The steel can now used by New York-based Superior Printing Ink for its 5-lb offerings of offset inks doesn't look a whole lot different from the one it replaced about a year ago. But don't say that to Sal Moscuzza or Mike Brice. "Can, label, tape, filling, lidding-all of it was reengineered," says corporate vice president Brice, who shared responsibility for the massive project with senior vice president/technical director Moscuzza. It was time for some reengineering, too. Cans used to be filled, lidded, taped and labeled by hand. The work was done in several locations, and typically an operator would manage no more than two cans/min. The October installation of an automated ink packaging line at Superior's Hamden, CT, facility consolidated these many operations into one smooth packaging line that averages 10 cans of the viscous ink each minute. Now, just two operators run the new line. The reengineering brought added benefits beyond consolidation and increased speed, including: * Greatly standardized filling accuracy, * Improved protection from oxidation that can cause "skinning" problems on the surface of inks, * Bar codes on can labels that offer better inventory control both internally and for customers, and * Increased production capacity. Especially pleasing to Moscuzza is the improved filling accuracy. Before the installation of the new line, manual filling consisted of an operator, in front of a constant flow of ink, sliding one can out and a fresh one in when he could see a fill line had been reached. He then applied waxed paper, lid and tape. In addition to being slow and labor intensive, this older process was more prone to filling inaccuracies. "The ink is a paste, almost the consistency of peanut butter," says Moscuzza. "But because different inks have different specific gravities, five pounds of ink doesn't always fill to the same height." Filling on the new line is handled by an S 7-G gravimetric filler from Schwerdtel (Pompton Plains, NJ). Its dosing unit has a hydraulically actuated nozzle that opens when a can is positioned beneath it. A load cell platform records the tare weight of the can and cleanly cuts off the flow of ink when 5 lb has been measured. "It used to be that a can of one ink might hold five pounds, but a can of another ink filled to the same level might hold 5.6 or 5.7 pounds," says Moscuzza. "Customers didn't like these varying weights. Now we know we have five pounds in every can." Indexing rake The Schwerdtel equipment does more than just fill. Running down its center is a slotted indexing rake that strokes back and forth constantly to propel cans through five distinct operations. It begins with a rotary infeed table that operators load manually with cans. Supplied by Allstate Can (Clifton, NJ), the 506 x 602 two-piece seamed cans enter the filling machine by way of a magnetic hold-down station. Forward progress of all other cans on the rotary table is blocked by this can until it's pulled by the indexing rake from the magnetized station. It's then replaced by another can. In station number two, a liquid antioxidant is sprayed on the surface of the ink. This is one of the new measures Superior has adopted to keep oxidation from forming a skin on the ink surface. Another measure is the placement of a piece of polyvinylidene chloride-coated cellophane that's automatically cut from a roll and applied over the surface. "We used to have people manually applying a disk of waxed paper," says Moscuzza. "This material with its coating is a better barrier to oxygen, which keeps a skin from forming on the ink's surface." The 1.4-mil cellophane is supplied by Flexel (Atlanta GA). In station number four, a circular corrugated disk is picked from the bottom of its magazine by a vacuum plate. The disk is transferred to a second vacuum plate that holds it from the top and presses the web of cellophane down snugly so that it's in direct contact with the ink all the way around, right up to the can's sidewalls. In the fifth and final station of the Schwerdtel system, a steel lid is picked by a magnetic head from a magazine feed and placed on top of the can. The 3/4" skirt of the slip cover lid holds it in place reasonably well, but a downstream application of tape is what really holds the lid on. "The lid had to be redesigned by Allstate so that lids would stack in the magazine feed," says Moscuzza. "They spent a lot of time working with us on getting that right." Top quality The addition of the antioxidant spray, the PVDC-coated cellophane, and the corrugated disk increased the cost of the final package by about a penny. "But now," says Brice, "the integrity and superb quality of the product are fully protected from start to finish." Besides, he adds, the modest increase in cost of packaging materials is more than offset by the savings in labor costs thanks to the new line. With its installation, Superior rechanneled labor efforts formerly spent on packaging into other plant areas. A few feet after the discharge station of the Schwerdtel system is a can taper from Berning (Frankenberg, Germany). It uses a 5.5-mil low-density polyethylene tape with acrylic adhesive supplied by International Tape (Bloomfield, NJ). As a can is seated on the machine's rotating platform, the tape head swings forward and contacts the part of the can where the tape is to be applied. As the can rotates, tape is applied uniformly around the can. After a complete revolution, a knife cuts the tape and the edge is brushed down so that the top edge of the tape is flush with the top of the lid. "The tape around the can had to be strong," says Moscuzza. "The taping machine applies it under tension that could cause breaks, so we had to identify a tape with sufficient strength to resist that." Exiting the taper, cans pass through a rotary accumulation table from Garvey (Blue Anchor, NJ). "If anything downstream goes down, we don't want to interrupt