By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief
Packaging solutions in almost every market segment are comprised of several pieces of equipment. Sometimes the individual machines are installed at different stages of the company's growth by one machine builder. Sometimes the customer buys from more than one builder. This could be the result of price or a customer's historical preferences for one brand of case erector while using another brand of packer or case sealer.
Whatever the reason, the wise machine builder recognizes these possibilities and naturally aims to supply as many of the machines as possible, preferably all of them. One way to do this is to make the required integration of these machines easier to do when needed, or to offer an already integrated solution up front.
That's the approach taken by Elliott Manufacturing (www.elliott-mfg.com) in Fresno, Calif. The company incorporated its case packing machinery, case erector and sealer expertise into its new Case Packing System. The modularity of the design allows packagers to run a pick-and-place module today and switch it out for a drop-pack module tomorrow, or even to break the line apart and redeploy the erector and possibly the top sealer to another location in the factory. Customers can purchase the complete line or, to build their systems a piece at a time, in a building-block concept (Figure 1).
The case-packing module can range from an economical drop-load system to a mid-range gantry pick and place or the more sophisticated robotic pick-and-place option that also could palletize the output of the case-packing system.
Elliott Manufacturing was incorporated in September 1929, and has been operating continuously for 81 years. Thomas Henry Elliott owned and operated Selma Fruit, processing raisins. "He was an entrepreneur, inventor and self-taught engineer of sorts, and liked machinery more than the processing business," says Richard Allbritton, the company's president and CEO. "Raisins were packed in bulk corrugated boxes, sealed using a paint brush and cold glue, and then placed under a weight for compression until the glue set up. Elliott felt there must be a better way and designed a case sealer to do that job. He abandoned the raisin processing business and started Elliott Manufacturing, making the Type ‘A' case sealer. As his business grew, he looked for opportunities to expand his machinery manufacturing business and expanded into making food processing equipment."
Over the years, the company matured into a readily recognizable company, and Elliott wanted complete control of his products. He started the third leg of Elliott Manufacturing, a fabrication shop for custom machine work. "He realized that by making his own parts, the company could maintain control of the quality of the machinery manufactured," Allbritton explains.
Necessity and Reinvention
In 2007, Elliott Manufacturing embarked on the process of reinventing itself in the redevelopment of its present line of packaging machinery. "In the past we delivered a case-packing solution in a couple of different ways," Allbritton explains. "We can provide individual machines. A case erector forms the case. Next, feed the case into a packer that loads the case. The case finally ends up in a top sealer that seals the top of the loaded case. This solution involves a lot of conveyor work, floor space, and sometimes complicated handshaking between the machines."
The other solution is an all-in-one case packing machine. "This saves room on the floor and eliminates the extra conveyor and handshaking expense," Allbritton adds. "However, these usually are fixed to one method of product handling and limited in case range and speed, making the addition of new products and sizes sometimes difficult and expensive, if it's even possible."
Allbritton says the new Modular Case Packing Systems take these two solutions and apply the benefits of both while removing the downfalls. The systems take the three machines from the first solution and connect them together, giving users a form of the second solution. "It gives the end user a system without extra conveyor work to move product and cases around, an integrated controls system that allows all of the machines to communicate with each other, and the flexibility of changing product handling and loading simply by using different modules that can be integrated into the system easily."
Rethink the I/O
The current Case Packing System uses a Rockwell Automation controls platform with PLC, touchscreen, and servo drives and motors. The system meets Category 3 safety standards using safety switches, safety relays and safety functions integrated in the servo drives. This integrated controls platform allows Elliott to integrate its controls more easily and share information between them.
"In previous systems, a major encumbrance was the use of digital I/O that required us to wire each field component individually back into the main control cabinet," Allbritton says. "We decided to switch to remote I/O for field components such as photo eyes, proximity switches and other inputs. This allowed us to save valuable time by reducing wiring. The remote I/O gives us added flexibility because we can add new I/O without the worry of running out of digital inputs or adding new I/O cards to the PLC. That requires precious cabinet space and additional wiring."
Elliott engineers selected a B&R Industrial Automation solution that provides remote I/O systems for the modules, so the cabling doesn't change whether the company uses a B&R control system or one from another automation supplier. The machine modules are wired the same whether they're used standalone or integrated as a case-packing system. Each removable, quick-connect case-packing head is therefore self-contained with plug-in communications and 24 Vdc power connections.
"B&R's Ethernet Remote I/O system was a great fit," Allbritton states. "It lets us standardize on one I/O system and integrate it into any of the controls systems that we might want or have to use. We do everything we can to meet our customers' specifications, and sometimes that means using a specific controls package. In this case, we were able to hook up and configure the B&R I/O in just a few minutes without writing any PLC code to tie the two together. The I/O also gives us the flexibility to add or reconfigure the I/O to accept a new module without adding new hardware to the control cabinet and reconfiguring the PLC's digital I/O structure."
Sold Separately Too
Each of the modules is one of Elliott's standard standalone machines. Each can be controlled by its own PLC and HMI, or use a common controls system. "Part of the logic behind this approach is to allow the end user to either install a full system with one controls package or install the machines in stages as the company or product line grows," Allbritton says. "If the machines are installed in stages, they all could have their own controls system or be integrated into one system as the pieces are added."
The Next Next Generation
Allbritton says the company is at work to add the cartoning side of its equipment line to the same modular principles that it used to develop the new case-packing lines. "When finished, we will have a complete system that could take a product from individual product, to carton, to case packing, and finally to a palette all in one integrated system," Allbritton explains.