Servo technology, sensors and machine vision have been serious players in many different industries within manufacturing over the last fifteen years, and these automation technologies emerged due to standardized industrial protocols on the plant floor that have made data management a top priority among food producers, converters, beverage and packaging companies.

These automation technologies are focusing on operational challenges like shorter lead times, production runs and numerous changeovers during production. Today, converters are evaluating new ways to manage these persistent trends. One tool for increased efficiency and reduced changeover time is platform connectivity coming from the enterprise level, also known as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

IIoT is helping large and small organizations in the converting and flexible packaging industry. Large and small enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms are giving chief information officers (CIOs) new ways to connect to the plant-floor level and manage job orders more efficiently as multiple changeovers become the norm.

Recently, FS Labels GmBH, based in Germany, acquired an MPS Systems flexo press with communication options that allow the system to directly communicate with the plant’s management information system (MIS) and its work orders. MPS Systems calls its machine communication platform “Talk to Me,” and uses standard, industrial networking protocols to communicate real-time data to management.

With this communication feature, the flexo press system can connect to pre-press, post-press systems, ERP and management information systems. “Connectivity is something I was already interested in and gave me the opportunity to think along with them about their connectivity platform,” Bernd Koch, CIO.

One of FS Label’s challenges has been changeovers, but now the company has a shortcut. “If there’s a printing job on the machine, we use job memory to take the press’s pre-settings,” says Koch. “So when the operator sets up the next print job at the terminal, the press is automatically set in the right position.”

With the help of flexo press machine’s servo drives, print settings for initial and repeat jobs can be stored in the press system and retrieved automatically using the APC (Automated Print Control) job memory feature for reprinting or the production of similar orders.

“Since changeover time is the time where you don’t make money, you want to keep that changeover time as short as possible,” says Koch. “Due to the connectivity platform, there is more time for production of completely converted labels.”

According to FS Label, the company would like to integrate more disparate systems into the flexo press system. The flexo machine’s terminal setup at FS label includes one screen for the AVT inspection camera, a CC1 register control, the CERM MIS and one for the BST optical camera.

“Our system has four terminals on the machine, and each one has a different task,” says Koch. “We’d like to see all systems connected so we can experience more productivity increases.”

Machine Vision Adoption

Switching to North America and a mature automation technology, the machine vision market reached $674 million in Q1 2019. While machine vision sales are leveling out in 2020, many converters are evaluating applications with new machines and retrofits.

Spurring automation investment among converters is registration or re-reg challenges on the press. Joel Oakes, design engineer at Delta ModTech, identifies these persistent registration challenges as a reason for a closed-loop vision system: debris on substrates, static, variable tension, web thickness (varying material properties) and coefficient friction of rollers.

A closed-loop vision system requires sensors or machine vision cameras to communicate data points from a press line to a management information system (MIS) or ERP platform.  “It’s common to get a 50% decrease in standard deviations when adding automation to your press,” says Oakes. “Plus, machine vision can reduce your scrap.”

Achieving 50% improvements on a press line can also be done by adding traceability to an application, which is critical when companies are required to by the FDA. According to Oakes, software-generated electronic files can get “your operation 100% quality verification of each and every part.”

Real-time machine vision can also free up line operators to turn their attention to quality issues or shift responsibilities. With quality control personnel being overwhelmed, machine vision can decrease the load for operators by removing manual inspection at a station or the end of a run, which if not automated, will increase scrap.

Machine vision isn’t a fit for all converters and packaging systems. Delta ModTech warns against retrofits on older machines with older industrial communication that won’t provide a closed-loop solution and improved product quality. Moreover, new automation investments need planning and careful analysis for return on investment.

System Integration

If companies do decide on automation, Quad Plus encourages converters and extruders to make sure experienced system integrators are in place for these upgrades. Quad Plus offers many services, including system integration, professional engineering and developing web gauging systems.

Quad Plus offers web gauging systems with scanning frames, sensors and software reporting. Sensor technology varies for application and industry. Converters and extruders are using beta transmission sensors (Sr-90 and Kr-85) to measure the ratio of the number of beta particles that pass through the material to the number without any material. Applications can include cast film lines, co-extrusion, stretch film lines, shrink film, PE film thickness for liquid packaging production lines, adhesive weight on PP film and adhesive weigh measurement on silicone-coated release paper for label stock, among others.

Another sensor technology used with converters and packagers has been near-infrared technology, as this solution measures moisture content on PP films and label stock.

Beyond 2020

Multiple changeovers and tight tolerances are here to stay, and COVID-19 may actually accelerate these trends. The bottom line? Most converters and packagers need a solid return-on-investment roadmap for any automation technology investment and plan for enterprise data management strategies.