Last year the chief executive officer at Phoenix-based Dial Corp. announced the company would be focusing on innovation and the company’s technical center was renamed the Dial Center for Innovation becoming the technical and scientific “brain trust” of the company.
One basic function performed at the center is package testing in a laboratory that supports package development and packaging engineering functions throughout the many business units that make up the company. An important new addition to the laboratory was the installation late last year of a Vision Bottle Gauge from AGR*TopWave (Butler PA).
The VBG instrument not only tests container dimensions it also automatically sequences tests of all bottles loaded into a tray by means of its Autofeed option that Dial purchased. A computer-driven pick-up arm transfers each bottle from the tray to the platen for testing. After each container is tested the device stores the results.
In addition the device is equipped with a statistical package that allows Dial’s lab to view and print out the results in a variety of chart styles or as reports. In the past all the dimensional measurements of containers had been done by hand using an optical comparator for the neck finish and electronic calipers and height gauges. Plus all results had to be manually entered.
“Now our technicians don’t have to manually enter information into some form of document” says Judi Wallis manager of the R&D laboratory. “That’s part of the time-saving and it results in an improvement in accuracy. We’ve been able to reduce the time to measure the dimensions of a container by 50 percent including the recording time. Plus we don’t have the problems of transposing numbers into a document nor do we have to key all the data into a spreadsheet or some other format. So it’s been a big time-saver for the lab.”
Because the VBG eliminates a lot of clerical functions by the technicians it allows them to better use their time. “We can set up a whole tray of bottles and the technician can do other work while those bottles are being automatically measured” Wallis points out.
In Dial’s process a packaging engineer looks in an online workbook to assign a test number to a project corresponding to one of six templates dependent on the material that’s being tested. Once the template is filled out and numbered it’s sent to the lab and the materials to be tested are sent in.
In practice the vision-based instrument measures according to the program. It can be used to check finish dimensions thread projection pitch and width body diameters and height and neck region radii and angles. Because the software can analyze the data it also can track dimensional trends.
Once the containers are tested a lab report is issued back to the packaging engineer for each test. Wallis says the information is now stored on the Dial network. “One of the attractive things about the VBG is that we could begin to develop a database when we are qualifying molds” she says.
Because of the VBG’s statistical package Wallis says the technicians have a complete analysis right after testing is completed. “So our people can look at the analysis to see how the bottles measure up against our specifications” she adds.
Thus far the Dial lab hasn’t begun to compare results from its tests with those of its suppliers. “We always request data from our suppliers. I can tell you that in some cases our tests don’t match up to what our suppliers show. So it’s not unusual to challenge a supplier after we test” Wallis says.
The Dial lab is still learning about the VBG. “Thus far we’re using it to measure the dimensions. Then we measure some bottles by hand so we’re still validating the results. It’s how we can be sure we have the set-up done correctly. Thus far” Wallis reports “we’re comfortable that the VBG has been very accurate so we’ll be eliminating the manual step.”
Saw at bottle supplier
Before Dial purchased the VBG Wallis recalls seeing it being used at a supplier from which Dial buys bottles. Then Wallis and another technician visited the AGR plant for a demonstration of the equipment. The instrument was installed late last year.
The equipment was sized so that it would accept about 90% of all containers that Dial uses. Some like a 300-oz bottle for Purex won’t fit. “But we were very happy that this device would work with so many of our containers” Wallis says.
AGR sent technicians to the Dial lab for two days to teach the technicians how to set up the programs. Setting up the test program is the most time-consuming part of the operation Wallis says. But once a program is developed it’s stored so it can be called up very quickly the next time it’s needed.
Thus far Dial has continued to use the testing protocols that it had already established for mold qualifications. The protocol addresses not only how many bottles need to be tested from each cavity but it also tracks how the supplier’s process performs over time.
Wallis is also convinced that the tests and results will be more accurate and repeatable than when the lab tested manually. “There’s a certain variability from technician to technician. We’ve done gauge R&R [repeatability and reproducibility] studies for everyone here. So it’s a real plus that the VBG eliminates that individual variability” Wallis points out.
Benefits all around
When asked whether the VBG is more helpful in package development or in mold qualification Wallis says that both processes benefit from quicker turnaround. “With our goal to speed up innovation and improve our speed-to-market for new products this instrument is a tool that helps our lab support the engineers to do that” she says. “It has really helped the lab in our utilization of resources.”
Initially there was some skepticism from the technicians she recalls but now she says there’s absolutely no hesitancy because it’s so easy to use. The lab remains fully staffed and Wallis says the VBG does help the technicians do more testing and return results back to the engineers more quickly. “We get the data and results to our packaging engineers faster” she says. “So it’s allowed us to speed up other work and spend more time on test method development.”
Plus she says the instrument has a connection to Dial’s network to send information electronically and another feature allows AGR to troubleshoot from their facility rather than having to send a technician. “It’s a great benefit even though we haven’t used it” Wallis notes. “That was very reassuring to us.”