Food Engineering

End-of-Line Packaging: Lines with Give and Take

June 1, 2010
End-of-line packaging demands are inspiring new-to-market machinery and new-to-world layouts.

Perpetually merging five lanes into one exemplifies the creative solutions that are being deployed in end-of-line systems. Source: Intralox.


Life is complicated at the end of the line, as any packaging engineer can attest. Customers are demanding nonstandardized product shipments, and the case packers, coders and palletizers that used to handle everything now must be tweaked or bypassed for different orders. The machines that automate functions have one foot in the mechanical world, the other in the electronic, adding another wrinkle to what used to be straightforward line-design decisions.

Manufacturers used to approach suppliers of end-of-line systems with defined projects, notes Joe DePaso, senior staff engineer at Intralox LLC, Harahan, LA. Today, the functional requirements and available space are outlined, and then it’s up to the supplier or integrator to devise a solution.

Those solutions are becoming more creative, thanks to the experience of system integrators and modeling tools such as Demo 3D, a simulation tool from a Reading, UK software firm. The virtual simulations go well beyond machine speed and product movement to include factors such as gravity, friction and other real-world disturbances. “Gaming technology has made this all possible,” believes Pete Harmon, president of Retrotech Inc., Fishers, NY. “If you focus on high-performance machines and ignore the interconnecting system, those machines will lay idle much of the time and utilization will be an issue. Fortunately, we now have some incredibly powerful modeling tools that help create better designs.”

The simulation model’s graphics resemble animation, but the underlying physics are what make it such a powerful tool for depalletizing systems, perpetual merge configurations and other “customized process performance,” according to DePaso. “We’re able to get process motion we had never thought of before, depending on how the components are put together,” says DePaso, who has used Demo 3D for two years.

Rigid rules of line design are being scrapped as manufacturers seek enhanced flexibility to deal with specialized orders. “In the good old days, nothing crossed in a line. These days, you see spaghetti,” marvels Amy Defayette, manager of Bosch Rexroth’s Varioflow conveyor products in Buchanan, MI. Instead of a dedicated cartoner, case stacker and palletizer for each line, manufacturers are directing product flow from any line to any machine, and they want the changeover to be quick and seamless. Overhead space increasingly is coming into play, as product moves up and over to where it needs to go.

The system integrator’s role is expanding as line focus shifts from throughput to utilization. Robotic motion is becoming common in end-of-line machinery, though it’s important to approach the design challenge with neither a bias toward robotics or hard automation, cautions Mike Grinager, vice president-technology at Brenton Engineering Co. “Traditional hard automation provides higher speeds and greater efficiency,” he observes, but if flexibility and adaptability are key considerations, robotics are often the answer. “Robotic simulation saves a lot of time [in design] because to run the simulation, you have to write the code,” Grinager points out. However, complete lines are often hybrids of mechanical and electronic machinery, and simulation may not expose the chokepoints. Whether integrating its own equipment with machinery from other Pro Mach divisions or outside suppliers, “we build it here before shipping,” he says. “If we don’t debug it before installation, food companies can’t hit the ground running.”

Consolidation has left industry with a choice between a handful of turnkey suppliers and thousands of machine builders. Some of those smaller competitors may offer best-in-class solutions, but integration is an issue. The automotive industry addressed this years ago with simultaneous engineering, a solution transferred to food and beverage under the PELS umbrella. Shorthand for Packaging End-of-Line Solutions, PELS is an alliance of multiple machine builders and technology providers that deliver plug-and-play solutions to end users, simplifying integration and lowering the total cost of ownership for a line. Some of the original PELS participants three years ago have withdrawn, though “we continue to do some successful projects” for Kellogg’s and other end users, reports Dan Throne, sales and marketing manager at Bosch Rexroth Controls, Hoffman Estates, IL. “Z Automation Co. is the quarterback that brings together the best-in-class OEMs for the end customer,” he explains. The client specifies the desired product flow, and PELS designs a system to meet it, while guaranteeing the stability of the line. “They have the same contract any OEM has, but they have it for the whole line,” says Throne.

