The Case in Point
By Sander Smith
New generation of high-speed case formers reduces the need for operator intervention despite growing format diversification
Case forming systems play a critical role in the speed of throughput with end-offline packaging processes. To achieve faster systems, operator interaction must be minimized. Supporting this trend is a new generation of high-speed case formers which not only deliver the highest throughput rate in the industry, but achieve this by streamlining automation to greatly reduce operator interaction.
Increased speed has become a huge driver in the packaging of consumer products. The traditional 24-products-to-a-case template has diversified to include 12-to-a-case, six-to-a-case, three- or four-, or even just two products, in some cases.
Retail store just-in-time orders, increased numbers of SKUs (stock-keeping units) vying for shelf-space, less inventory being carried in store backrooms, and online ordering have led to a bewildering diversity of smaller-sized secondary packaging cases.
This has resulted in the need for more frequent end-of-line changeovers to accommodate the variations in case sizes, with added downtime between runs to facilitate the changeovers. The result is reduced system speed and throughput on these packaging lines.
Most packaging systems are still feeding at a rate equal to when they were putting 24 items into a case, but now they are increasingly putting half, or less of that amount of product, into a case.
As case counts (products per case) decrease, the speed of case forming and packing needs to increase commensurately to maintain throughput counts and accommodate for added changeover time.
If end-of-line packaging wants to go faster, it needs to be able to feed the case forming and case packing machines with KDFs (knocked-down flats) not just more quickly, but with reduced operator interaction.
Minimizing operator hands-on activities is critically necessary to realizing heightened throughput rates and better ROI when handling diverse case sizes in case forming and case packing operations.
The initial steps of case loading for a case former are the most labor-intensive, requiring the highest amount of operator interaction in conventional systems.
An increasingly frequent request from end-of-line packagers of consumer products is their need to eliminate operator interaction with their case forming systems. The more complex the interaction for the operator, the higher the chance of human error in the process.
The functions that an operator goes through to load a bundle of KDF cases in a traditional case erector come down to a series of eight manual steps:
- the operator picks up the bundle;
- the operator lifts the bundle of cases to the load height of the magazine;
- the bundle is put upright in the magazine;
- the positioning arm that keeps the cases upright is turned off;
- the positioning arm is pulled back and pushed to the bundle of cases;
- the bundle of cases is moved forward;
- the pressure switch is turned back on so that it keeps the cases upright;
- the cases are padded down once they are in position.
Whatever makes it easier for the operator to start, run and stop a case forming machine, and not have to make adjustments, will increase uptime and throughput.
Some of the latest designs of automated case formers have embraced this concept fully.
A good example is the DELTA 1 fully-automated case former system recently released by Wexxar Bel, a leading Canadian manufacturer of automated case erectors for consumer product packaging applications for nearly 50 years.
Based in Richmond, B.C, the company’s latest generation of machines is focused squarely on increasing speed by automating steps that previously required operator interaction.
This latest-generation fully-automatic case erector, with optional tape and/or hot-melt sealing, is capable of throughput rates up to 35 cases per minute depending on the case size, quality and configuration.
Naturally, it operates quite differently from conventional case erectors.
Instead of seven manual KDF loading steps, these have been narrowed down to just two.
This key feature is made possible by Delta 1’s innovative Modular Expandable Magazine (MXM) that includes a loading bay, a magazine section and an elevator section. The standard machine would have one module (load bay), but any number of additional modules can be easily integrated.
Each load bay can hold a stack of 75 cases (RSC, HSC or CSSC) and is positioned at a low height of 16 inches for easy movement of the case flats onto the bay platform.
The standard machine model has a capacity of 225 cases, which can be loaded and readied for forming.
Adding one additional load bay would put 300 cases in the machine. At a rate of about 35 cases per minute, there is enough capacity to keep the machine running for approximately 10 minutes, and the machine will run all the way down to the last case in the magazine.
The case erector only requires two steps to load the magazine: the operator picks up the bundle; and the operator lays the bundle onto the loading bay.
