Automation Enters Lantech Product Development

The Inventor of Stretch Wrappers Is Still a Containment Innovator

By Aaron Hand

In 1972, Bill and Pat Lancaster sat at their kitchen table working out a way to stabilize pallet loads of products with stretched plastic film. Their company, Lantech, made and sold the ovens needed to heat shrink plastic bags over loads. But the brothers thought there had to be a better way.

They ultimately invented the first rotary stretch wrapping system, demonstrating it to attendees at the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers tradeshow in 1973.

Headquartered in Louisville, Ky., Lantech is the largest manufacturer of stretch wrapping equipment today, with more than 65,000 machines sold around the world. Though Bill has since divested his share of the company, Pat is still heavily involved in product development. In fact, he turned over the helm of the company in 1995 to his son Jim so that he could get back to focusing on R&D.

"Pat prefers going out into the field, watching customers to see how they're using the machines," says Allison Myers, senior marketing product manager for Lantech. The machine builder hasn't implemented changes over the years so much because customers have asked for those changes, but because Lantech has made a point of observing its customers in action and seeing what's needed, she adds.

Automation has entered more and more into the picture, introducing conveyorized systems and electronically controlled systems, for example. Lantech was working to make its shrink wrappers easier to use and safe, Myers says, noting that customers don't pay attention to the technology; they just want it to run.

Other advances have included higher speeds and easier maintenance. High-speed automation is crucial for companies like Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Coors, Myers says. "They say, 'Don't give me any downtime.' Speed is very important," she says. Containment force is always a key consideration, no matter the level of automation. "What changes is how fast you want to do it."

The company is clearly on a mission — to reduce the damage that occurs throughout a product supply chain — and it regularly visits its customers' shop floors to see how it can improve on the process (see "Damage: The Profitability Drain").

Out of that has sprung improved technologies that today include containment force capabilities that generate feedback for operators. Lantech's machines use Allen-Bradley PLCs with PanelView Plus terminals, providing operators the information they need to see whether their load is safe to ship.

"You not only can tell how much containment force there is, but also the film weight," says Richard Johnson, chief engineer for Lantech. "You can see how much film you're using, so you can get the highest containment force with the least amount of film."

This is the first equipment that can generate feedback, according to Johnson, who says it's important because a change in settings or a change in the type of film used can significantly affect the containment force on a load. Awareness is growing among manufacturers about the need for proper containment force, Johnson adds, but the company is still working to educate its customers. "Even people with standards in place weren't measuring their loads," he says.

Lantech introduced a metered film delivery system about five years ago, and optical sensors monitor every aspect of that system. There's "tons and tons" of data available for customers, Johnson says. The base machines delivers that performance data at the HMI level, but users can also upgrade to Ethernet-connected machines.