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Wireless comes to packaging

Used for a decade in things like warehousing or petrochemicals, where long distances make wired connections inefficient, wireless is now surfacing in packaging.
FILED IN:  Controls  > Strategy
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Packaging World editors have begun to hear tell of packaging operations where wireless connectivity is being deployed. These three examples are worth a look.

The first, in pet food packaging, is at Nestlé Purina. That’s where Sentekin Can is part of a team that is about two years into a project that has added wireless Local Area Networking (WLAN) to existing wired Ethernet LAN in 22 plants across the country.

“Decisions on what wireless technology vendor to use were made jointly by the electrical engineering group and the information systems group,” says Can, principal controls engineer at Nestlé Purina and a member of the EE team. “Once the selection process was complete, installation responsibility went to EE.”

Can says the implementation of wireless, which is an IEEE-802.11g solution, has been very successful, though he chooses not to identify the key vendor. About 40 access points in each plant are mounted throughout the facility so that wireless signals can be sent wherever they need to go. Each access point has two radios, one compliant with 2.4 GHz IEEE 802.11 b/g and the other compliant with 5.6 GHz 802.11a. The latter, says Can, isn’t used currently but is there for future use.

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Also installed are antennae—about 80 per plant—and switches. The antennae make accessible the wireless signals sent by the radio in the access points. The Power over Ethernet (PoE) layer 2 switches are the means by which access points and antennae connect to the WLAN.

According to Can, a key benefit is greatly improved handling of incoming raw materials and outgoing finished goods. Take finished goods, for example. Forklift drivers use a hand-held bar code scanner connected to a computer on the forklift truck. When this computer receives the information contained in the bar code scanned by the driver, it emits a wireless signal picked up by antennae throughout the plant. Then the information flows instantly to the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, which returns a signal to the forklift computer telling the driver exactly what bay or aisle or bin in the warehouse that pallet belongs in.

Can emphasizes that wireless in the warehouse is not what’s new. “We’ve had wireless in the warehouse for maybe 15 years. But it was a 900 MHz signal, and it wasn’t an open system so you couldn’t interface anything to it, like an ERP system, for example. The new system is 2.4 GHz. And now we have antennae not only in the warehouse but throughout manufacturing, including the packaging room.”

Can says that wireless hasn’t made its way into Nestlé Purina’s packaging machinery yet. But one part of the firm’s packaging operations that will soon go wireless is the handling of paperboard cartons. These are in corrugated shippers in the warehouse, the shippers are palletized, and on the pallet stretch wrap is a bar code label identifying the contents of the pallet. Suppose a forklift driver picks a pallet of green cartons for transfer to the packaging room. He’ll use a hand-held scanner to wirelessly update the ERP system that a pallet load of green cartons has been moved to packaging.