can filling," says Brice. "The table holds about 40 cans." Next in line is a pressure sensitive labeler from Quadrel (Mentor, OH). Once again it represents a significant improvement over Superior's former manual labeling. According to Brice, the appearance of the labels is yet another point of differentiation for Superior. "We orient the can so that the can seam is always directly opposite the label," he says. "It's an added feature and it cost more, but we wanted the finished package to look as appealing as possible. "We also print a bar code on the can label," Brice continues. "As far as I know, that's relatively new to our industry." It could be helpful, says Brice, in allowing customers to begin scanning Superior's ink cans to update inventory records. "The bar code is helpful to us, too," says Brice. "In addition to the finished product we inventory in cases, we stock loose cans for customers that buy smaller quantities, and as long as the can has a bar code, we can still scan the product and track inventory." On-line bar-code printing The bar code Brice refers to-containing batch number, product description, product number, and weight-is printed on-line by the Quadrel system's thermal transfer printer. The system also prints the same information on the label in human readable form. Before the can exits the Quadrel labeler, a second thermal-transfer bar-code label is applied, this time to the lid. Containing batch number, product ID and date, this bar code allows both Superior and its customers to scan the code from above as well as from the side. Case packing also underwent a significant change. Gone is the two-tiered 10-count case, holding 50 lb of ink, that was less than user-friendly from a pressman's perspective. Now cases hold just five cans each. "Customers love the lighter case," says Brice. As Brice and Moscuzza evaluated automatic case-packing equipment, they found their options somewhat limited because the five-count case they were committed to requires unusual collating. Eventually they found the supplier they needed at the Pack Expo West '95 booth of Schneider Packaging (Brewerton, NY). "We'd already completed initial negotiations with a European supplier, but we were at the show so we stopped by the Schneider booth anyway," recalls Brice. "They started sketching things out right in front of us. We liked that. We also liked that they're local." The bottom-loading case packer uses an impressive combination of pusher arms and contact plates to sense where cans are and then collate them into the desired pattern before elevating them into a case. Cans are conveyed into the machine single file. Can #1 hits a contact plate that signals pusher arm A to stroke forward, thus placing the first can on a staging platform. The pusher arm strokes back and handles Can #2 the same way. Instead of retracting, the arm remains extended to expose its own contact plate. Can #3 strikes it and pusher arm B pushes it onto the staging platform. Finally, Cans #4 and #5 strike the contact plate on pusher arm B, which signals pusher arm C to push these last two cans onto the staging platform. Once all five cans are on the staging platform, all three pusher arms retract for the next cycle of five cans. Cans on the staging platform are lowered and pushed forward to a station in which vacuum arms pick individual pieces of corrugated from a magazine to serve as divider pads. Two of these are placed around the center can, one on each side. The group of cans is pushed forward to a "transfer-to-load" station and finally to the load station itself beneath an open case. There the load is elevated into the case and case flaps are plowed and then glued closed. From RSC to CSSC Also new is that Superior went from an RSC to a CSSC. "With a central special slotted container, all flaps meet," says Brice. It's just one more way of protecting the can, he adds. Mounted at the discharge of the Schneider case packer is a thermal- transfer label printer and tamp/ blow applicator from Labeljet (Fort Worth, TX). In bar-code and human-readable formats, it applies the same information-batch number, product ID, product number, case weight-that's carried on the can label. "When we first went into production we used the identical label on the case as we use on the can body," says Moscuzza. "But we started hearing from customers that it would be better if the label wrapped around the corner of the case instead of only being on the side. That allows a code to be read from two sides in the warehouse. So we're in the process of changing the label application equipment to permit it to do that kind of label. It will still be the tamp/blow style, but a roller will wipe the label around the corner of the case." Another change being contemplated by Superior is a move to vacuum-packaged cans with crimped-on lids that would require no cellophane, no corrugated disks and no tape. Some of Schwerdtel's customers in Europe already do this, primarily because it's an even better way of evacuating ambient air and hermetically sealing the can. U.S. can suppliers, however, have been slow to make available the kind of deep-drawn single-piece seamless can body that is required to withstand the internal vacuum pressures of this kind of packaging. Eventually such cans will be available, and at that time Superior will add a Schwerdtel vacuum packaging module immediately after the filling station. That will allow Superior to vacuum package or not, depending on customer preference. While Brice and Moscuzza plot such enhancements to the still-new line, they're proud of what they've already accomplished. They also emphasize that though the company's operations are now far more automated, the changes were implemented without layoffs. "For years we were a company that did things the way everybody else does," says Moscuzza. The automated system in Hamden is visible proof that those days are gone.