San Jose CA-based Frank-Lin Distiller Products is hoping its new filling line for miniatures will pave the way for customers like Skyy Spirits San Francisco to help grow the market for minis on the West Coast. Minis are single-serving bottles of liquor that contain 50 mL. They're commonly used by airlines and hotels though they're also sold in liquor stores or sometimes used as giveaways.
Frank-Lin initially tested a German-built four-head prototype piston filler. Trouble was it wouldn't exceed 40/min. "Skyy then made the decision to go after the airline business and we knew this particular machine wasn't going to be able to handle the volume" says Frank Molinaro plant manager.
Plus Frank-Lin wanted a machine that would permit it to develop additional 50-mL contract-packaging business on the West Coast. "There's no other CP [contract packager] currently on the West Coast-other than those that hand-fill-that can do miniatures" claims Molinaro.
Finally the distiller/contract packer was planning to introduce a whole line of its own products in miniatures. That roll-out began in June. The new filling line was needed to supply ample capacity while providing fast-changeover capabilities that contract packagers rely on.
Frank-Lin looked at in-line and rotary style machines before selecting a rotary filler/capper monoblock from Fimer based in Italy. Frank-Lin purchased the machine through B&J Machinery (Cincinnati OH) which represents Fimer in the U.S. The machine has been running since February. It operates at 120 bottles/min.
"We wanted something that would handle the strains of day-in day-out production" says Molinaro. "We had about 10 equipment quotes on the table and we decided on this one" he adds.
What sold Frank-Lin on the machine according to Molinaro was its quick-changeover capability. To adjust to new bottle heights Molinaro explains "the filler and capper each have motorized height adjustments that raise the whole turret assemblies up or down at the flip of a switch." Total changeover time for the monoblock system including cleaning: about 15 minutes.
Only one operator
The line requires only one operator from sorting through capping. It starts out as bulk-packed containers of polyethylene terephthalate from Grafco (Hanover MD) are manually dumped into a prefeeder. The prefeeder meters bottles which are pre-labeled to a Hoppmann (Chantilly VA) sorter/ feeder that unscrambles and orients bottles delivering them upright to the packaging line. The sorter uses centrifugal force to place bottles into a series of pockets. "The pockets drop bottles into a second set of pockets which then feeds them onto a takeaway conveyor" explains Molinaro.
Molinaro does admit that the bottles can be unstable but that doesn't pose much trouble on the line. "We currently run two different bottle styles" he says. "One is top heavy and one isn't. The Hoppmann unit handles them both pretty well."
Bottles are conveyed into the monoblock filler/capper. Although Grafco provides the bottles to Frank-Lin in a dust-free plastic wrap plans call for an air jet cleaning unit on-line just prior to filling.
After bottles enter a timing screw they are metered into a starwheel that feeds them onto platforms that elevate and carry bottles around the 16-valve fill-to-level rotary filling turret. As each bottle comes into contact with a filling head a seal is made and a vacuum is pulled. The liquor flows via gravity into the bottles from the filler bowl directly above the fill heads. Excess product is evacuated from the bottle through a separate vacuum tube positioned inside the bottle at the desired fill height. Fill accuracy according to Molinaro is ±0.125%. "We're running a very tight fill out there."
As a bottle completes a rotation around the turret it's disengaged from the fill head as the platform descends. The bottles are handed off to a starwheel that feeds the chuck-style rotary capper.
In the capper caps are fed onto a rotating plate where they are picked up by the capping heads. The capping heads descend to spin the continuous-thread caps onto the bottles until the desired torque is reached. At that point the capping heads automatically release tension from the caps and the bottles exit the unit.
Bottles are then manually packed into paperboard trays by two workers. Another operator shrink-wraps the trays on a semi-automatic Seal-A-Tron (Milwaukie OR) L-sealer and heat tunnel. Cryovac (Duncan SC) shrink film provides "a very tight package with high luster and good clarity" says Molinaro.
Ten shrink bundles are packed into a corrugated master shipper. Shrink bundling for miniatures is not common says Molinaro. Traditionally minis are packed in die-cut paperboard wraps that typically conceal most of the bottles.
"Skyy felt they can get more marketing appeal by showing all the bottles instead of just a couple" as would be the case in a traditionally paperboard wrap. As a result some retailers that might normally remove the secondary package and discard it-a practice that's not uncommon-might be more likely to leave this one intact. As Molinaro explains it's up to each retailer's discretion whether or not bottles are merchandised in secondary packaging at the point of retail sale. "Some stores have them behind the cash register or in a little bin. Others have a wooden barrel with bottles tossed in there in bulk."
Regardless of how it's used Molinaro believes shrink bundling "is more economical" than the paperboard packaging that's traditionally used for minis.
Changeover on the filler/capper is fast and requires no tools. While the machine doesn't have clean-in-place (CIP) capability it takes very little time to clean and sanitize it requiring about 15 minutes and constituting the bulk of the changeover process according to Molinaro. The only other part of the machine that requires changing is the motorized height adjustment of the filler and capper which literally takes just a few seconds for each.
The previous machine "was a piston-style filler and we had to disassemble the piston and flush an awful lot of water" says Molinaro which took about a half hour.
Simplicity was the characteristic of the filler/capper that Molinaro liked the most. "It has a diagram of the unit on the control panel with diagnostic lights. If there's a problem you don't have to look over the entire machine. You just look at the diagram see where the red light is blinking that's the area where you go in to find out where the jam is.
"Between that and the no-tool change plus plenty of space in there for cleaning it's just very easy to work with."
Obtaining parts isn't an issue despite the machine's overseas origin according to Molinaro. Many parts are common ones that can be obtained in the U.S. Other parts that are more specific to the machine are stocked by B&J in Cincinnati and can be shipped overnight according to Molinaro.
Based on current projects and higher productivity Molinaro estimates "payback is one year."
Molinaro concludes: "[The Fimer machine] is another generation of Italian engineering. [Italian machinery makers] have made great inroads in the past years coming out from obscurity into designing some of the premier packaging machines. This unit is built like a tank and will last us for 20 or 30 years."