To appreciate our current level of packaging line automation-and its as yet untapped potential-we have to look at how far we’ve already come.

Prior to the mid 18th century, most work had to be done by manual and animal power. The exceptions such as water and wind power tended to be limited and site specific. It was James Watt’s steam engine that gave mankind the ability to generate power anywhere it was needed and brought about the industrial revolution.

The first steam engines were as large as a house. While they could be located anywhere, there was still the problem of transmitting the power from the engine to the machines that would use it. Overhead shafting throughout the plant, with pulleys and belts coming down to each machine, was the solution. This was not only inefficient, it was also noisy, cumbersome, prone to breakage and unsafe.

Electrical motors became widely available in the early years of the 20th century. Initially, they tended to be large and expensive. Overhead lineshafts powered by a single motor could still be seen in the 1950’s.

Motors everywhere

As electrical motors became smaller, cheaper and more efficient, it was logical to power each machine individually. In packaging, a cartoner would have one motor, which drove all the machine functions via gears, cams, chains and belts. This works well but these mechanisms all waste energy and cost money to build and maintain.

We have seen an explosion of progress in recent years in motors and controls. Servo motors in rotary and linear configurations now perform virtually any required machine function-and can do so with precise speed, torque and synchronization control.

Their small size allows them to be used throughout the machine. Capping machines can have a servo motor driving each head. This allows precise torque control as well as allowing the torque applied to each cap to be monitored. Cartoners use servo motors for such minor but critical functions as flap tucking. Fillers use servo motors to precisely drive dosing pistons. Servo motors can be used to change machine settings during product changeovers.

Design differently

Servo motors greatly simplify machine design allowing smaller, more flexible machines with even greater functionality.

The machine designer’s initial impulse with new technologies is to simply replace the old. That fails to realize the technology’s potential. New technologies require new design thinking and creativity must be encouraged.

And don’t forget the mechanics and operators. They know mechanical systems. As systems change to electronic, they will need training. Machinery that is beyond their capacity to operate and maintain is a step backward for plant operations.

As the ad used to say, “We’ve come a long way, baby!” From centralized power to power at the point of use. Smaller, faster, cheaper, more efficient. It’s all good-and continues to get even better.F&BP