Reining in labor costs through automation is always a good way to boost the bottom line. But at ITD Industries, which makes polyester solar control window film for home and auto applications, the move to automated packaging proved especially timely.
Shortly after the January '94 installation of its new equipment, the cost of polyester resin, its primary raw material, rose significantly. Thanks to the savings generated by using its custom-made packaging equipment, the St. Petersburg, FL, firm has been able to hold the line on pricing despite the increased material costs.
"It's unbelievable what's happened to the price of polyester," says Richard Kicak, national sales and marketing manager. "For-tunately, the new line helps us offset those costs."
Product packaged on the new line is sold primarily through do-it-yourself home centers and the automotive aftermarket. "The do-it-yourself business is a significant part of our growth, and until we automated, we just weren't able to cope with it properly," says vice president of operations Charles Bodanza.
Before the equipment arrived, a crew of workers loaded the rolls of film by hand into hand-erected cartons. They also labeled and manually packed the cases. Now the number of people involved in cartoning, labeling and case packing has been reduced by nearly 75%, and throughput per shift is 10 to 15% greater.
Also a big help is the redesigned carton supplied by Simkins (Marietta, GA). An 18-pt claycoated kraftback printed offset in five colors, it has new graphics that give it a more contemporary and appealing look. It also has a new hang tab. On the old carton, the hang tab protruded over the top flap. This caused problems when a hardware or home center elected not to hang the cartons from pegs, because the tab often got bent, which gave the cartons a shopworn look. On the new carton, a small perforation is made in the front and back panels up near the top of the carton. If a store chooses to display the cartons by hanging them from pegs, it's easy enough to do so. But if the cartons are displayed in a bin without pegs, bent hang tabs are no longer a problem.
Length of carton a challenge
An automated cartoner was the first priority in the quest for automation. Bodanza knew from the start that the sheer length of the cartons ITD planned to run on the new line-20", 24" and 36"-was going to place special demands on whatever equipment suppliers he dealt with. Not only are the cartons long, they're only 2" x 2" square.
"The advice we got early on was that we should switch to a more rectangular box, at least something like two-and-a-half by three-and-a-half," recalls Bodanza. "That configuration is just a lot easier to work with on an automated system. But we wanted to minimize the amount of space the DIY outlet needs to display our product, and making the front panel of the carton larger wasn't going to help us much in that regard."
With help from packaging consultants at C-F Packaging (Marietta, GA), ITD identified Adco Mfg. (Sanger, CA) as the machine builder capable of producing a suitable cartoner. Incorporated into it is a pressure-sensitive labeler supplied by Label-Aire (Fullerton, CA). And at the end of the line is a case packer built by Elliott Mfg. (Fresno, CA).
Rolls of film are fed to the packaging line by a machine just ahead of the cartoner. It cuts lengths of film from rollstock and inserts an instruction sheet into each tightly wound roll that it produces. It then discharges the rolls down a slope at the rate of 30/min. That's the speed the cartoner must keep pace with.
At the end of the slope is a clutch-driven starwheel that times the forward progress of the film rolls into the flights of the cartoner's infeed. Without this metering device, the rolls would simply tumble forward. The starwheel rotates in sync with the movement of the cartoner's flights so that just one roll feeds into each slot.
Parallel to this infeed section, cartons are picked from a magazine by the vacuum cups of two picking arms rotating on a center shaft. Due to the length of the cartons, a total of seven vacuum cups is required on each picking arm.
Carton loading is a two-up process, so both picking arms erect and place a carton with each cycle of the intermittent-motion machine. As one arm is picking a flat blank, the other is placing an erected blank in the conveyor that leads to the loading station. Scores cut in the 18-pt board facilitate opening of carton blanks.
Two rolls at a time
Seated on a flighted conveyor belt, erected cartons move forward on an intermittent-motion basis until two of them are in the loading station. At that point, pusher arms sweep rolls of film from two flights into two waiting cartons. Photo-cells detect missing rolls in the infeed flights so that if a roll is missing, the carton that would have matched it is not erected. Similarly, should a carton not be erected, that's detected by another photocell and the pusher arm does not activate. Rather than being pushed into a cartonless position on a conveyor belt, the roll simply falls into a discharge station.
As the loaded cartons advance, bottom flaps are plowed closed and hot melt glued. Top flaps are plowed as well but tucked rather than glued. Then the Label-Aire pressure-sensitive labeler applies a printed paper label over the closed top flap.
Labels aid inventory
ITD's approach to labeling has greatly improved. In the past, cartons had full product information and description preprinted on them. That required a sizeable carton inventory, as Kicak explains.
"We might do a 20-inch film in two different colors and four different shades," says Kicak. "In the past we inventoried separate preprinted cartons for each variety. But now those varieties all take the same 20-inch carton with the same graphics. Whatever differentiation we need to do, color and shade and bar code, for example, we do ourselves on a thermal transfer printer."
Supplied by Diagraph (St. Louis, MO), the printer accepts blank label stock. So now ITD prints the label information it needs for each production run. Then the printed roll of labels is mounted on the Label-Aire applicator that's affixed to the cartoner.
As cartons are discharged from the Adco machine, a photocell triggers a counter. When the desired quantity has passed, five for example, a mechanical stop halts the flow and the five are picked up by a flighted conveyor that carries them toward the collating station of the Elliott case packer. An end load machine, it erects cases from flat blanks and pushes the collated cartons, in one layer or stacked in multiple layers, into the cases. It then tapes the cases closed and discharges them for palletizing by hand. Throughput is about 30 cases/min.
As Packaging World goes to press, ITD is gearing up for a busy summer season, when sales of solar control window film really heat up. It will be the second full summer of operating the automated packaging line, and ITD plans to take full advantage of the increased throughput the line offers now that its operators have had some experience running it. With the improved graphics and labeling methods, Kicak expects it to be a very good summer indeed.
"It's a total rethinking of how we go to market," he adds.