A family winery grows into automation

There comes a time in the wine business when relying on a mobile wine bottling service just won’t cut it any longer. For McManis Family Winery of Ripon, CA, that time came a few years ago, and in fairly short order the firm had committed to the installation of a Superbloc filling system from MBF. First introduced around 2007, the Superbloc is a compact, comprehensive, and customizable system that integrates rinser, filler, corker/capper, capsuler, and labeler in a single machine. The absence of conveyors and buffers helps reduce the space required for the overall operation.

Since the 2014 installation of the Superbloc, the McManis winery has quadrupled in size. So eventually, packaging machinery upstream and downstream of the Superbloc had to be automated, beginning with a palletizer in 2015. The following year brought vision inspection equipment not only for empty and full bottles but also for filled cases. Then last year came a depalletizer, an accumulation table, a case former, some laser date coding equipment, and a case packer. Director of Packaging Operations Manny Moreno sums it up nicely when he says, “We’re fully automated.”

As currently configured, the line begins with a low-level depalletizer from Emmeti that sweeps bulk glass layer by layer and single files the bottles so that they can pass through an inspection system from FT System. The actual camera technology in this system comes from Cognex, but FT System integrates it into their solution and also takes care of the software programming, bottle handling framework, and reject table.

“I like the way they’ve incorporated Cognex into their system,” says Moreno. “It lets us check for chipped finishes, chipped shoulders, cracks and foreign objects. It’s really thorough.”

Bottles now enter the Superbloc, which first uses a 20-head station that rinses each bottle with a blast of nitrogen. Filling by way of a 30-nozzle rotary station comes next, but just before the fill valves open another blast of nitrogen is dosed into the bottle. The nitrogen dosing minimizes residual oxygen, an enemy to wine quality.

Cork or cap
Next on the Superbloc is either corking or capping, though most of the bottles coming out of McManis have Stelvin threaded caps. Bottles then index through a PE Labelers pressure-sensitive labeler integrated into the Superbloc system. Also integrated is a Macsa laser date coder, selected largely because of how cleanly and reliably it puts the born-on date on each bottle’s base.

Next is another inspection station from FT System. This time it’s checking for fill level, cap presence, cap quality, capsule presence, and label accuracy and positioning. “We want to make sure, among other things, that the operator didn’t put the wrong label on or that the roll of pressure-sensitive labels coming from the supplier has a missing or damaged label on it,” says Moreno.

Next is an Infinity accumulation table from Garvey. Moreno says its gentle handling characteristics were the key when it came to specifying this particular accumulation system. It provides almost seven minutes of accumulation. “Running as we do at about 120 bottles/min, that seven minutes is plenty,” says Moreno.

Bottles exiting the Garvey accumulator move next into a lane divider that converts the single-lane flow into three across. Bottles then enter the Flex Loader case packer from Delkor, where a reciprocating pick head with 24 pickers picks 24 bottles and strokes back to a position directly over the empty cases. The 24 bottles are lowered gently into the two cases that have been indexed into the loading station.

The Delkor Flex Loader relies on servo technology from Rockwell Automation. Before looking at its features and method of operation, it’s important to mention that McManis receives empty bottles in two very different formats. When the firm is contract filling for a customer, typically it’s corrugated reshippers in which the glass bottles arrive. When filling a McManis brand, it’s palletized bulk glass. The Emmeti depalletizer mentioned previously takes care of feeding bulk glass into the line. When reshippers are in play, they’re fed manually into a decaser from Orton. The bottles are bottoms up in the reshippers, and the reshippers are fed in upside down. Side grippers grab opposite sides of each reshipper and lift it, thus releasing 12 bottles right-side-up onto a discharge conveyor leading to a single-filer. The side grippers bring each empty reshipper to an overhead conveyor that leads to the infeed of the downstream case packer.

When bulk glass on pallets is in production, two other pieces of packaging equipment come into play: a corrugated case former from DS Smith and a partition inserter from Wayne Automation.

“If you look across the industry you’ll find most people are comfortable with a case erector,” says Moreno. “But the DS Smith equipment is not an erector. It’s a former, as it forms a case from a flat blank of double-wall corrugated that has no manufacturer’s joint. It’s actuated by 16 servo motors, so there is very little manual change of tooling required when going from one bottle shape to another. We only do 12-count cases, and all bottles are 750-mL. But we have four different bottle molds or shapes, including a reverse taper, a Bordeaux, and a claret. You choose the shape from a menu on the touch screen and nearly everything that needs to be adjusted, like the case-forming mandrel for example, is automatically adjusted.”

Material cost savings
Moreno says another key advantage is that case forming brings a savings in packaging material cost compared to case erecting. “You’re not paying the supplier to form a manufacturer’s joint,” says Moreno. “It’s also nice that more case blanks fit on a pallet.”

Before moving into the Delkor Flex Loader, formed cases pause at a Wayne Automation partition inserter. “It’s a dual-head machine, so it operates pretty fast,” notes Moreno.

As for the Flex Loader, Moreno says it was selected partly because Delkor showed a willingness to customize certain aspects of the machine based on preferences McManis had.

“For one thing, nobody else seemed willing to make a case packer completely out of stainless steel, and we wanted stainless for washdown purposes,” says Moreno. “Also supplied on a custom basis is tempered glass guarding as opposed to the LEXAN or plexiglass so typically used. The glass is so much cleaner, and it doesn’t get scratched by washing procedures. Delkor even provided dual touch screen panels so that the operator doesn’t have to jump over a conveyor to get access to a touch screen control.”

McManis’s use of reshippers made another bit of Delkor customization necessary. It’s what Moreno calls a flying opener. “It’s basically a servo-driven flap conditioner,” says Moreno. “Unlike the flaps on the cases formed by the DS Smith system, the flaps on the reshippers aren’t crisp. They’ve already lost their memory. So what happens on the Flex Loader is that after the major flaps are plowed open by fixed rails, the flying opener comes in and opens up the minors. Then a sensor, which is there partly to make sure each case has a partition in it, also checks to make sure all the flaps are open. If a partition is not there or if a flap is out of position, that case is automatically rejected and never makes it to the bottle loading station.” Exiting the Delkor case packer, the corrugated cases pass over a checkweigher from FT System that is a final opportunity to make sure everything is okay with the case. If an insert is missing, for example, or a bottle leaking, that case will be rejected. Then comes a case sealer from Combi Packaging that uses hot-melt adhesive to close the top flaps. Like the upstream system from DS Smith, it uses an adhesive application system from Nordson. Next is a print-and-apply labeler from ID Technology coupled with a thermal-transfer printer from Sato that puts a corner wrap bar code label on each case. “We think the thermal-transfer printing is perfect every time, and by putting on a corner wrap the case can be scanned from two different sides,” says Moreno.

Now comes the fourth FT Systems inspection station in the line. This one is looking at the accuracy and legibility of the corner wrap label. Finally, palletizing is done by a Columbia machine and stretch wrapping by a system from Phoenix. Another thermal-transfer print-and-apply labeler from ID Technology/Sato gives each wrapped pallet a bar code label identifying the varietal, the born-on date, and the pallet number.

Looking back at the way in which the end-of-line automation went into production, Assistant Winemaker Justin McManis describes it this way. “Any time you start up multiple pieces of new machinery there are challenges involved. I think the biggest thing in this case was getting all the machines to talk to one another. But we had the right computer programmers in here making sure everything went smoothly. And fortunately, we had Manny Moreno overseeing it all.”