By Andrew Snook
Prominent packaging-machinery OEM raising operational flexibility to the next level with bold design features and diverse application versatility
Smart. Flexible. Modular. When it comes to finding automated packaging solutions, these are qualities that many operations value above all else.
To help clients meet these automated packaging needs, R.A. Jones, a Coesia company, introduced its new-generation iFTS (Intelligent Flexible Transfer System) at the interpack 2023 global packaging exhibition in Düsseldorf, Germany this past May.
Poised to make its North American debut at the upcoming PACK EXPO Las Vegas exhibition later this month, the iFTS system was designed to offer solutions for automation challenges—from the simplest to the most complex.
According to R.A. Jones, the company has married the iFTS with its Criterion CLI-100 model intermittent cartoner to meet customers’ needs for a packaging machine with user-friendly operation and clean-up, as well as quicker and more repeatable changeovers.
The combination of the iFTS and the Criterion CLI-100 stems from over a century of experience.
“We’ve been designing cartoning and automatic product transfers for over 110 years, and we’ve been creating and implementing robotics in packaging along with other flexible automation for 30-plus years.
“This combining of technologies solves some key problems that the customers are facing daily,” explains Bob Burkhardt, product portfolio manager for cartoning, robotics and pouching at R.A. Jones.
“The iFTS we took to interpack, and that we’re also taking to PACK EXPO Las Vegas, is very similar to a solution we made for a customer five years ago, where they were putting pouches of spices in cartons.
“That solution worked,” he says, “but what we realized is that there are ways to do things more simply, particularly using some newer technologies that we’re demonstrating.”
The iFTS to be showcased in Las Vegas that can be integrated into a complete automated packaging solution offered by R.A. Jones in combination with other technologies from their parent company Coesia.
This kind of complete solution is highly sought-after by manufacturers with packaging operations.
“Companies are looking for suppliers that can provide complete solutions,” Burkhardt points out. “They want somebody that can provide the pouch machine, the transfer, the cartoner, conveyance, and the palletizer because they know we are then responsible for making it all work.
“They’re not having to go work with multiple companies where you can have arguments in the boundary areas about who’s responsible if something doesn’t work,” Burkhardt explains. “There’s a really big emphasis on this for us.
“It’s important because it meets the customer’s Operational Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) requirements with high system efficiencies.”
As Burkhardt relates, the iFTS is designed to offer customers a standard building block platform approach by offering it with a wide range of fixed automation solutions, robot types and sizes, and standard or custom tooling.
In its most typical form, the iFTS receives products from upstream systems that can then be grouped, oriented, and layered for either side-load or top-load cartons or cases.
The unit is built to work alongside other Coesia and R.A. Jones packaging technologies, or be engineered for unique manufacturing applications that can include bags, bottles, bars, cans, cartons, components, medical devices, personal care, pouches, syringes, tubes and vials, and many others.
The automation options on the iFTS include smart conveyance (smart belts, indexing conveyors, two-trains), feeders, and collation, grouping and loading, which includes sweeps, pivot gates, rotary vanes, IndeCarts, and shuttle tables using magnetic levitation.
At interpack, R.A. Jones showcased a completely turnkey Pouch System that integrated the SI 280 Volpak horizontal stand-up pouching machine working alongside the iFTS, the Criterion CLi 100 intermittent cartoner, and the Flexlink RC12 cobot palletizer.
The Volpak SI 280 formed the pouches from rollstock, filled them with product, and then sealed them.
The iFTS solution then utilized 3D-printed red shuttles that were carried by magnetic levitation technology. The synchronized shuttles on the iFTS magnetic table received the pouch discharged from the Volpak pouch machine, as part of a total integrated solution.
One of the highlights of this solution is the new user-friendly HMI (human-machine interface) touchscreen to help companies manage their labour challenges.
“One thing we’ve seen coming out of COVID-19 and continuing to now is the scarcity of labour,”Burkhardt says.
“Our customers have a hard time getting workers to run these lines at times,” he says, “and then to keep them after they get them.”
While the company has always trained customers’ employees on any new technologies they are supplying, and will continue to do so, R.A Jones believes the new HMI technology will help less experienced employees get up to speed faster.
“One of the reasons we’re going to newer technologies on our controls for the system is because we want to have the ability to direct the new user,” says Burkhardt.
“We want to train them the first time, but like any of us, users learn through repetition and experience,” Burkhardt points out. “And since the HMI offers more guidance, that is a real benefit.”
“Our parent company, Coesia, is really leading the charge on this because that same interface on the screen will be the same between any Coesia machines,” says Burkhardt.
“And so if you have an operator running the cartoner, the iFTS, or the Volpak, the plan is for everything to have the same look and feel.”
Another innovative feature of the iFTS is the unit’s fault zone lighting option, where LEDs will light up any area experiencing a fault to help operations and maintenance staff save time in keeping the machines up and running.
“The machine will highlight that area to get them to address the issue,” Burkhardt notes. “Most of our customers choose that option these days, because it’s so beneficial,” Burkhardt says.
“And that’s one area where the technology has really advanced,’ he says. “There’s no need to deal with glass light bulbs anymore, and in the world full of LEDs, it’s pretty affordable.”
The push-button changeover (i.e. Acc-U-Change Plus) is another important feature of the iFTS that customers have always wanted but weren’t always able to justify the cost. But with the recent labour shortages, things are changing.
“If your lines are not running because you don’t have trained people to run them, you can quickly see the cost benefit of the push-button changeover,” Burkhardt says.
“We’re actually seeing a trend where customers are more interested in the push-button changeover in general because of this. feature,” he says. “With our machines, we offer different levels of changeover assistance including Standard, Acc-U-Change, or Acc-U-Change Plus.”
Significantly, R.A. Jones has also integrated Coesia’s Performate IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) platform for real-time machine monitoring into its iFTS and Criterion CLI-100 cartoner.
This portal is designed to allow users to access production data, downtime analysis, real-time data, key production values, machine condition monitoring, technical documentation, remote assistance, and R.A. Jones’ Webshop online parts ordering portal.
Another advantage that packaging operations get when opting for R.A. Jones’ new automated solution is the ability to learn from the company’s depth of engineering experience on the cartoning side, which can offer a wide variety of flexible solutions.
“We call it a flexible transfer system on purpose,” Burkhardt states.
“It’s about bringing the right solution for the customer, and not trying to force them into what you have.
“We have the ability to offer both standard and custom designs with our experience in running production lines, 24 hours per day, all year long with two or three shifts, and hitting those OEE efficiencies in the high 90s,” Burkhardt says.
“Some of the customers we’re working with are some of the biggest CPGs (consumer packaged goods) companies in the world, and they have extremely high expectations,” Burkhardt sums up.
“And so whether it’s those companies or medium-sized or small companies, our engineers bring that same experience and intellect to everything we do.
“We are an extremely large company with a great deal of capability.”