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Demands for increased efficiency to reduce costs throughout the packaging operation is finally driving investment in end-of-line machinery. Jonathan Baillie reports on the latest trends and technologies

Consequently, some of the UK’s largest brand owners, who may have relied on ageing end-of-line machinery for years, are recognising the case for investment. So says Barry Tucker, chairman of Aetna UK, who says this is a welcome trend for a machinery sector which has been “in the doldrums” for much of the past decade. However he acknowledges that the number of companies investing in complete new lines costing £100,000 plus in any given year “can still be counted on the fingers of one hand”.

“Talking mainly from the food sector standpoint – most of our sales are to large food and pharma groups – there has been little major investment in end-of-line equipment by British companies for several years, due to sector consolidation, growing relocation of manufacturing to mainland Europe and the fact that with retailers squeezing margins, companies have found it harder to justify investment,” he explains.

Tucker says Aetna is encouraged, however, that “after a very flat 2003”, indications suggest 2004 will be a better year: “In common, I suspect, with many competitors, we are not seeing significant demand for large fully automatic stretchwrapping systems or similar. The big growth has been in sales of our small, semi-automatic turntable pallet strechwrappers, which have broken all records, with sales 30% up on this time last year. With the way UK manufacturing is being squeezed, it is no doubt easier to sign off machines at under £10,000 than face all the procedures needed for approval of a large investment in full automation.”

Chocolate wrapper

Nestlé’s Halifax, UK chocolate plant, which produces 40,000t of chocolate every year, has recently installed a new Robopac Genesis fully automatic pallet stretchwrapper supplied by Aetna in a contract valued at around £75,000.

On identifying the need for a new stretchwrapper, Nestlé project engineer Peter Hammond says senior personnel approached as many suppliers as possible and, having considered their proposals, paying particular attention to price and adaptability, selected the Genesis.

Product pallets travel along the site’s conveyor in a random mix, so the stretchwrapper’s ability to read and adapt to each individual pallet’s barcode, and assign it a predetermined wrap, is vital to smooth operation.

Hammond says the Genesis “does all this and still achieves a rate of up to 90 pallets/h”, which means it can be reading a different barcode every 40 seconds.

Aetna says the Genesis, introduced two years ago, has proved itself “head and shoulders above the competition”, with its top inside film dispenser and patented automatic self-controlled power pre-stretch electronic film pre-stretcher giving customers “a more efficient system that actually saves them money”. Nestlé’s Hammond adds: “We haven’t budgeted for film savings, so whatever we get will be a bonus. The quality of wrapping and keeping our customers happy are what’s most important. However the equipment’s very efficient so I’m hopeful when we look at the figures at the end of our peak season – June to November – we’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Overall, Aetna UK says pallet stretchwrapping’s use continues to increase, “with an emphasis on systems that bring greater efficiency”. Tucker continues: “While UK end-of-line sales have generally been static, innovation in machinery design has continued apace.”

Indeed, he claims, features considered “extras” a decade ago are now often standard: “Fully automatic pallet stretchwrappers can now wrap at speeds of over 100 pallets/hr, while even the less expensive semi-automatic machines have many more features and wrapping programmes.”

Like other suppliers that have seen demand for complete systems slow, Aetna UK has broadened its offering into new areas. Tucker explains: “Anyone using a stretchwrapper must transport the product to the equipment from the production line. We can supply conveyors, but with companies looking to cram more equipment into confined spaces, and pressure to reduce labour costs, we are seeing growing interest in the Italian-made Euroimpianti laser guided vehicles we launched into the UK and Ireland 12 months ago.”

Tucker says the highly mobile LGVs “can, in many cases replace long conveyor lines” providing a fast, efficient means of taking product off the end of the line to a stretchwrapper or other end-of-line equipment. He adds: “The first machine and associated laser equipment can be expensive, but once the initial laser stations are in, the cost of additional vehicles falls and payback is often achievable within two years.”

