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Remote Access and Monitoring Keys to CMO’s Printing Ops

While many manufacturers are hesitant to dive into remote capabilities with their OEM partners, by leasing all printing equipment, this nutraceutical CMO is motivated to make full use of the tech.

Mechanic using HMI to setup a VJ 1280.
Mechanic using HMI to setup a VJ 1280.

Ion Labs is a full-service turnkey contract manufacturer (CMO) of nutraceutical products. Common capabilities and equipment categories at the Largo, Fla. facility include blending, encapsulation, tableting, coating, packaging for powders/solid dose, secondary packaging, and cartoning, along with blister packs, liquid encapsulation, stick packs, and gummies.

“We’re a very scalable contract manufacturer with a diverse range of capabilities requiring us to be flexible with our equipment,” says Matt Keib, senior VP of Operations at Ion Labs. “We have blending capabilities, equipment capabilities, and packaging capabilities that can that allow us to be efficient and optimal, for both an MOQ of 5,000 bottles, all the way up to 100,000 bottles or more.” Videojet printer applying ink to a bottle.Videojet printer applying ink to a bottle.

Notably, Ion Labs is an early adopter and champion of remote access and remote monitoring in partnership with its OEM vendors. Even at the tail end of the pandemic, after having seen remote technology vault to the forefront, we still often hear about the IT/OT divide, and the difficulty operations folks have in convincing IT and company leadership of the merits of remote access tech. But Ion Labs takes the opposite tack. The company is always looking for equipment that it can network together and remotely monitor to better understand predictive maintenance and hours of usage.

“It’s an entire philosophy. With any new equipment that we bring into the plant, we want it to have remote monitoring and reporting capability, versus having a mechanic log hours manually or inspect the equipment to see how it’s performing,” Keib says. “Now, one of the critical decision points for us with OEMs is whether they have the ability to remote in, monitor the equipment, and provide that real time information, utilizing the cloud or proprietary platform.”

Even among those vanguard CPGs and CM&Ps who are all-in on remote access, the question of who owns and manages the data often remains fraught. Many companies try to manage their own data, only tapping the OEM in an emergency. Again, Ion Labs is the exception. It happily uses its OEMs’ platforms and lets them manage the data. It’s not developing its own, in-house platform for equipment. Nor does Keib want to. He prefers to focus on core competencies of manufacturing and packaging nutraceuticals.

“We don't have all the experts, in-house, on all the equipment that we have,” Keib says. “In order to run the equipment as efficiently as possible, and to get the most out of it, we need experts to help us. And if we're troubleshooting or if we have an error, the best way to do that is to quickly connect, via a portal that our IT controls, so that we can have them remote in, or continually monitor. I think you need to have a strong IT department that knows how to understand the risk and build the correct securities in place to manage it.”

Remote access to coding and marking

Having 11 different finished goods packaging lines in a facility makes for a lot of connected equipment. One equipment category that appears on every line, and stands to benefit most from remote monitoring, is coding and marking. 

Even though different printers perform different tasks on different substrates and different pack formats, Keib and Ion Labs still avoid the potential headache of piecemeal operations on different printing machines, of different ages, technologies, and interfaces. Ion Labs standardized around Videojet and now has a lease agreement with the company to keep all 11 printer units updated and maintained.

“All of our units are fully serviced, including all of our preventative maintenance, and with any sort of troubleshooting or breakdown, we utilize their services for that,” Keib says. “We very much have aligned with one OEM for printing on our materials, and we've entered into a long-term contract with them as far as service. We used to buy Videojets, but now we lease them. And every couple of years, we just upgrade them to a newer model. We've standardized to Videojet just because of the service, the simplicity of the equipment, and the ability to get a good quality print on our material.”

Today, the company uses multiple different Videojet printers to get their products coded and marked. The list includes the Dataflex 6330 thermal transfer overlay printer for the different films and poucher machines it runs. There’s a mobile Videojet unit for marking on gusset bags or pouches. The company has Videojet 1710 inkjet printers to mark on the differently colored bottles they run, as well as for lot and date coding for their secondary packaging.

The newest kids on the bottling and secondary packaging block, however, are Videojet 1280s. This solution was an upgrade from their Videojet 1220 inkjet setup of legacy units. The 1220 printers, while running quite well, did not have the ability to be set up on remote service in North America. By making the shift from the 1220s to these new 1280 printers, Ion Labs could achieve its goal of having all coding and marking units taking advantage of the VideojetConnect Remote Service (VRS). Maintenance manager monitoring Videojet equipment via the VideojetConnect Remote Service (VRS).Maintenance manager monitoring Videojet equipment via the VideojetConnect Remote Service (VRS).

These new 1280 CIJs are now on Ion Labs’ powder packaging filling equipment, the solid-dose packaging filling equipment, the cartoning and secondary packaging equipment, the blister equipment, and the stick pack line. These are marking on all different substrates, including corrugated and paperboard for secondary packaging, and HDPE, PET, and glass bottles. Yellow is used for amber bottles, and black for transparent bottles.

“We’ve had the 1280s for about four months, and they’ve been connected to VRS since they arrived,” Keib says. “I think the biggest thing we’ve used the remote monitoring feature for is around low ink levels. Also, by understanding your ink levels—versus somebody going out there and checking the machines every day to see where they are to reorder ink—it's much more real time data and gives us automatic feedback on the time when we need to reorder the ink… And when levels are running low, our maintenance manager is automatically notified via email.”

The VRS system also continues to monitor to ensure the machines are powered, even when not being used. Of course, the necessary amperage drops significantly when a machine’s capacity isn’t being used, so it’s not a power waste. Keeping machines powered is a time and energy saver, in fact. 4 Videojet 1280 Cij Printer

“We've had issues where, if the unit isn't powered for a certain period of time, we’d have to do a hard flush or hard restart,” he says. “That can cause downtime, but downtime can be prevented by monitoring and knowing what’s going on with the power on each of the machines.” 

Upgrade results

As with any new installation, there were a few initial hurdles to overcome. Getting onto the network to begin with and uploading information in a way that it could be monitored and viewed—the very reason they wanted to upgrade to the 1280s—was an early obstacle. But Videojet techs were onsite to make that transition. Also, Keib, his team, and Videojet techs had to dial in on the optimal ink combinations for the new machines, as they were slightly different than the legacy equipment. 

“But it was nothing I wouldn't expect from new equipment. It’s just the beginning of troubleshooting learning the equipment and seeing what works best,” Keib explains. “I’m committed to high quality and delivering value products for our customers. And we believe Videojet to be the best to help us achieve that.” PW

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