The trend toward sustainable packaging led to development of “soft drop” technology to provide gentler handling of thin-walled plastic and glass containers. (Photo courtesy of Standard-Knapp)

By Rick Lingle, Executive Editor

Consumer packaged goods companies are sending a message to suppliers about what they want in their case packers. Machinery builders have not only listened, they have responded.

“The message from our customers is, ‘We want to use less material and less energy,’” says Mike Weaver, president and Co-CEO atStandard-Knapp.

On the materials side, that has meant lightweighting. For example, 10 grams or less of plastic is used for water bottles that used to weigh 18 grams. The loss in rigidity presents a handling challenge during case packing. Standard-Knapp offers “Soft Catch,” a feature that allows users to reduce by 80% the shock energy generated by a conventional drop packer. Gentler handling means less plastic or less glass is needed in the bottles.

Initiatives to drive materials out of packaging extend to the corrugated cases those lightweighted bottles are packed into. Cases are increasingly made using less material and/or higher recycled-content board. Either one can change the case’s performance-and not in a good way.

“Any board that’s thinner and softer than virgin materials will present challenges to open and break correctly along score lines,” says Nick Bishop, vice president of sales and marketing forBradman Lake. Servos prove invaluable here because packagers can reprogram the individual movements within the machine. “The dwell time, pressures and other variables can be increased or decreased,” he says. “End users gain more control over the packaging material than they have in the past.”

It’s a win-win proposition, because servos use less energy than mechanical or pneumatic components. Just how much they can save on energy is literally on display with some models via the operator panel.

“We’re developing machines showing kilowatt use or energy savings from ‘what if’ programming scenarios,” says Mike Grinager, vice president of technology forBrenton Engineering,a division of Pro Mach. The interest in sustainability-related features is coming from both the engineering and corporate levels of CPG customers, he adds.

Also, servos themselves are being improved. Within the last year, Brenton has introduced case packers that are 100% run by servos with onboard drives. Besides fitting into tighter spaces and generating less heat, this new generation of servos saves in wiring and features quick-connect cabling. That makes the machines a lot easier to configure at minimal added costs to meet customers’ needs, according to Grinager.

Arpacdirector of marketing Greg Levy points out that the best servos in the world won’t help if the material is out of spec. “Know your materials range and what your case packer can handle,” Levy emphasizes. Packagers are making creative, material-eliminating redesigns to downsize cases as much as possible or eliminate cases altogether and use shrink film. (Arpac also supplies tray/shrink systems.) “The equipment at least needs to handle cases that have smaller flaps or no flaps,” he says.

Case packers are equipped with leading-edge features, including machines like this equipped with energy-saving servo-drives and a robot. (Photo courtesy of Bradman Lake)

A time for change(overs)

Sustainability isn’t the only major driver in the market. The recession continues to affect packaging operations, including decisions on equipment.

One change that has emerged from the downturn is that CPG companies’ need for medium-speed systems is eroding like soft ground in a hard April shower. Brenton’s customers have diverged to either low-speed applications (five to six cases per minute) to replace manual operations, or upgrades to units capable of speeds in excess of 25 cases per minute, Grinager says. For the latter, he surmises that “customers seem to be combining lines to feed one case packer, perhaps to cut inventory, while returning to more just-in-time production. These machines have been either auto-changeover or very quick changeover options-and are ready for future flexibility. Companies are spending more for automated changeover capability.”

In addition to speed, the kind of changeovers case packers are making has changed. “There’s more interest in not only case-size changes, but for different collations inside the case,” says Bishop. On its latest all-servo systems, those can be done using preprogrammed recipes via touchscreen panels.

Others use tried-and-true methods to simplify changeovers. For example, case packers fromHamrick Manufacturingrely on no-tool changeovers using color-coded changeparts, says Phil Hamrick, general manager.

Another effect of the economy is where companies turn to automation, rather than to workers, when production demands rise. Robots, long used for palletizing, have proven quick and nimble enough to be used for case packing as well. Among other vendors, Hamrick’s latest case packer, introduced in 2009, offers pick-and-place loading using technology fromKUKA Robotics Corp.

“A major trend continues to be the increased need for flexibility in the packaging equipment solution,” says James Cooper, KUKA Robotics’ vice president for sales and marketing. “Largely driven by club stores, this can be seen in the increased use of variety packs, end-of-aisle display pallets, display-ready pallets and mixed-unit loads.”

Even robots have been lightweighted using carbon fiber construction to reduce energy consumption while increasing speed, Cooper points out.

Other technologies finding their way into case packing include wireless communications. “We’re seeing a big increase in activity for wireless communications,” Grinager reports. “The upside is a quicker response if there is a machinery issue. Users also want to manage the machinery-for preventive maintenance, data capture, etc.-from their offices rather than the production floor.” Brenton is being asked by customers to be linked to this information.

Arpac, which has offered wireless on its machines for several years, can add its equipment to a manager’s social network. “Our ‘HMIQ’ feature permits e-mail alerts for preventive maintenance [PM] or fault conditions,” says Levy. That can also be taken to a higher level: Options include vibration sensors to automatically identify areas that require PM and send alerts as needed. Using HMIQ, messages can be sent to a company’s procurement department when supplies will be needed (based on number of cycles performed) and routed directly to the materials vendors.

It seems that good communications remain fundamental to successful case packing, whether between vendor and customer or between customer and machine.  F&BP