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Quick-change equipment shines

From contract packaging to pharmaceuticals to frozen veggies, packaging operations depend heavily on the ease with which they can be changed over.
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FILED IN:  Controls  > Strategy

Never before has quick changeover capability been so highly prized in the packaging machinery sector. Other performance characteristics such as speed accuracy and cost still count heavily in decisions made about packaging equipment purchases. But as the forces of mass customization continue to shape today’s marketplace quick changeover looms larger than ever.

Exemplifying this trend is Pro-Motion Industries a contract packager in Hammonton NJ where improving changeover was largely a matter of finding the right sensor.

Pro-Motion labels plastic containers holding such well-known brands as Pantene and Coppertone. The labeled bottles then go to filling lines in various locations.

Like any pressure-sensitive label applicator each of the 80 or so labeling heads operating at Pro-Motion requires a sensor to identify precisely where the leading edge of a label is on its release liner. Without this information the labeling head can’t activate on time and thus the container could have a skewed label.


Recently the firm standardized on the LRD6110 Universal Label Edge detector from Lion Precision ( on all 80 of its labeling heads. A capacitive sensor—i.e. one that detects differences in thickness—it locates the precise label position by comparing differences in thickness of the release liner where labels are and are not. Among its most important attributes is that unlike the photoelectric or microswitch or capacitive sensors used in the past at Pro-Motion this sensor can detect either paper or film labels and is unfazed by metallization or foil hot-stamping. Historically any kind of metal decoration technology would make even the most reliable capacitive sensors less reliable.

“We might have two or three different jobs on one machine in the course of a day” says Pro-Motion president Bill Cone. “This sensor allows us to accurately read a variety of labels without having to spend time removing one sensor and replacing it with another. All we do now in a changeover is rethread the new label material regardless of what that material is. What a difference it’s made.”

More quick-change decoration

Weston Foods of Weston OR provides another example of how equipment that can be changed over quickly yields big gains in package decoration. But the packages in this case are corrugated shippers that are being digitally printed.

Weston is a leading supplier of private-label frozen vegetables sold through both foodservice and retail channels. Until recently the firm used a blanket roller approach to imprint variable information on its corrugated. This involved a drum on which letters were mounted by hand. The drum then rotated through an ink source so that the letters could imprint the corrugated.

Changing from one print job to another took so long that many cases were ordered preprinted. That added to the cost of each case and required higher than optimal inventory levels.

Weston improved its case printing operation by installing a Model DCP-3200 digital case printer from Iconotech ( This software-driven system uses a special film stencil mounted on a drum or core along with ink that’s picked up from a fiber plate. New stencils can be prepared quickly. Costing only about $2 each they’re simply discarded when a run of cases is completed.

Weston production manager Jeff Shaffer says he’s especially pleased that the digital case printer produces reliably scannable bar codes. And he likes how easy it is to change from one print job to another.

“It used to take up to a half hour to go from one case to another” says Shaffer. “Now a switch takes about five minutes. And because we no longer have to have so many cases preprinted we carry about $750 less in inventory.”

Another difference maker

At Cosmetic Enterprises in Pacoima CA changeover recently took a turn for the better when a Norden-Matic Model 700 double-indexing tube filler from Norden ( was installed. This private-label manufacturer of cosmetics and OTC pharmaceutical products produces its own brands and contract packages for others too. On the Norden-Matic tube filler tubes range in size from ¼ to 13 oz.

“We run five days one shift a day and because we do so many different products we need to change pretty frequently” says company president Rick Saute. “With our previous tube filler we used to have to remove parts clean them take them back to the line and remount them. It took about an hour and a half. Now it takes about 20 minutes.”

There are three quick-change keys to this piece of equipment. First it came with a second set of “wet parts” i.e. the parts that come in direct contact with the product. That includes product hopper pump and nozzle. These are wheeled out on a cart and plugged in as soon as they’re needed.

“In going from one product to another we no longer have to wait for the tools to be cleaned” says Saute.

Second the machine is built with accessibility in mind. In some changeovers parts like the tube holder tilter downpusher cone orientation cone nozzle hot air nozzle and cooling ring must be changed. These are all easy to reach and require no tools to be changed.

Finally a servo motor governed by software controls the lifting action on the tube holder. Short tubes must be lifted a considerable distance to receive product but long tubes need far less lift. The servo motor greatly reduces the amount of time and effort spent making such a change.

“In the past” says plant manager Les Benton “a mechanic would have to go under the machine and change mechanical cams so that the stroke of the tube lift would be correct. Now when tube height changes all we do is pick the desired setting from a drop-down menu on a touch screen.”

More servos

Servo motors are also making a big difference in changeover times at Roxane Labs of Columbus OH. But in this case it’s 11 servo motors not one.

Roxane packages OTC and prescription liquids in plastic or glass bottles on a Linoline in-line filler/plugger/capper/torquer from Optima ( The machine has six fill nozzles two plugging stations two capping stations and two torquing stations. Filling speeds are anywhere from 30 to 110/min for container volumes ranging from 15 to 250 mL. Bottles can be one of 14 varieties and caps are as small as 8 mm in diameter and as large as 60 mm. Yet in spite of all this variety changeover from one size to another takes about 30 minutes today compared to the nearly four hours it used to take before the Linoline monobloc machine was installed.

