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VFD, PLC, and HMI Automation Switch Spells Productivity, Precision

Supply chain delays pushed Balpack to investigate new servo-electric VFDs, PLCs, and HMI components. Integrator HPE suggested Mitsubishi Electric.

Balpack’s new Star Wheel Capper.
Balpack’s new Star Wheel Capper.

For 20 years now, packaging machine builders and end users alike have been incrementally drifting away from pneumatics and hydraulics toward all-digital, electric automation. Florida-based OEM Balpack, Inc. is no exception, and the company makes heavy use of servo electric-based VFDs, PLCs, and HMIs to provide their customers with both standard and custom machinery, packaging everything from food to cosmetics to nutraceuticals and more.

One customer came forward asking Balpack for an application that would cap small bottles. The customer wanted something that could deliver the pre-programmed precision that would easily handle the capping of delicate containers filled with pills, liquids, or powders. None of Balpack's existing equipment could meet this need, so engineers at the OEM decided to build a new machine. But pandemic-induced component availability delays were a problem, forcing Balpack’s hand in widening its pool of preferred suppliers. After interviewing several new vendors, they chose integrator HPE Automation, a Mitsubishi Electric distributor. Teams from Balpack and HPE worked hand-in-hand to develop a machine based on a star wheel design, what I call the Star Wheel Capper.

“We recommended going with Mitsubishi Electric Automation through and through,” says Joe Small, HPE's electrical controls engineer. “Sometimes, if you have components from several different companies, you get into a quagmire of frustration. Getting it to work together is a pain. But with Mitsubishi Electric, the compatibility is built right in.”

With a complete Mitsubishi Electric solution, the development time was quick. And with HPE, Balpack had a single point of contact to answer every question. Not only was HPE only a phone call away; one of their Subject Matter Experts temporarily rented an apartment down the street from the Balpack facility.All Ethernet-based controls are used for VFDs, providing easy configuration and adjustability. The integrators also ran SMC valves via Ethernet for ease of setup. In the past, the wiring time was considerable. Now they just plug in RJ45 cables.All Ethernet-based controls are used for VFDs, providing easy configuration and adjustability. The integrators also ran SMC valves via Ethernet for ease of setup. In the past, the wiring time was considerable. Now they just plug in RJ45 cables.

Picture a powerful machine driven by a world-class VFD and servo. Now picture that machine placing a delicate plastic cap on a small plastic bottle, at a rate of 100 caps/min. The slightest error in torque or positioning could destroy multiple caps and bottles, or cause the product to leak. What prevents this? According to Balpack, the programming expertise of HPE, and the precision controls from Mitsubishi Electric. “I have to say that Joe Small at HPE was quite proud of his programs. When we finished the first Star Wheel Capper, we ran it, and I looked at Joe and I said, ‘You know what? I think this is the best machine we ever built. Thank you,’” remembers Roman Balcar, EVP at Balpack.

Easy Configuration

“We ran all Ethernet-based controls for our VFDs,” says Brian Hord, HPE president and co-owner. “That gave us easy configuration and adjustability. We also ran the SMC valves via Ethernet for ease of setup. In the past, the wiring time was considerable. Now they just plug in RJ45 cables.” And according to HPE's Automation Sales and Technical Products Manager, Jason Schmidt, “In older machines with analog controls, you could get only 16 speeds for torque. Now, the number of speeds is unlimited. And torque control is adjustable to one tenth of one percent.”All settings are controlled through a user-friendly HMI. Recalling recipe-driven settings for changeovers is easy.All settings are controlled through a user-friendly HMI. Recalling recipe-driven settings for changeovers is easy.

To make new settings easy, HPE worked with Balpack's control engineer to make programming uncomplicated. To create a new setting, the operator simply positions everything as needed, then presses the button marked SET. “

It's a very operator-friendly machine,” says Balcar. “And HPE provided the training, which enabled our Balpack operators to do the programming … And the value that Mitsubishi Electric brought to Balpack allowed us to give our customers a lot of bang for the buck.”

All settings can easily be controlled through a user-friendly HMI from Mitsubishi Electric. And recalling those recipe-driven settings for changeovers is even easier. In the past, changeovers were often done manually with an Allen wrench. The process could lead to significant downtime. But with the system's digital controls and Ethernet connections, changeovers can be done in minutes. By consulting with HPE and Mitsubishi Electric, Balpack has been able to build a capping machine that not only delivers as promised but can be assembled and running not in two weeks but in two days.

“The most important thing to me is the relationship with HPE. I worked very closely with their team on everything: timelines, availability of products, programming, and how we can stock for the future. Just having that relationship and a vendor I can lean into is amazing," says Caroline Shipp, Balpack General Manager. Mitsubishi Electric ... got us what we needed when we needed it. Plus, they were open about pricing. That's important for a company of our size.”

The relationship continues into new projects. For instance, Balpack customers have been asking for a dual function machine that can not only cap but fill. And when it comes to the development of Balpack's new monoblock system, HPE and Mitsubishi Electric will be ready to assist. “The most important thing to me is the relationship with HPE. I worked very closely with their team on everything...just having that relationship and a vendor I can lean into is amazing,” adds Shipp. PW

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