Mixed-load pallets are assembled and shrink-wrapped at a rate of 33 cases a minute by two robotic arms in this multi-task workstation.  Source: Axium Inc.

Holistic handling needs

The distinction between material handling and end-of-line packaging blurs when food companies adopt a customer service approach. “Ten years ago, manufacturers dictated how product was shipped,” reflects Bill Natsch, director-robotics integration at Intellegrated’s St. Louis division, which formerly did business as FKI Logistex. “Now, companies like Wal-Mart and Costco dictate if product will be shipped as a rainbow or mixed-load pallet, whether it will be an end-of-aisle or in-aisle display, and if labels should all face the same direction or be showing on all four sides.” Better coordination between the packaging line and the warehouse can alleviate the fulfillment strain.

A more holistic approach also can help wring out supply-chain inefficiencies and help justify automation investments. “Case level storage is a reality now, though a bit unusual,” says Retrotech’s Hartman, citing Cargill as a firm that has slashed the dwell time for cases to two days. Tying in information systems that track orders and inventory is helping meet demand for mixed loads and cross-docked pallets.

Among the firms showing off their mixed-load palletizers at April’s material-handling show in Cleveland was Axium Inc., a Montreal firm that is targeting food and beverage for its robotic order-picking systems. ROP2000, Axium’s latest system, uses two robots to pick 33 cases a minute. As it builds the load, the pallet is lowered and shrink-wrapped until it leaves on a conveyor. The entire footprint is 160 sq. ft.

Product in-flow is sequenced by Axium’s Cube-IQ project planning software, which creates “not only the best design, but the best design based on the rules established by the customer and the manufacturer,” explains Frank Carzoli, director of sales and business development. For example, a pallet bound for Wal-Mart would be built with detergent on the bottom, food items above that and open trays at the top.

Farther upstream, case-packing equipment is in transition. The old system of case forming, top loading and sealing no longer meets all or even most customer requirements. “Instead of rigid boxes, you might put product on a pad and shrink-wrap it,” notes Intelligrated’s Natsch, “or it might simply be shrink-wrapped as part of the customer’s desire to go green.” One machine builder in Alexandria, MN devised a system that wraps a carton blank around packages as they are moving on a mandrel, folding and closing the flaps before ejecting the finished carton.

Scanning product genealogy and shipping information eliminates key-entry errors at Jelly Belly Candy Co. and other food companies that have upgraded marking and coding systems. Source: Videojet Inc.

Alexandria is “the Silicon Valley of case packers,” Brenton’s Grinager wryly observes. The aforementioned wrap-around cartoner was designed by Brent Smith, Brenton’s founder. Both his old firm and new endeavor call Alexandria home, as do several other case-packing firms in and around the town. For manufacturers that still focus on high throughput and standardized shipments, those companies can build traditional case-packers. But the demand for flexibility and customization is making robotics and servos the components of necessity in new machines.

“The kids coming out of school don’t even know what a cam is,” says Grinager. The “hard automation case packers” assembled at Brenton are giving way to all-servo units that are faster, handle a broader product range and are “like playing a video game” when it comes to operating and maintaining them, he says, making them a natural fit for today’s younger workers.

The weak link at the end of the line often is the conveyors. “We don’t treat them like an asset,” observed Steve Kunkle, manager of Kraft Foods’ Chicago bakery plant, in a presentation on packaging line optimization at Food Engineering’s recent Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference. “We’re always after speed, but if you speed up the machines and don’t synchronize the conveyors, you end up with product waste” and no throughput gain.

Steel rollers are the most economical conveying solution, and those systems are improving with new timing-belt transfers and other space-saving innovations to improve flexibility. But steel rollers can be a false economy, argues Dennis Buehring of Nercon Engineering & Manufacturing Co., particularly when case packing, palletizing and other functions are performed in a cold environment. Bearing failure is a problem even in ambient temperatures, the sales director at Oshkosh, WI-based Nercon argues; in a freezer, failures occur more frequently, and maintenance takes up to three times longer. “What really costs is the downtime when you’re not running,” he says.

