In the lucrative high-stakes game of supplying mass merchandisers packaging has the power to make or break a relationship. As regular as sunrise manufacturers are being told by retailers to make packaging more display friendly. even big manufacturers like $288-million Hunt Manufacturing Co. Statesville NC are getting the message.
In Hunt's case several retailers had criticized Hunt's packaging for its Boston Bulldog brand of manual pencil sharpeners. Aside from poor esthetics the package did not stand well. Wal-Mart even considered dropping the line if improvements weren't forthcoming.
At about the same time Hunt was looking for a solution to increase packaging productivity by upgrading from its prior labor-intensive equipment. That equipment required operators to manually feed clamshells and cards one at a time. "The old machine was slow" recalls Johnny Eller production manager. "We would have so many people on it it would tie up what we were doing."
Initially Hunt planned to redesign the pack in-house and purchase new sealing equipment. But one supplier Alloyd Co. (Dekalb IL) offered to redesign the package and supply Hunt with an automated blister-sealing machine. "Here was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: get a new sealer and redo the package" says John Fleming Hunt's chief engineer.
Since Alloyd had control over the design of the material and machine the company guaranteed Hunt its blisters would feed error-free. Intrigued with the idea of single-source accountability Hunt gave Alloyd the go-ahead. Just over a year ago a new 16-station carousel radio-frequency sealer with automatic blister and card feeding was installed at Hunt.
Goals for the new package included better presentation the ability to stand or be pegged dependable feedability and good product protection. Although Hunt was considering moving to a single folding clamshell Alloyd persuaded the firm to retain two pieces since it would facilitate automatic feeding.
Blisters were redesigned for Hunt's Boston Bulldog regular and vacuum mount models the first two products to be run on the machine. Alloyd thermoforms the blisters from 20-mil polyvinyl chloride sheet from Klockner Pentaplast. The precision of the design was critical since the packaging required tight tolerances for consistent feeding. Eller confirms that the blisters feed through the machine without a problem which Alloyd says is due to the design of the blisters' angles and flanges.
The vacuum-mount model which comes in a variety of bright colors is highly visible through the front and back portions of the thermoform which closely follows the contours of the product and its handle. Instead of sealing all the way around the package Hunt chose bar welds on the left and right sides of the package-sufficient to resist pilferage. The bottom which is not sealed consists of an interlocking union of the front and back blisters forming a broad and stable base for standing displays. The pack is also peggable as before.
Interestingly Hunt thermoformed its own blisters previously and still has the thermoforming equipment though it chooses to buy blisters from Alloyd. "It costs a little more but it's worth it because we get uniform packaging materials" says Eller. "Plus I don't think our machine's capable of thermoforming this design."
Sales results have been encouraging. Fleming estimates that the regular Bulldog sharpener registered a 20% increase in sales and the vacuum-mount model is up about 8%. Both jumps can be directly attributed to the new package he says. (The same products continue to be offered to retailers in boxes too.)
Care and feeding
The machine itself a 16-station carousel RF-sealer employs several automatic feeding mechanisms to feed the blisters as well as the card. Blister packages are sealed 2-up with two nests occupying each of the 16 stations. The operation starts out when a vacuum plug machined to fit the thermoform pulls the bottom blister from the magazine. It releases the thermoform into one of the two nests that make up each of the 16 stations on the rotating oval track.
Once in position the blister cycles out of the feeding section around the oval track and past two operators who simply insert the pencil sharpeners delivered to them via a conveyor from behind. The blisters then cycle back into the feeding section where the card is deposited and the top blister is placed by a feeding mechanism similar to that for the bottom blister. The blisters are then sealed via radio frequency energy that melts the plastic together as opposed to heat and pressure used by the previous system. A vacuum arm removes packages from the machine and deposits them onto a conveyor belt leading to manual packoff.
Quadruple the output
For the vacuum-mount model output quadrupled from 2 packages per eight-hour shift to 8. The system reaches speeds of close to 8.5 cycles/minute (two packages per cycle). "We took a five-day job with six people and turned it into a one-and-a-half-day job with four people." Labor savings resulting from production of the vacuum-mount model which is run on the machine about once a month is about $20 annually says Fleming. For the regular Bulldog model productivity gains weren't as dramatic since Hunt had been producing close to 8 packages per day on the former heat-and-pressure sealer. Neverthless labor savings on this one product totals $6 annually and the operators prefer the new machine because there's more working space.
Hunt is experimenting with two other pencil sharpener models on the machine one of which had been packed at 3 per day and is expected to jump to 8/day. "For these items productivity on this new machine has just gone through the roof" says Eller. Material costs are about the same as before.
A final benefit is fast changeover. Eller says it takes as little as 30 minutes versus 40 minutes to an hour with the previous equipment. Operators simply pull out two pins that hold each dual-nest tray at each station swap the tray for a new one and drop the pins back in. The RF-seal tooling and vacuum plugs are also swapped and are latched in place without the use of tools. There's no significant trial-and-error alignment necessary as required on the previous machine nor do operators have to wait for the machine to heat up. "It's the most simple thing I've ever seen" says Eller.
Hunt has been pleased with the performance of the machine blister and service from Alloyd. The company also cites the convenience of Alloyd's proximity since its regional plant is located in nearby Spartanburg SC permitting overnight service for any needed parts.
Although Hunt continues to offer its customers a choice between blisters and boxes Eller favors the former. "I hope they go ahead and use this machine full-time and throw the boxes out the back door. This does justice to our product."