This process has been optimized with the design of the DELTA 1 system—making case loading to be ergonomic by having the machine be forgiving to imperfect case loading.
One of the advantages of the MXM magazine is the ability to load it while the machine is in operation, requiring bare minimum of interaction between the operator and the system.
All the operator has to do is to put the cases into the load zone, and press the load button. Because the operator is not lifting cases up and over into the machine the loading is much easier to perform.
There is also no adjustment required with the MXM magazine, whereas with conventional case erectors every size change necessitates for adjustment to be made to the loading magazine.
Moreover, the DELTA 1 machine is equipped with state-of-the-art Pin & Dome technology for ensuring exceptionally precise case opening.
The proprietary Pin & Dome system consists of two hardened steel pins that operate in conjunction with a raised steel dome.
The case is thrust upward onto multiple Pin & Dome modules, which permit the domes to guide the pins precisely into the flutes of the corrugated. The result is ensuring a secure clamp on the outer skin of the case and providing unparalleled grip on the panels of the case.
The case is then securely held at the top, and forced open, as the major folding functions are performed.
This provides a much more positive form of case opening compared to conventional passive folding mechanisms, like vacuum systems, to open or manipulate the folding and forming of a case.
The process is further supported by Dynamic Flap Folding functionality, which automatically folds the bottom flaps for ensuring consistently square cases, even for recycled or double-walled cases.
The case erector’s process begins with KDF being mechanically top-picked to ensure case separation.
Instead of separating cases by shearing a case off the top of the bungle, as would be done conventionally, this system grabs the KDF and brings it forward onto a gripper, which holds the case in place until it is upright.
The case is then uprighted and indexed to the side, ensuring each case is exactly justified for consistent case forming.
The case is then injected into the Pin & Dome jaw plate system, which mechanically opens and controls the case and ensures case squaring.
After all the major and minor flaps are mechanically, then the case is moved out of this position by a conveyor, while the jaw plate returns to begin forming the next case.
The movement of the conveyor grabbing the case, while the Pin & Dome jaw plates move to pick up the next case, represents a significant difference on this machine compared to conventional case erector.
This simultaneous combination of functions greatly contributes to the high throughput speed of this machine.
After the case is conveyed to the sealers, held in place and sealed at the bottom it is automatically ejected from the case former.
With any manual changeovers, there is always the unpredictability in terms of time and repeatability of getting the case former to the same place every time.
Replacing traditional manual changeovers with positioning drive technology, the DELTA 1 offers the option of adding an Auto Adjust package—reducing the number of changeover points from four to zero.
Automating changeover points allows for a quick and precise changeover for different case size runs, while all case size recipes can be saved in the HMI (human-machine interface) and easily retrieved for the next size change.
The Auto Adjust can perform the changeover in less than two minutes, using tool-less design with colour-coded size-change and digital-dial indicators, and user-friendly on-machine pictorial guides.
The operator simply picks a case from the menu, sending the machine into the Auto Adjust mode, and the machine automatically make the adjustments necessary to run the next case.
This capability significantly minimizes the chance of human error during a size change, reducing downtime and troubleshooting.
The system speed of case formers has been historically limited by manual operator interaction, but technological developments—such as the MXM modular expandable magazines, Pin & Dome technology, and Auto Adjust changeovers—have opened the door to faster and more efficient case-packers.
Even simple changes from manual to automation can have a profound effect on production and uptime in end-of-line packaging processes.
For example, the DELTA 1 machine provides an optional touchscreen HMI at the back of the case former that allows the operator to start, stop and run the machine from the loading platform as a central location.
This seemingly small change nevertheless saves considerable time moving about the machine during the course of a shift.
Additionally, the fully-interlocked guard doors allow for safe and easy machine access during set-up and maintenance.
It is the smart-think changes like these, and many others, that have catapulted this new generation of end-of-line packaging systems to the forefront to support the ever-changing needs of manufacturers, distributors and retailers in the ever-changing consumer goods marketplace.
Sander Smith is the product manager at Wexxar Bel, a ProMach company specializing in corrugated containerboard packaging machinery based in Richmond, B.C.