Sustainable Machine: More Than an Add-On

Green Isn't an Afterthought. New and Old Machines Demand Solutions in Which Energy and Raw Material Conservation Are as Important as Throughput and Safety

By Jim Montague

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April 2011 CoverGreen must be real to deliver real savings. It can't be tacked on. Even though sustainability means many things to different people, you can't fake it and expect it to work. Phony sustainability is easy to spot — like a Hummer painted turquoise. It might look pretty, but it still wastes energy.

Green and sustainability must be more than buzzwords for "efficiency" because efficiency is just the beginning. Just like biological waste and toxic home loans, difficult problems all roll downhill until they reach someone who can solve them. Consumers demand green and less costly products from retailers. Retailers demand green products and energy-and-material-saving solutions from manufacturers. And, finally, manufacturers demand that builders give them machines that do both. Lucky you.

Cap Conservation

Reducing raw materials might seem straightforward, but actually doing it can get mighty complex, especially when you're trying use less plastic in the plastic water bottles produced for much of a continent.

For example, Nestlé Waters North America recently asked its high-speed, rotary bottle-capping supplier, Pro Mach's Fowler Products division, to redesign and change out the cap-handling components on more than 50 of its machines at more than 12 plants in North America to accommodate smaller caps and lighter-weight bottles, but still allow them to run at up to 1,200 bottles per minute to keep up with demand. Located near Cincinnati in Loveland, Ohio, Pro Mach manufactures 15 brands of primary and end-of-line packaging machines and identification and tracking equipment.

Beginning in 2009, Nestlé's huge capping retrofit required Pro Mach to cooperate with other machine builders and equipment suppliers to update their devices to handle the smaller caps. Cooperation, planning and design took two years, initial execution took six months, and final retrofits are continuing this year.

"This was a very involved project that took a lot of collaboration and a lot of time," says Mark Anderson, Pro Mach's president and CEO. "The blow-molding and filler builders had to redo their machines. The cap supplier had to make smaller caps. Fowler added its proprietary positioning and orienting technology to the capping heads to prevent the smaller caps from getting jammed. And the material handling system had to handle bottles that were more floppy and less stable. As a result, more sustainable packaging can be more difficult to handle because you also can't sacrifice productivity or give up low costs."

Doug Newcomer, Fowler's after-market services manager, adds, "We've all worked with Nestlé for a long time, so we were able to have a team effort with them, the cap manufacturers, and the filler companies. The 36-head capping turrets were already in production, so this was a retrofit project. It was still very challenging because the new caps were so lightweight, and the machines had to run at their normal production rate of up to 1,200 bottles per minute. We had to be more precise with the tolerances of the new parts and in setting up the capping machines. We used gauges to check and correct the flatness of surfaces and the alignment of the heads to the bottles. We then used high-speed cameras to check the transfer of the caps into the chucks through our transfer star. The caps were more affected by air when transferring to the capper, but still had to be perfectly aligned to the heads as they transferred out of the star, and the heads had to be perfectly aligned to the bottles as the caps were being applied. Working together, we made it a success."

To further handle the lighter-weight bottles, Newcomer says Fowler also redesigned and tightened the star-wheel-based handoff process between the filling machine and its capper. He adds that the filler and other devices use control systems from Siemens Industry, Schnedier Electric and Rockwell Automation.

Consequently, Nestlé and its partners report their joint capping retrofit was a huge success. "We helped reduce plastic in the caps by about one third, save 95 million pounds of PET resin per year, and save Nestlé about $60 million per year," Anderson adds.

Ramped-Up Recycling

Besides designing machines to use less raw material, some builders construct equipment that can use a greater percentage of recycled content or more biodegradable material. In fact, Husky Injection Molding Systems, Bolton, Ontario, reports that its new HyPET Recycled Flake (RF) molding platform can manufacture plastic preforms (which are plastic forms before they're blow-molded by another machine) with up to 100% post-consumer, food-grade recycled plastic extrusion technology (PET) flake (Figure 1). The company began by optimizing HyPET RF to manufacture preforms with up to 50% recycled flake, and then continued to tighten its performance to increase the quality of preforms made using the PET flake.

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