A Handle on Better Packaging

Switch to PC-Based Control Gives Machine Builder Better, More Affordable Performance, Improved Efficiency, and Reduction in Control Panel Space

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By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

If a machine builder wants to remain competitive in a global market, then updating controls, motion, data processing, software and/or networking functions to provide more flexibility, improved speed and reduced costs is a necessity at some point.

PakTech (www.paktech-opi.com) in Eugene, Ore., manufactures handles that bundle two to 12 containers or large single bottles, and builds the machines that apply its handles at high speeds. The company started when founder Jim Borg designed the TwinPak handle in 1992 to accommodate a pair of gallon-sized milk containers. Besides bundling beverage bottles, spray bottles, lawn fertilizer containers and personal care products, PakTech also integrates its systems with those of container manufacturers to add handles to their own products before filling.

Offering a machine with better speed wouldn't win orders—it also had to be affordable. We needed to bring down our controls costs to find a better balance of performance and price.

These days, PakTech also offers some hard-to-find in-house products and services such as part design and engineering, mold development, injection mold manufacturing, UPC label application, and design, manufacture and servicing of inline application equipment.

PakTech usually starts a new project when a customer requires a new type of multi-pack handle. Its staff first gets a clear idea of the project, develops a 3D image within a week, and then delivers prototype and injection-molded samples within two weeks. This has helped the company stay competitive, adapt to changing requirements, and quickly bring new products to market. However, the company determined that its machines also needed more flexible and affordable controls.

New Capabilities Required

"While developing a new control system, we found that we needed controls that weren't as restrictive and tightly packaged as our previous solution," says Dan Shook, PakTech's operations director. "We also required a user interface that was specific to our equipment, so the look and feel would be the same across different PakTech platforms. Up until this time, we used touch panels from a large PLC manufacturer along with its proprietary software to create pushbutton interfaces, etc. We also wanted to develop a more brand-specific look and feel for our application machinery."

However, the compounding challenge was that PakTech competes against several builders with very low-cost machines that aren't elegant, but they do the job. "Offering a machine with better speed wouldn't win orders—it also had to be affordable. We needed to bring down our controls costs to find a better balance of performance and price," Shook explains. "Competing machines are often stuck at about 25 cases per minute with a lower-quality, die-cut handle. To reach 50 cases per minute, they offer two low-performance machines at $120,000, and run them in parallel, which isn't sustainable if you want to control plant floor utilization and machine footprint. The base PakTech model with our previous PLC-based controls cost $200,000 or more, so we had to expand our control ability, and reduce our costs, which we couldn't do with separate PLC and servo platforms. Layers of components just kept adding up, and we couldn't specify the control system we needed for less than $50,000 with our previous vendor. This was a serious threat to our competitiveness and sustainability. We decided that we had to have something like a PC tying everything together."

PCs + Robots = Flexibility

PakTech began working with Beckhoff Automation (www.beckhoffautomation.com) to redesign its handle application machinery, starting with its MPA60 Multi-Purpose Applicator, which can apply handles at 60 cases per minute. The firm's machines typically integrate with a conveyor and use presence sensors to detect and receive upstream products, control the sequence to a particular location, add handles, check for correct application, move products downstream for further steps, and communicate line speed to other plant systems. MPA60 uses a Fanuc robot arm that picks and places the handles, and its users need only minimal training to program it (Figure 1).

"PakTech aims to make the process as easy as possible for customers by installing the machine at the end user's facility," Shook says. "It cut the required training time in half for our customers by eliminating the time that previously had to be spent in the plant training the maintenance technicians how to navigate through the previous system. Now, the navigation is essentially as simple as pushing a button on the machine. We were initially introduced to Beckhoff's PC-based controls by machinery from Husky Injection Molding Systems (www.husky.ca), which we use to manufacture our plastic handles. This solution is what lets us program code more easily, push information back to the robotic equipment using a standard Ethernet interface, and perform remote maintenance."

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