When it comes to efficient distribution, the goal is to fill the truck. One can imagine the math problem that arises from having 20 different shapes and trying to stack them together, and some beverage companies are dealing with more than 1,500 SKUs. Luckily, palletizing systems offer solutions to do whatever can be done in design to maximize the efficiency of the overall load.
From new pattern-forming software, push-button changeovers, robotics, tier sheet inserters and man and machine interfaces, palletizing equipment is stepping it up at the end of the line. Proliferation of packaging types and pack-sizes is one challenge demanding innovations in palletizing. One of the biggest side effects of dealing with producing or distributing numerous SKUs is the need for frequent changeovers on the lines. Some beverage companies are running shorter production runs for products and package types, and have put more emphasis on getting the palletizer back to 100 percent efficiency immediately after the product changeover, says Pat O’Conner, product manager for palletizing at FKI Logistex. Automatic push-button changeover, where no manual adjustments need to be made, is one solution that FKI Logistex offers.
If the cost of push-button changeover is too high, beverage companies are orchestrating changeovers more carefully with new pattern equipment, O’Conner says. For example, where guide rails have to be repositioned, a pattern feature is available that can be dropped on top of the guide rail that makes the setting automatic, he explains.
“It takes the subjectivity out of it on the part of the person doing the changeover,” O’Conner says. “Once again, it is all targeted at making the changeover precise and making it quick, so that the machines are back up immediately to be efficient.”
The rise of store-ready mixed loads, or rainbow loads, also causes shorter production runs and the need for a palletizer to be flexible in handling different types of packaging, says Ted Yeigh, Columbia Machine’s director of sales and marketing for its palletizer division. Columbia offers tool-less changeover so the overall equipment efficiency is as high as possible, he says.
“You can mechanically change a machine to handle a different product size or a different pattern, but the controls have to be seamless,” Yeigh says. “It’s a seamless integration so the pattern-forming capability of the machine mechanically, from an electronic perspective and a controls’ perspective, is fast.”
Columbia also added a Bi-Parting Stripper Apron to its line of palletizers. The Bi-Parting Stripper Apron, combined with the case stops in the row-forming area, allows the company’s newest palletizer, SP4000, to create gaps front-to-back and side-to-side in a layer.
“It makes it easier to form multiple patterns with gaps in two directions,” Yeigh says.
Robotics also offer companies the opportunity to increase their palletizing flexibility. Some companies spend two to three hours doing changeovers on conventional palletizing lines, which costs so much money they are considering going back to manual palletizing, says Terry Zarnowski, sales and marketing director for Schneider Packaging Equipment Co. Instead, robotic palletizing is flexible enough to handle practically any product, including future product palletizing needs. Robotic programming provides improved control of production scheduling and allows for quick changeover times, Zarnowski says.
“With the robotic palletizer system, the robot is really doing all the motion, and it’s designed for high-speed, heavy motions,” he says. “What we’re seeing is an evolution of palletizing going from conventional to robotic for the very reason of reliability as well as to handle the flexibility of fast changeover.”
Reduced packaging

A major trend in the beverage industry has been the lightweighting of bottles and the reduction of secondary packaging. Both of these trends have risen from a movement toward “greener packages” and cost reduction.
The lighter bottle weights are considerably more “touchy,” says Howard Buckner, a partner with SMB Machinery Systems.
“It’s certainly made it much more difficult, and you have to be more precise with the movements,” says SMB Machinery Systems’ President Tom Ewing. “Each sequence of operations has to be much more precise. You have to have the capability to convey one bottle by itself almost all the way through the system vs. before you could convey them in mass and then single file them.”
The reduction of packaging content not only affects the palletizing operation but the pallet itself.
“It does change the dynamics of the product, not only in terms of how you handle the product, but in terms of how that product behaves once you build a pallet and different changes that come up because of that,” Zarnowski says. “We’re seeing these new trends in decreasing the weight of the package that obviously decreases the strength, which requires gentler handling. While at the same time, we’re seeing the speeds increase. Those are diametrically opposing issues to overcome.”
The lightweighting of bottles does have an effect on palletizing, but it is not necessarily the effect that people expect, FKI Logistex’s O’Conner says.
