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New equipment revitalizes Amway packaging line

Filling speeds more than doubled and still continue to improve as Amway moves into full production with its new liquid filling line for men's and women's cosmetics.
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Automation speed versatility and simplified changeover. These were the goals set by Amway Corp. engineers as they designed a new line for a wide variety of plastic bottles for cosmetics and personal care products.

A visit to the cosmetics plant at Amway's sprawling headquarters complex in Ada MI confirms that those objectives have indeed been met. In place of an old line that consisted of little more than an in-line filler and a rotary capper is a gleaming new system that is expected to reduce labor costs by almost 50%. Also important to Amway management is the significant improvement in ergonomics that comes with automation as a variety of repetitive hand motions have been eliminated. And then there is the increased speed.

"We're talking about going from 30 units per minute to 70 or 75" says Bob Farmer plant manager. "And I have visions of reaching 90 or even 100 eventually."

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Largely responsible for delivering these impressive numbers is an integrated filling capping and overcapping system from Shibuya Intl. (Modesto CA). This Japanese machine builder is perhaps better known for its F-Cam system a new-generation bottling system featuring automatic size change at the push of a single button. Farmer and his team looked at the F-Cam system but they felt it might be more automation than they needed or their budget could allow. So they opted for a different solution from the same machinery supplier. Not only did they value the equipment's quality and durability they liked the idea of getting so many pieces of equipment from a single source.

Equally impressive as the new line's speed and automation is the wide range of bottle shapes it accepts and the variety of dispensers and overcaps being applied. The bottles which hold anywhere from 10 to 400 mL of liquid are round square oval or diamond-shaped. Dispensers include fairly conventional plugs and pump sprayers as well as the ZelValve(TM) a silicone one-way no-drip dispensing valve from Zeller Plastik (Libertyville IL).

A key to making all this diversity possible is Amway's use of container carriers or pucks to transport bottles on a continuous loop through filling and capping operations and then back to filling again. It takes about 450 pucks to fill the loop.

Injection-molded of polypropylene by Advantage Puck (Mishawaka IN) each of the 12 pucks currently used has an internal configuration that's customized to fit whatever bottle it's designed to carry. Each variety has its own color to make it easy to identify the puck required for a specific production run.

While customized on the inside the pucks are identical in their external dimensions. This allows Amway to maintain settings on guide rails timing screws and star wheels even when bottle sizes or shapes change. The pucks also bring stability to an otherwise light and unstable family of containers.

In addition height adjustments at the filling plugging and capping stations are kept to a minimum or eliminated altogether because the pucks are designed to hold the finish of the bottle at about the same height regardless of the actual height of the bottle.

According to Farmer changeover to a new orifice height and new product takes less than eight hours most of it required at the filler. If the pucks weren't in the picture the same change could take as much as 16 hours he estimates.

One area in the new line commissioned last December that hasn't been automated is the unloading of empty containers from shippers into pucks. There are simply too many varieties to allow for an automated solution that is both effective and affordable says Farmer. So two or three workers remove bottles from bulk cases by hand and place them in pucks.

Although Amway has a sizeable plastic container-making operation at Ada most of the containers filled on this line are imported from Japan. So are the folding cartons pumps plugs and overcaps. This is because most of the product packed on this line is destined for the Japanese market. In fact package design was originally conceived with an Amway affiliate in Japan says Farmer. Plus the vendors assembled by that firm have proven their quality and consistency over the years so there is no real impetus to change the packaging procurement practices.

Explosion-proof room

In addition to the filling capping and overcapping system additional pieces of equipment from Shibuya include three hopper/ sorter/feeder systems for pumps plugs and overcaps. All the Shibuya equipment operates in an explosion-proof room because several of the products contain alcohol. This concern also determined some of Amway's engineering decisions.

"I insisted on having all equipment in the room driven by one motor to minimize the number of electrical devices and the possibility of sparks" says Farmer. "So the piece in the center the pump spray inserter has a 7.5- horsepower motor. The other machines are slaves off of it. It's not quite what you'd call a monoblock but it's a lot like it."

Like the capper and overcapper the 10-valve positive displacement liquid filler is a rotary-style system. Bottles in their pucks are single-filed into a feedscrew/starwheel combination that feeds each puck onto a filling platform. The platform rises to meet the filling head and its spout. Because the spout retracts from the bottle as it fills it's never immersed in the liquid product so dripping is virtually eliminated. If for any reason a puck is missing a bottle a photocell detects it and signals the appropriate valve not to dispense product; similarly no pump will be inserted into that puck nor an overcap applied.