The company says LGVs can “open up” factories previously “closed off” by large conveyors, while simultaneously reducing manpower requirements – both in terms of conveyor operators and fork-lift drivers.

Bedfordshire-based Endoline Machinery is another end-of-line specialist to have significantly diversified. Beginning life in 1981 selling case taping machinery, it now also sells case erectors, conveyors and handpacking stations and, most recently, pick and place case packers. In a classic example of the targeted plant reorganisation cited by Aetna’s Tucker, Endoline recently helped Liverpool-based peanut producer Trigon Snacks (which makes Planters and Big D nuts) redesign the packing hall for two of its lines to improve product flow and provide further space for pallet stacking and storage.

An old conveyor system was proving unreliable and prone to downtime. Two semi-automatic random case taping machines were also problematic. Endoline combined 10 of its two-person Packaging Stations with a powered rolling conveyor and two Endoline 704 fully automatic random case tapers to improve product flow on the two main conveyor feed lines, remove bottlenecks and raise throughput.

Due to the production operation’s flexibility requirements, bags and peanut cards are now manually picked and loaded into the outer cases at the new packaging stations. When full, cases are automatically transferred to the main conveyor, where a computer-controlled system indexes them onto the main line conveyor without jams as previously regularly occurred. The system also provides a constant, controlled flow with case accumulation of packed cases to the case tapers.

On reaching the tapers, cases are diverted down the required line for top and bottom taping before hand palletising. Endoline’s 704, high speed fully automatic random case taping machine will self-adjust to any one of the case sizes in Trigon’s range before closing and sealing with self-adhesive tape. The complete system has improved packing efficiencies and provided room for increased production capacity.

Significant improvements

“While many companies have traditionally left thinking about end-of-line equipment to last when designing factory layouts, more manufacturers are now giving such machinery higher focus and recognising that even a relatively modest outlay can bring significant improvements,” says Endoline md Tony Hacker.

He does feel, however, that UK FMCG manufacturers “are generally more reluctant” than their mainland European counterparts to embrace modern technology.

One of the other “very noticeable effects” of the drive to reduce prices, Hacker says, is brand owner preparedness to downgauge packaging materials, such as the board used in casemaking. He adds: “For us this means designing equipment that is more tolerant, but which will still run just as fast, efficiently and reliably.”

One such machinery range is Endoline’s new 310 series of modular pick and place case packers, designed particularly for customers looking for their first move into automation.

Endoline says the machines, on which cost and complexity have been minimised, should typically give a 6-18 month payback. Hacker adds: “The compact footprint and easy set-up for each product and collation make this range simpler to fit in and adjust than other fully automatic machines.”

Other key features include clear access and a rapid, simple, tool-free set-up and unattended operation following set-up. The 310 machines automatically load regular-shaped rigid or semi-rigid products into static cases and trays. They can accept tins, tubs, cartons and bottles, together with some shrink, tight and wrapped rigid products, vacuum-packed rigid products and some flow-wrapped goods.

Demand for one stop shop

“The 310s are just one element in our fast-growing range”, says Hacker. “Although FMCG manufacturers today are more reluctant to invest large-scale, there is demand for a one-stop shop service which means sometimes supplying a complete line. The big difference from earlier years, however, is that customers acquiring turnkey systems costing £200,000 plus now expect an 18 month payback, while our typical manufacturing lead times have halved to as little as 10 weeks.”

One thing that has not changed is retailers’ expectation that all types of palletised goods arrive in A1 condition. Hacker says: “Even one bad case on a pallet will see it returned.”

Versatility and sensitive product handling were vital criteria when a leading contract packer recently turned to Europack for “made-to-measure” help. Europack, (just acquired, along with Autowrappers, by Bradman Lake shareholders – see separate news story on this website), had to design and manufacture an in-line film wrapper able to handle a wide range of unstable containers and produce a fully enclosed pack. It developed a shrinkwrapper with a special angled infeed – an innovation it says will now benefit other packers and manufacturers.