Before migrating to sales, Buehring helped design end-of-line packaging at Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream’s Bakersfield, CA and Laurel, MD plants, where he used Intralox’s activated roller bearing (ARB) technology in the plastic modular belting to convey product through rooms as cold as -20°F. Nercon’s panel shop handled the electronics, and its engineers did the PLC coding. “The industry trend to retain a single system integrator has opened up some of the larger projects for Nercon,” observes Buehring.

ARB comes at a premium cost, but its ability to orient packages, sort, descramble and execute what Intralox terms “perpetual merge” can produce a quick payback, Buehring says. Angled rollers molded into the belt push products and cases in a desired direction, without any mechanical devices or controls. “People assume there’s an independent power source, but the belt powers everything,” explains DePaso. The rollers can be selectively engaged for sortation and other desired executions. “It’s enabling movements that weren’t possible before,” he says.

End-of-line designs used to be a generational event: Once installed, the line could be expected to reliably bundle finished goods for shipment for the next 20 years. With package size and structure subject to change and customers insisting on customized presentations, those days are gone. “Companies are designing for five years’ use,” one integrator observes, with the expectation that changing requirements soon will obsolete an installation. Engineers are approaching packaging lines with a different mindset, and their technology suppliers are trying to align design work to meet shifting needs.

For more information:

Frank Carzoli, Axium Inc., 514-604-0501, frank.carzoli@axiumsolutions.com
Dan Throne, Bosch Rexroth Inc., 847-645-3749, dan.throne@boschrexroth-us.com
Mike Grinager, Brenton Engineering Co., 320-852-7705
Bill Natsch, Intelligrated, 314-993-4700
Joe DePaso, Intralox LLC, 504-570-2492, joe.depaso@intralox.com
Dennis Buehring, Nercon Engineering & Manufacturing Inc., 920-233-3268, dbuehring@nercon.com
Pete Hartman, Retrotech Inc., 585-924-6333
James Butcher, Videojet Technologies Inc., 44 (0) 870-240 5542


Case conveyors don’t add value, but if they aren’t synchronized with the machines they feed, OEE will suffer. Source: Nercon Engineering & Manufacturing Inc.

PCM closes loop on primary and secondary codes

Just as the product mix handled by end-of-line packaging has become more complicated, the marking and coding information on cases and pallets has become more complex. Inaccurate codes can disrupt customer relations and result in scrapped product, and the consequences become more dire when private-label products are involved.

“I could produce a perfectly good product, with the right information on the primary package, but if it goes into the wrong case or is routed to the wrong customer, it ends up as scrap,” cautions James Batcher, software business unit manager at Videojet Technologies Inc.’s European division in Nottingham, UK. Most food and beverage manufacturers still rely on manual message set-up for supply-chain information, key-entering label data as many as three times. British retailers, with their emphasis on private-label food products, tackled the issue of mislabeled shipping labels with package coding management software (PCM), an end-of-line tool that is beginning to gain traction in North America.

Six years ago, Wood Dale, IL-based Videojet acquired Zipher Ltd., a firm that worked closely with those British retailers. Accurate coding also was a concern from a track-and-trace perspective. PCM with open database connectivity to MES and other enterprise IT systems was part of the solution. Scanning the primary package’s bar code on the production floor has eliminated manual inputs and helped create an audit trail. Consumer protection is one benefit, but a bigger driver for PCM investment is minimizing misdirected orders and lost sales to retailers, Butcher suggests.

“Coding is perceived by many as a nonvalue-add, something manufacturers have to do but that doesn’t justify automation,” he adds. “In the past, suppliers lived with coding mistakes because they had no choice. Nowadays everything is digital, and that makes PCM possible.”

Private-label programs at Wal-Mart and Safeway are giving PCM a lift in North America. Another factor is the growth of shelf-ready packaging: “Transit cases are becoming the in-store presentation,” says Butcher. Information that used to be strictly for supply-chain use now is presented to shoppers. Customers expect food suppliers to demonstrate due care with secondary packaging’s coding, just as they do with food handling, Butcher says.