Because the filler must handle such a wide range of fill volumes Amway specified two different sets of valves. One is for bottles up to 180 mL and the other for 180 to 400 mL. Farmer also wanted to keep the filler in production as consistently as possible so he purchased two complete sets of both valve sizes. "You're not making any money when those parts are on a cart waiting to be washed" notes Farmer.

Bottles leave the filler by way of a starwheel/feedscrew discharge and are conveyed ahead to the rotary pump inserter. Once again each bottle is indexed onto a platform by a feedscrew/starwheel combination. Pumps meanwhile are fed by a floor-level hopper. The pumps are conveyed up to an overhead level and then fed down a track until picked up by a slotted transfer wheel that sits about 12" above the bottles. As this transfer wheel rotates it loads a pump into each of six torquing heads. The torquing head carries the pump down with it into a bottle. The pump stem enters the bottle neck dead center and the head then torques the pump until it's tight.

Assisting in guiding the stems into the small orifices is a special funnel beneath each torquing head that consists of two halves resembling the halves of a blow-mold tool. These halves close on the stem precisely at the moment it nears the orifice thus guiding the stem into the bottle with no chance for a miss.

A "double capper"

Now bottles are ready to enter the third main piece of equipment in the filling room which applies the overcap. Farmer calls this machine a "double capper" because it also has a hopper/feeder station that can insert a plastic dispensing plug into those bottles that don't use a pump.

Because some overcaps are friction fit or push-on style and others are threaded the double capper has to be pretty versatile. "When running threaded caps" explains Farmer "it's a matter of engaging some cams that will produce a torquing motion instead of the simpler stroke required by push-on or friction-fit caps."

One last option on the Shibuya system though only a few Amway containers require it is inserting a "mixing ball" similar to what a can of spray paint gets.

Leaving the overcapper bottles exit the filling room and still in their pucks are given a lot code as an ink-jet system from Videojet (Wood Dale IL) sprays the code up through a hole in the bottom of the puck. Then pucks are conveyed to a semi-automatic cartoner supplied by R.A. Jones (Cincinnati OH). Most of the total production through the line however simply bypasses this cartoner. Farmer explains why.

"Some products include a pouch and sponge in addition to literature inside the folding carton" says Farmer. "We couldn't find equipment that would do all that automatically." The Jones machine erects the cartons for these products and operators then load bottles literature pouch and sponge into the carton. Finally the machine tucks the flaps closed.

Bottle remover bypassed

When this semi-automatic cartoner is in use pucks never reach the automated bottle remover. They're diverted onto the closed loop that returns them to the filling room for another cycle. But the more typical path the pucks take is to bypass the Jones cartoner and go directly into the automated system from Shibuya that removes bottles from pucks. It does this by gently turning the puck over on its side. Then a rod pushes through the hole in the bottom of the puck sending the bottle out of the puck and into the flighted conveyor feeding an automated cartoner supplied by IWK (Fairfield NJ).

Literature must be added to each carton. The cartoner can either pick prefolded pamphlets or fold a pamphlet from a flat piece. In either case the pamphlet is laid beside the bottle ready for insertion into the folding carton. Bottles proceed through the tuck style cartoner and into a shrink bundler from Skinetta (Chicago IL). It collates cartons in the correct stacks and feeds the stacks through a film application station and the shrink tunnel that follows.

Among the features making the bundler unusual is its automatic film splice when a roll of film is empty. It also applies film under tension. This stretches the film during application which should bring a modest cost savings for Amway. But Farmer says its real value lies in the way it keeps the bundle nicely squared as it's conveyed into the shrink tunnel. Amway's Japanese customers won't tolerate bundles that aren't squared.

Film-wrapped bundles exit the shrink tunnel and are conveyed immediately into the case packer also from Skinetta. A case taper from Soco Systems (Waukesha WI) finishes off the cases and a Diagraph (Earth City MO) ink-jet coding system takes care of product identification. Up to six lines of information can be printed on one side of the case.

With annual sales to Japan nearing the $2 billion mark and growing steadily 15% to 20% per year Amway's $4.5 million investment in a new cosmetics line to meet such growth is easily justified. The team that designed and specified the line looked long and hard for the equipment they wanted and Farmer says they've not been disappointed.

"We ran a full eight hours of saleable production on the very first bottle we ran" says Farmer. "Then we changed over to a different product and size and ran another shift's worth of saleable product. I've been doing this kind of work for 30 years and I've had my share of sleepless nights over line startups. This one made up for a lot of those."

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