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'Houston, We have no problem!'

Anheuser-Busch's Houston plant brews efficiency on three glass bottling lines with automated systems that accumulate cases and deliver them on demand to case packers.
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If bottled beer consumption is flat it's certainly not evident based on the production pouring out of Anheuser-Busch's Houston brewery. Deep in the heart of Texas the plant runs three shifts six days a week.

"We're the third-largest of the Anheuser-Busch plants with respect to volume" asserts Dan Alonso assistant plant manager. "We are considered a ten-million-barrel brewery." At this facility beer is packaged into both 12-oz nonreturnable glass bottles and aluminum cans.

In the past 18 months the plant has dramatically improved its efficiencies on three glass lines by adding automatic case balancing systems from CVC Systems (Union City CA). These make it easy to handle and store corrugated reshippers until they're needed at automatic case packers downstream.

The case balancing systems include an infeed carousel multi-level accumulation areas and a discharge carousel. A system stands 22' H and measures 26' W x 100' L. It holds up to 8 cases.

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The CVC system automatically conveys reshippers from the uncaser to its infeed carousel where a bar-code scanner identifies the case type and counts it. If this case type is not needed downstream at the packer the system loads it and others like it into a continuous vertical elevator. The elevator delivers the cases to a conveyor on the appropriate accumulation level.

When the system recognizes that the case packer requires cases the discharge carousel removes a row of cases from the appropriate accumulation level and again scans each case with a bar-code scanner before conveying the case to the packer. Scanners are supplied by Allen-Bradley (Milwaukee WI).

From the time pallet loads of cases containing empties are uncased to the time they're ready to be case-packed "takes about an hour and forty minutes" explains William Bill bottling manager at Anheuser-Busch (A-B).

The proprietary software that controls the case balancing system was developed by DynaLogic Engineering (Walled Lake MI). "The system can operate fully automatically or it can be programmed to make recommendations and require operator decisions" notes A-B project engineer Jeff Heitmann.

The system's control station a Human Machine Interface (HMI) can work independently to operate the system. The HMI can also be integrated into a variety of operating environments. "Our CVC systems are connected with our Integrated Manufacturing System so we can make decisions and control the operations from remote locations" Heitmann adds.

Alonso believes remote positioning "is another of the main CVC advantages. The system has process controls whereby the packer signals that it needs a certain type of case and the CVC system provides it."

Successful 'shakedown'

The first CVC system was installed in late '96 on Line 5 an older line. "It was an experiment to try one of these automated systems" says Alonso. After a successful start-up and "shakedown"/trial period A-B management decided to employ the systems on two newer lines.

"Once we saw how well it worked we adopted it right away for lines seven and eight" Alonso notes. "These two lines are mirror images of one another producing long-neck bottles. Line seven was running by last October line eight in February." Alonso tells Packaging World that the two newer lines produce 20 cases/shift while Line 5 produces 14 cases/shift.

Asked about payback the two A-B representatives couldn't provide specifics but Bill did say that "return on investment varies by the overall line." The CVC systems both men agree "have improved our process increased efficiencies and given us better quality control." Alonso adds "There's also a labor factor in that we no longer need a person on each shift to handle boxes."

The labor issue seems to lie at the heart of the decision to add the CVC balancing systems. In the past operators loaded cases onto slow-moving conveyors that A-B refers to as "balance belts." In all four such belts were used at the plant on older lines. Each parallel 6'-wide belt measures 100' long. Together they held 3 cases.

With balance belts "an operator stacked the empty cases [after uncasing] on the belt and they'd accumulate on the belts until they were needed" notes Alonso. Hence the need for an operator on each shift.

The labor-intensive process wasn't appealing to workers or management. As plant manager Mike Harding points out "Moving cases on and off an accumulation conveyor doesn't challenge the mind and we're concerned with making our workers productive with their minds instead of their backs. That way they can improve process quality by finding other opportunities to move technology forward."

William Bill elaborates: "The CVC system provides terrific ergonomic benefits. It enables the operator to become more of a process 'owner' to perform value-added work in monitoring processes like filling. There's also time to check incoming glass for quality and maintain the cleanliness of the area. It improves the quality of our process and employee working conditions.

"The system has also enabled A-B to take cases out of a wet area where they accumulated near the balance belts. That change has also improved quality" he adds.

Enhanced efficiency

One A-B production goal is keeping each bottling line running at full capacity. The on-demand nature of the balancing systems helps accomplish that objective.

"The CVC helps us maximize our production capacity because the case packer is never starved for cases" Bill notes. "The filler is able to run at the rated speed."

That speed on Line 7 is 1 bottles/min. On that line bottles are automatically removed from the case. Bottles are then conveyed through the rinser filler crowner pasteurizer and labeler before they arrive at the case packer. There the waiting case must match the beer brand the bottles display.

Both the uncaser and the pair of case packers handle up to 70 cases/min as can the CVC. The CVC constantly meters the speeds of both the uncaser and the case packer and it counts the number of cases between the two systems. It quickly balances to store cases when the case packer slows so that the uncaser can run at maximum capacity. The balancing system is also adept at correcting "starving" conditions when the uncaser slows. This balancing act helps the line maximize operating efficiency.

Three operating modes

The CVC system operates in three basic modes: accumulation discharge and bypass. While certain production situations will automatically suggest a mode of operation the line operator can force a particular mode by selecting the appropriate command.

For example the accumulation mode is automatically selected if the case brand at the infeed differs from the bottles at the packer. In this mode cases will be indexed into the elevator and stored on the appropriate level selected for that case type. The accumulation mode is automatic when cases back-up from the case packer.

The discharge mode is automatically chosen when the case packer is working faster than the uncaser. In this instance boxes are released from storage to meet the demand at the packer.

In the bypass mode cases travel quickly through the CVC system directly to the packer with no need for storage.

Quick changeovers too

System flexibility is important at Houston particularly for product or case changeovers. Alonso says "changeover is one of the CVC's most important attributes."

Bill adds "Changeovers depend on the line and our production schedule. Some lines can require two or three package changeovers per shift. At other times the same box may run during the entire shift."

Scheduling box changes has traditionally been a challenge to bottling facilities. Delivering the new case to the packer at the same time as the arrival of the new product requires perfect planning. This timing was further complicated when cases had to be taken from balance belts.

With the CVC system case balancing is not limited to a first-in/first-out process. An operator can select a new case at any time "on-the-fly."

"It lets us make the change at our discretion at the best scheduling opportunity" says Biz Ghose A-B's project engineer.

Since installation "the CVC systems have logged ninety-eight-percent up-time" he says.

"The CVC technology has exceeded our expectations" Bill says. "Based on our experience the CVC systems have proven to be extremely durable. We're back on the drawing board [contemplating] the addition of another case balancing system for one of the other two bottling lines."

And why not? As Alonso concludes "The systems have enhanced our lines with respect to our labor-hours-per-thousand. It helps our quality reduces changeover time and the need for manual labor. At Houston we've been at the forefront of a lot of [technology] and we're glad to have this equipment in our mix."

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