“The packer concerned had to meet the exacting demands of its retail partners, handling an assortment of round, square and oval plastic toiletry bottles,” explains Europack sales director Ivan Reeve. “Packaging materials also had to be kept to a minimum and the wrapped packs to protect the product against dust.”

From a single line infeed, product is turned through 90 degrees, fed into lanes and then collated into unsupported packs of six or 12, prior to shrinkwrapping. The installation handles around 80 bottles/min of products like shampoo and baby powder. Alongside eliminating the need for a supporting tray, the application utilises Europack’s “unique” tight wrapping technology that reduces the amount of film and energy required. “It was essential we deliver exactly what the contract packer required so that they, in turn, could meet the demands of their customers -– prestigious high street retailers,” adds Reeve.

French-owned Cermex (which has a UK office in Huntingdon) recently demonstrated its end-of-line expertise by supplying a complete turnkey shrinkwrapping and palletising line to South American drinks producer Pascual Mexico. This includes five machines for its glass line: depalletiser, uncasing machine, case packer, tray packer/overwrapper and palletiser; and an overwrapper and palletiser for its PET line.

Site evaluation of existing problems

On an early site visit Cermex’s engineers evaluated Pascual Mexico’s existing container processing problems, noting, for example, that not only had an operator to be present constantly, but that existing equipment operation was unreliable, with unscheduled shutdowns and loads on pallets having to be manually recentered.

Cermex’s solution uses a robotic depalletising system for full and empty plastic cases, customised by increasing the tolerance of the grasping tool and developing a fully automatic and self-correcting system using robotic “intelligence’. The robot uses ultrasound sensors to detect any faults in pallet geometry for pallets loaded with cases of empty bottles.

The robot’s 400kg load capacity can accommodate high speed picking up and depositing of layers at 60,000 bottles/hr and 42 cases/min. The depalletiser is used with a multi-package palletiser for cases filled with full bottles and film-wrapped trays. Cermex says these two machines improve management of empty pallets, with intermediate storage and redistribution to the palletiser that guarantees speeds of 60,000 bottles/hr thanks to a 3-lane infeed system.

Another strong advocate of robotics is Ocme UK, the UK subsidiary of Italian machinery manufacturer Ocme, which has established a niche for its robotic palletising cells alongside more “conventional” end-of-line equipment like depalletisers, wraparound casepackers and tray-based shrinkwappers.

Robotics replacing conventional systems

“Our key market sectors are tissues, beverages and personal care,” explains sales director Steve Wyard. “However we have found that robotic palletisers, which are increasingly replacing conventional palletising equipment due to their high payload capacity (up to 500kg), reliability and unattended operation, can be used to palletise anything from wine bottles to kitchen sinks. “Like our competitors we have seen a slowdown in orders for complete end-of-line systems, apart from in the beverage sector, where the real giants, such as Simonazzi and Kisters, have the market cornered. We cannot compete with them in terms of equipment breadth, but we can offer specialist expertise.”

Ocme began selling robotic palletisers in the mid-1990s and, Wyard says, has seen dramatic advances in their design since then. “In addition to substantial payloads, which enable the palletisers to lift complete layers, areas such as gripper design, electronic lift and electronic control systems have been radically improved,” he explains. “Modern robotic palletisers can palletise many different products using a single head at up to 160 packs/min, a level of flexibility and speed that conventional palletisers cannot match.

“For brand owners end-of-line is now all about saving money – even a medium speed robotic palletiser may replace up to three operatives using a traditional palletiser, giving substantial manpower reductions. The latest robotic systems’ reliability – the robots typically have a mean time between failure rate of 40,000 hours – their ultra-fast processing speeds and low maintenance requirements are all invaluable at a time when brand owner customers are watching their budgets to an unprecedented degree.”