Non-profit Horizon Industries, a division of East Texas Lighthouse, is one of the largest converters of industrial cleaning towels for the U.S. government, and uniquely is based on initiatives meant to rehabilitate and support the blind community. Industrial towels converted and packaged at Horizon are sold through distribution to government institutions like the military, schools, and federal and state agencies, among other accounts. The mission underpinning Horizon’s core paper converting competency is to empower the visually impaired population to succeed through rehabilitation, education, training, and, most prominently, employment. Horizon currently has about 40 legally blind employees working at its facility, accounting for more than 75% of direct labor and more than half of all the personnel in the company.
Business had been humming along happily until February, but it recently received a big bump from what was then an unexpected source. The 2020 pandemic precipitated a newfound consumer adherence to sanitation, and a whole lot more surface cleaning and hand-washing. So, as we consumers remember from our experiences in retail store shelves in March, paper towels and their ilk became a hot commodity.
“That’s a slight understatement to call it a bump. It’s been more like a mountain,” says Lee Tillson, Vice President Sales/Business Development at Horizon. “Essentially, we almost doubled our business overnight. I think the pandemic started making waves for us around March 13th, and we started seeing a huge increase the very next week.”
“Overkill” automation ends up just right
By sheer luck—if any luck at all can be ascribed to a global pandemic—Horizon had in July 2019 upgraded its primary packaging machinery from older, slower legacy equipment to a new Criterion CLT-240 cartoner from R.A Jones primary and secondary packaging equipment, capable of cartoning towels at speeds of 240/min. For a company that had been running at around 20-30 cartons/min previously, that’s a big leap.
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After all, while business was good last year when the installation went in, neither Tillson nor anyone else could have anticipated the pandemic-led demand spike awaiting Horizon. And since the company was—and still is—hand-loading the infeed, the blazing 240 carton/min speeds wouldn’t seem necessary. Currently, the speedy machine is running at a leisurely pace of around 40 cartons/min.
So why automate to that degree of speed and sophistication?
What at first blush seems to be overkill was in fact a well-laid plan rooted in the local workforce dynamics, a previously unmet need for parts and service, and a blend of safety and flexibility considerations that are truly unique to Horizon.
First, with a mission to employ those who are blind, Horizon’s recruiting focus must be very specific to continue to find people who are qualified to work, ready to work, and also happen to be blind or visually impaired. And Packaging World readers know that there’s already a nearly pan-industrial labor shortage. And there are only so many people who are blind or visually impaired in any given population—and Tyler, Texas isn’t a major metro area with a lot of candidates from which to choose.
“From that standpoint, we needed automation that could stand in for any potential lack of employees in the future,” Tillson says. “But on the other hand, we’re in the business of employing people, not eliminating jobs through speed and automation. We’re not looking to reduce jobs, that’s not what we’re about. But you can’t just ignore the fact we may encounter times where we’re just unable to find employees. That resulted in a balance of us keeping and trying to maintain a lot of older, fairly manual equipment.”
About five years ago, some of the upstream converting equipment aged completely out of usefulness. Tillson started replacing some of these lines, but not necessarily packaging equipment, at least not yet.
His upstream equipment productivity improvements, as they tend to do, strained downstream resources, and the existing packaging equipment’s age—on a line that the majority of the company’s revenue ran through—began to show.
This pushed to a breaking point the company’s collective negative experiences with older equipment. Even if they couldn’t yet use all of the speed or functionality of a new line, Tillson and his team wanted a recognizable, dependable brand that they could count on for the foreseeable future. They were willing to pay a premium for service and support.
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“It was hard to get parts or any kind of service for the old primary packaging equipment, and the OEM itself had gone under or been sold off a few times,” Tillson says. “Meanwhile, we had quite a few packaging professionals in our plant that knew of R.A Jones and spoke highly of the equipment. In fact, I had looked into it in the past. Back then [five years ago], it just wasn’t practical—we just weren’t ready to spend that kind of money at the time. But when it came down to looking to replace the old equipment, we knew where we wanted to go. I went back to R.A Jones in , and they’ve made a lot of advances in their equipment over the last five or six years. I was immensely surprised what all they had to offer.”
What really sold Tillson on selecting R.A Jones was the number of field service techs the company had on staff. At the time, the number stood at 34, a number large enough to communicate to him that there was an extensive installed base of well-cared for machines that lasted a long time. That was the tipping point that ensued in a partnership.
Flexibility and safety are 1A and 1B
On a sheer practicality level, Tillson required more flexibility than was afforded by any of the standard, off-the-shelf equipment he shopped. The carton size mix at Horizon ranges from 4.5 in. to 16 in. in length, almost all solid bleached sulphate (SBS) paperboard with a few new clay-coated exceptions.
“For all the OEMs I went through this exercise with, the range they could accomplish was much smaller, and would require two machines or parallel cartoning lines,” Tillson says. “R.A Jones had standard machines that went to 14 inches, but they were able to modify that machine to run up to 16 inches. And those two inches might as well be a mile.”
In Horizon’s unique case, the need for OEM supplier flexibility extends well beyond the range of SKUs it can handle. With more than half of the total employees being legally blind, visual acuity considerations not present in most production facilities required further machine customization on the line.
“It was a no-brainer when we understood they could provide specific features for our visually impaired employees to work independently, and every operator that runs that machine is legally blind,” Tillson says.
