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Focus on machine flexibility

A bottler and distributor for The Coca-Cola Co., Baton Rouge Coca-Cola Bottling Company United must be flexible enough to quickly adapt to Coca-Cola’s frequent packaging changes and new introductions. Here, the bottler’s operations manager, Michael Lurker, talks about some of these challenges as they relate to packaging equipment.
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Packaging World: Why is flexibility such a huge requirement for packaging equipment at Baton Rouge Coca-Cola Bottling Company United?

Lurker: As I am sure you are aware, over the last 10 years or so, Coke has been aggressively pursuing lightweight packaging, including PET bottles, aluminum cans, and closures. It makes for a challenge. Not only do we need flexibility in equipment for different bottle types—including different bottle styles and sizes—but it also has to be able to handle continuing lightweighting of the packaging.

What are some of the challenges to handling lighter-weight packaging on the line?

The main challenge is maintaining package integrity. For example, a PET bottle loses carbonation at a much faster rate than a can or a glass bottle. So the lighter in weight you make that plastic bottle, the shorter the shelf life of the product. You have to take that into consideration. For those plastic bottles, we add more CO2 at the point of production, because as soon as they hit the floor, they start losing CO2. You want to maintain x-amount of shelf life for that bottle and still provide a fresh product to the consumer. It adds some idiosyncrasies to your process.

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Any packaging change requires an adjustment to your quality specifications. Case in point: We just changed can suppliers to Ball Corp., and we are engaged in a process with them to lightweight their aluminum cans. Every time they down-gauge the can, we have to do quality testing for container condition when it arrives at the dock and as it moves through the line. Do we have to adjust the handling of the can? What about how the can runs on the filler? Does it expand too much? Do we get can blowout? Do we get some bumps on the line that then turn into dents in the can, and then turn into leaking cans? We have to analyze the process every step of the way.

Stack testing is another area we look at. As the packages become lighter, when you set them on pallets out on the floor, do they start collapsing? Do they ship well? Do you have to adjust the way you load a truck? All those things are taken into consideration.

What do you look for in new equipment to provide this level of flexibility? Is it automation?

A lot of it is automation, and a lot of it is actually in the equipment design. The first thing you look at when you are evaluating a new piece of equipment is the machine’s touchpoints, or where the machine will touch the package. You have to look at how the machine will handle the package, and understand how a material change or lightweighting might impact that touchpoint. Will it require new tooling or changeparts?


One of the biggest touchpoints for a bottle that adds flexibility is what we call neck hanging. Don’t handle the bottle from the bottom; handle it from the neck. That way you have that length flexibility to be able to change sizes. Another thing machine manufacturers do to enhance flexibility is make the changeparts easily accessible and changeable. In other words, quick release, pull it off, pop the other one on. That’s the concept that you have to go for.

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