“We used to have a separate filler and capper and two portable pluggers” says production engineer Sascha Kellermann. “Changeover meant changing four machines which is why it took nearly four hours.

“We identified about seven firms that were worth looking at as we thought about new equipment” Kellermann continues. “But our many bottle formats combined with our speed requirements and changeover needs meant three or four of those firms didn’t even want to quote the project.” Optima quoted and it ultimately won the project.

Changeover on the Optima system is largely automated thanks to the 11 Allen-Bradley servo motors from Rockwell Automation ( and the Allen-Bradley ControlLogix PLC that controls them. All container formats are stored in the PLC’s memory. With a push of a button at the PLC operator interface panel all 11 servo motors can automatically adjust if need be to create the required parameters—fill amount bottle height torque—for the new container size or shape being filled.

If the changeover involves containers dramatically different in size some components such as the vibratory cap-sorting bowl or capping head also must be changed. To simplify such adjustments these interchangeable parts are all visibly numbered with the same container format number that’s stored in the PLC. Plus virtually all of these parts have quick-release levers that obviate the need for tools. Finally the compact footprint of the monobloc system—11’ long x 4’ wide—means easy access to parts that need to be changed.

Operating three shifts daily five days/week with occasional weekend shifts as needed the line is changed typically once per day. “We replaced four machines with one and our changeover takes 30 minutes rather than four hours” says Kellermann. “That’s a big help.”

Complete line is quick-change

How about an entire line designed for quick changeover? That’s what Schwarz Pharma installed recently in its Seymour IN plant. NJM/CLI ( handled line integration and supplied most of the major pieces of equipment as well. The line is for tablets or capsules in plastic bottles and includes an unscrambler tablet counter/filler cottoner leaflet inserter capper induction sealer accumulation table retorquer and labeler.

Project engineer James Cognata says he is not at liberty to identify the product filled on the new line. But he vouches for its versatility.

“We can run plastic bottles as small as 35-cc or as large as 2000-cc” says Cognata. That means bottles as small as ½” in dia and 1.5” tall or as large as 6” in dia and 12” tall. “The containers can be round square or rectangular” adds Cognata. Speeds are as high as 200 bottles/min.

Average bottle-size changeover with three or four operators dividing the machines among themselves takes about 20 minutes he adds.

“At each major machine you pull up a recipe on the touchscreen panel and it tells you exactly what settings are required” says Cognata. Quick-release levers and “having everything clearly marked” he adds are also helpful.

More pharma

Hi-Tech Pharmacal is another pharmaceutical company whose contract packaging responsibilities make quick-change equipment a priority. One area greatly improved about 18 months ago at the Amityville NY firm is in shrink bundling of plastic bottles filled with liquid cough/cold remedies. A Model ILB-24-DP shrink bundler with robotic pick-and-place arm replaces a largely manual operation. Polypack ( supplied the machine.

Not only does the shrink bundler have to quickly accommodate bottle sizes ranging from 2 to 32 oz it also has to change quickly when shrink bundling of bottles gives way to bundling of folding cartons or vice versa. In addition bundles vary from 4- to 6- to 9-count formats.

The ability to make these changeovers in about 15 minutes is largely a function of the bundler’s unusually accommodating robotic pick-and-place heads. Each head in the dual-lane system consists of a stationary metal plate and a pneumatically actuated pad that pins containers against the plate. Once pinned the containers can be lifted and placed on the two conveyors that each carry the group of packages through a shrink-film application station and subsequently through a shrink tunnel.

“To change the dual gripper heads for a new format we use a socket wrench to adjust the two back plates” says maintenance manager John Williams. This shortens or lengthens the stroke made by the pneumatic device that pins the containers against the back plate.

Infeed guide rails must also be adjusted and this is accomplished via knobs in a tool-free manner. Also contributing is PLC programming that automatically resets parameters such as pitch speed and timing. Top speed on the bundler is 20 bundles/min.

Change part sets

At the Richmond VA plant of Germany’s Wella AG where seven packaging lines are busy packaging shampoos and conditioners into plastic containers an ongoing machinery upgrade aimed at improving changeover involves the installation of new timing screws and starwheels (see photos page 66) from Morrison Timing Screw (708/756-6660). The latest line to get such a makeover is Line 3 where a 20-year-old liquid filler fills five bottle sizes and typically runs two shifts five days/week.

“Before the Morrison parts were added it took 15 minutes to change the filler for a new bottle size” says Wella’s Ruediger Wisch. “Now it takes about a minute.”

That’s because the Morrison change part sets require no tools. The infeed and discharge stars all fit a single hub the center guides fit a common mounting plate and the infeed screws snap in and out as well. When a bottle size changes all that’s required on the filler is a twist of a few quick-release knobs and placement of the new set of parts. To make the job even easier all parts in each set are color-coded.


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