Some custom features of this Criterion CLT-240 system included modifications to the standard infeed buckets, which were monotone gray metallic steel in appearance, in favor of bright orange bucket walls. The infeed is manual, but it’s a continuous operation with one to two operators having to keep pace with loading. Colors that readily reflect light are easiest for the legally blind to see, so bright orange sheet metal plates were added between the article bucket openings as a color contrast to aid the operators in loading the article bucket pocket and preventing access to the bucket conveyor chains.
The infeed itself was also lengthened by about 10 feet to allow more operators or allow the standard operator configuration more room to load buckets. Another feature is the ergonomic, low-level magazine. Operators find it easier to load at waist height, around 36 to 40 in with more of a bird’s-eye view of their task, instead of loading at shoulder or eye height. Once loaded, magazines incline to be fed into the cartoner. Machine design alterations also included a safety lift gate and a lifeline emergency stop for added protection and assurance.
Beyond the structural considerations, a custom fault-zone system, developed with the help of Banner Engineering sensors, vision, lights, and optical controls, uses Banners’ WLS28-2 two-color red/white lights, with the XS26-2 safety controller, to direct operator’s attention directly to the precise location of any problems. This bypasses the need for an operator trip to the HMI to determine where a detected fault resides.
“Compared to some of the custom builds we’ve done, our team really beefed up this machine for safety, and for good reason,” added Sean Spees, Key Account Sales Manager, R.A Jones.
Safe and secure changeovers
We already mentioned Horizon’s SKU range is significant. And going from 4.5- to 16-in. carton formats mean changeovers are a major consideration. That’s why Tillson opted for R.A Jones’ Acc-U-Change validated changeover platform. Within this system, every change part carries RFID information. When each change part is swapped out, the platform reads the RFID to find out whether it’s the correct change part for the recipe indicated. The red light/green light is for the electric counters with feedback on rotary adjustments. This is a touch-to-verify system. RFID is the second part of the Acc-U-Change system. There is also a mobile touchscreen tablet to assist the operator. The platform simply will not let the machine start back up until every change part is validated as a go. An operator likely wouldn’t be tempted to try unless all the lights are green, validating the right parts are locked into the correct positions.
Strictly from a changeover perspective, the process on an R.A Jones machine remains largely the same whether the machine has Acc-U-Change or not, just with the added measure of validated assuredness. The real gains come in the ensuing startup, which can be said to be a vertical startup.
“Press go and you’re making product,” says Spees. Any ramp-up, calibration, or dial-in that operators once had to complete—which usually meant first finding, then tinkering with one ill-fitting change part—is eliminated. The vertical startup also eliminates any scrap, waste, or ugly product associated with slowly coaxing a machine up to speed and dialing into a more precise flow.
“If you follow the changeover steps one-by-one, and the lights are all green, you’re good to go,” Tillson says. “If you miss a step, the machine will not start. You can’t mess it up really. In the past, we’d have missed a step, turned it on, and ‘boom,’ the machine just jammed up. So that technology, it’s amazing. It really is amazing.”
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But Horizon wasn’t simply adding Acc-U-Change feature to an existing machine. Compared to the legacy equipment it had been running, Tillson was able to drastically cut down on changeover time and reduce labor with the new machine, irrespective of the vertical startup capabilities.
“Changeovers used to mean involving our maintenance department, and if we wanted to make a major change, it would take two to three hours,” he says. “I don’t even think the maintenance department is involved anymore, now it’s our operators that do it. Most changeover are down to eight or nine minutes.”
Taken together, the triad of:
- greatly shortening changeover time,
- drastically limiting the labor involved, and
- eliminating dial-in time and waste via the vertical startup,
account for perhaps the most significant practical performance improvements on the line. That is, of course, unless Tillson decides to use more of that 240 carton/min machine’s capacity.
What’s on the horizon
Future packaging requirements for the company were also considered in the custom machine design, and Tillson made sure he had the ability to easily modify or enhance the packaging line as needs may grow or change. The hand-loading operation at the infeed is currently a bottleneck if you’re only looking at the speed variable, but it fulfills the larger mission of providing meaningful employment to vision impaired people.
But the reality is that labor is hard to find, East Texas is somewhat sparse, and people move around. Add to that the mission of hiring blind or visually impaired associates, and the available labor pool gets even shallower. Tillson is hyper-aware of that dynamic, and future automation may be necessary. One likely spot for that is the manual infeed, since it sits between the Criterion CLT-240 and increasingly sophisticated and fast interfolders—equipment that prepares and folds clips of towels to be cartoned—just upstream.
“We have multiple interfolders that we feed into the cartoner now. But part of the process in the efficiency part, and this back up to the difficulty in finding employees, that if and when we get to the point where we’re ready to buy a larger, faster interfolder, from say like Bretting, the R.A Jones machine was built to handle a change to automation,” Tillson says. “So now we manually put the clips in the buckets, but we set it up so that in the future, with minor modification, we could automate where the clips would be machine fed into the cartoner.”
During the FAT in Covington, Tillson’s team even tested a faster infeed, at about 130/min, or the pace newer interfolders, to ensure the catoner could keep pace if and when that time comes. It met the challenge.
Given the nature of Horizon as a nonprofit serving a greater good than simple efficiency, Tillson has to walk a fine line between what can seem to be competing goals. It didn’t bear mentioning earlier, but Tillson himself is legally blind and as invested in the societal goals as he is the performance goals. But if this cartoner is an indicator of the path he intends to walk with labor and automation, he’s threading the needle between workforce realities, and keeping viable a cause that helps people gain meaningful employment. That’s a winning balance to strike. PW