination on how to handle them. They’re less sturdy, and you can’t use the old tricks. You’ve got to come up with new tricks on how to handle them.”

Also, in the tray-shrink world, Weaver notes, beverage producers want to put much less corrugated and plastic on a pack, but still maintain the quality and integrity of the pack. With increased opportunities for companies to print on shrink-wrap film, the bottle becomes more of a billboard. This means the case packing and wrapping equipment has a bigger chance to keep the bottles looking aesthetically pleasing, with less distortion to create more perfect-looking packs.

“The green aspect is really going to dictate changes to packaging and new materials and new ways for us to handle it,” Weaver says.

“In shrink wrapping, there are three primary considerations [beverage producers] are looking for: speed, efficiency and running packages with less materials,” Douglas Machine’s Orick adds. “Reduction of materials saves them money, and it also contributes to the green space and contributes to the environment, which we all like. The less we throw away, the better.”

Design on a dime

How big or small a piece of packing or wrapping equipment is certainly comes into play for beverage manufacturers. With limited space, the words ‘smaller footprint’ are music to manufacturers’ ears.

“Manufacturers are calling for machines that reduce the amount of space necessary on the plant floor for packers,” Cermex’s Bretzner says. “The more compact the packer, the better the machine integration into the current line.”

Companies like A-B-C Packaging Machine Corp. boast case wrapping and packing equipment that has all the features a good piece of equipment should have, but without the bulk. The company’s Model 360 also has a compact design and takes up only 56 square feet of floor space.

“Virtually every customer has a floor space restriction of some sort,” Schneider’s Zarnowski says. “For example, if it’s an existing operation where they’re doing hand packing and palletizing now, they can only fit the equipment typically in that space while possibly leaving room for a fork truck to drive in. So the smaller the footprint, the better. And the less space you use, the better the return on investment is for the equipment used.

“We absolutely have to take [space restrictions] into consideration, and designs do shrink over time,” Zarnowski continues. “That’s where applications like the robotic packer stand and palletizer combination come into play, because it takes up less floor space than a standard conventional case packer and stand alone palletizer.”

Besides machines with a smaller footprint, beverage producers also want machines that are easy to operate and maintain.

“We try to make our machines as easy to operate as possible, because the large companies like to have one person running several things at once,” Orick says. “That automation is a key driving factor.”

“One of the things our customers want is a very quick learning curve, so that they can train somebody in a day,” Weaver adds. Standard-Knapp machines have fully graphical operator interfaces for easier operation.

“With the maintenance of a machine, you want to be able to do things very quickly,” Weaver says. “You want to be able to diagnose preventative maintenance while the machine is running, and perform the maintenance at the prescribed time.”

Into the future

As beverage companies continue to put out more and more products, and a greater variety of shaped and sized products, case packers and wrappers continue to beef up their equipment to handle it all.

“The future of case packers and wrappers will see faster speeds, more volume output, more flexibility and more adaptability for machines to run various types and sizes of containers,” Bretzner says. “Robotic applications for packers will also be a feature that will be more noticeable since manufacturers have assessed the efficiency of robotics. With wrappers, the future includes innovative machines with less power consumption, environmentally friendly materials for film and automatic format changeover formats.”

“There are a lot of untapped markets out there that haven’t looked at automation equipment in the past because of the cost, or lack of justifying the cost,” Zarnowski says. “But we’re seeing that trend coming into reverse.”

“Reliability is very important,” Standard-Knapp’s Weaver notes. “And reliability is now measured by many of our customers with automatic measuring systems, and they allow us to zoom in on certain things.”

He adds that a common ailment is a stopped machine when a bottle falls. But as equipment develops, so too do “self-healing” processes.

“We’ve developed a bottle eliminator, so the machine can keep running even though it has a defective condition toward it,” Weaver explains. “We want it to heal itself without stopping and waiting for an operator to intervene. That’s probably the biggest thing we can make a difference with.”

With equipment innovations and evolutions as a constant, the future of beverage equipment overall is bright and, of course, flexible.

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