“There is a tendency for people to look at a palletizer and say, ‘A bump turner is going to be rough on the product,’ and so, when we lightweight the bottles that is going to be a concern,” he says. “In fact, it’s not really. The conventional handling methods inside the machine work fine on the ultra-lightweight bottles, but we’re seeing other differences. For example, the stacking strength of the bottles isn’t there. In the last five years, it has become extremely common to do multi-layer configurations in the loads.”
Columbia’s Yeigh believes that for lightweight containers, using bump turns on a palletizing system might not be the best choice for turning because of the impact on the product.
“Touch-less turning using differential role speed is a very, very good way to do it because you are not impacting the product itself,” he says.
To address lightweight packaging, palletizing operators also tighten the rollers to provide an almost solid surface, SMB Machinery Systems’ Ewing says. “It’s creating a moving solid surface so the bottles and cases can’t tip,” he says.
Distributors used to be able to count on the fact that the beverage packages would allow for a fairly large pallet, which tends to be very heavy, and that the cases or trays on the bottom of the pallet could support it all the way up, Zarnowski says.
“Today, we’re seeing less stability of that product to support the weight, so it becomes an issue for transportation and handling where they tend to be seeing more breakage of the bottom layers of product,” Zarnowski explains. “To combat that, they are doing different things in the palletizing process. Primarily, instead of building full-height pallets, building half-height pallets. We’re seeing shorter unit loads, which is contrary to sustainability where you are trying to cube out a truck. So they are trying to find that happy balance in selecting materials for the trays, cases as well as the package itself to be strong enough to build that full unit load again. It’s all about balance. Taking out materials lowers costs, but when you start having to shorten your pallet for shipping, then you are adding costs back in because you need more trucks.
“…At the end of the day, it all boils down to pennies, and at the end they are going to weigh the difference between loss in shipping, cost of shipping and cost of materials saved. Some of them are still struggling to find that optimal mix.”
The move away from more expensive materials, such as corrugate and paperboard, has led companies to use more shrink packaging. This trend seems to be more common in markets outside the United States, such as Mexico and South America where the markets are more price sensitive, but is becoming more prevalent in the U.S. market, O’Conner says. Domestically, the majority of cans and bottles shrink bundled still use a bottom board, he says. In overseas markets, the bottom board has been eliminated, and they are running just the shrink bundle.
“Now that may be a lower-cost package, but like with most things in palletizing, if you take away too much of the packaging material in the consumer take-home package, you have to add it back in in the load packaging,” O’Conner says.
Many companies that are shrink bundling cans are placing tier sheets between the layers of the load for stability and in order to prevent damage to the film bundles, such as a can or bottle top cutting through the film and wearing into the bottom of another product, he says. FKI Logistex has developed high-speed tier sheet inserters that can insert sheets in high-speed palletizers.
Faster speeds
Another challenge for palletizers is the reduction of package sizes, which creates the need for higher palletizing speeds. Nowadays PET lines can fill up to 1,000 bottles a minute, and pack count sizes are down to eight or even six, so the speeds requested for the palletizer are high as well, says Geoffroy Bretzner, Sidel’s key account manager for the beverage industry.
One solution for conventional palletizers involves multilane infeeds (up to four lanes) with fast lane dividers, he says. For robotic palletizing solutions, it necessitates the use of multiple robots to keep up with the speed — one or two robots to prepare the product layers and another robot to palletize the formed layers, Bretzner says.
The faster the lines go, the more complex palletizing gets, and the more difficult it is to maintain efficiencies. Some designers have added more accumulation in their layers, SMB Machinery Systems’ Ewing says. Some machines previously may have only had a layer or two in the front part of the machine, and now they often have more.
While speed can be dealt with through the pre-staging of the layers on the machines, faster speeds also are addressed through programming to make each sweep and each pallet change as efficient as possible.
“You are not wasting a lot of time bringing pallets up to begin palletizing them, and the layers are being staged quicker and more of them to allow for more racks of layers onto the pallet,” Ewing says.
Palletizers capable of running more than 200 cases a minute are on the market now to address faster production speeds.
“It certainly makes our customers look for higher speed capacity machines, knowing that in the future they may have to run more packs per minute,” O’Conner says. BI