Packing machines: Modularity and digitalisation are the key to more flexibility

Packing machines: Modularity and digitalisation are the key to more flexibility

They have to be highly-flexible, the packing machines of today – and that even for small batch sizes. After all, the food manufacturer wants to be able to align his machine for new products or formats simply and at the touch of a button. Anuga FoodTec in Cologne from 20-23.03.2018 will demonstrate how this works. All varieties of packing are represented at the Cologne fair grounds, from the simple carton erector, through to the tray sealer line of modular construction. It becomes apparent here: The capability of the mechanical engineers to integrate all types of robot kinematics is decisive for the performance of the machines.

Today’s diversity of food at the point of sale faces the packing mechanical engineers with big challenges. The trend is moving in the direction of smaller batch sizes, which are available on the retail market within the shortest period of time. The engineers are reacting to this with highly-flexible machines that are equipped with a wide range of different filling or sealing systems and which can be simply adapted to suit other products or packing material. Following the principle of combining reduced mechanics and intelligent software.

A modular system for flexibility

Whether it is a carton erector, top loader, side loader sealer, lidder or case packer: A modular construction is indispensable for modern packing machines. The individual machines comprise of a mechatronic modular construction kit with autonomous and compatible components. Put together to form a flexible whole unit, they cover the complete process of secondary packing from the product feed, through to securing the pallet.

However this does not suffice alone, because the decentralisation requires more “intelligence” in the individual components. The entire spectrum of glasses, jars or cups can be grouped and fed into and onto the same line using optimised control algorithms. The dispensing of almost all of the mechanical components goes hand in hand with the modular construction. The advantages of this principle are obvious: Since every component can have a malfunction, the susceptibility of the entire system decreases the fewer components it contains.

Whereas up until now rigid conveyor belts dominated the scene, rail-based shuttle systems and multi-carrier systems are opening up new perspectives. The cups, boxes or panels move along on them from one processing station to the next without congestion and noise and thus enable an independent flow between the production machine and the packing line. In this way, with a packer connected in direct聽sequence splinted with a palletiser a compact line is created that enables the conversion over to new formats and formations at any time.

Robots implemented for food

The primary packing is the biggest challenge for the plant engineers. Here, the packing material meets the food at the highest possible speed. The aim is to unite clocked processing with a continual product flow – the robot is called for at the very latest here.
Special kinematics and robots are called for, which dispose of the necessary equipment with their force-torque sensors to carry out high-precision dynamical movements in all three spatial directions. The pregrouping of fish fingers or chocolates on the conveyor belt or directly packing items into folding boxes are their domains. They particularly demonstrate the principle and benefit of the modular concept. Equipped with 3D scanners and image processing software, the robots are able to locate the volumes, height and colour of the approaching products down to the very millimetre and grip them at the right moment. Top values of up to 200 picks per minute are not seldom in the case of the models presented at Anuga FoodTec.

Trimmed to Industry 4.0

The packing machines are not least assessed according to whether they are compatible with the Industry 4.0 concepts of tomorrow. In order to push the digitalisation, the engineers are working closely together with their colleagues from the automation industry. In this way, they create plants that are easier to operate and which are more readily accessible. The youngest generation of Human Machine Interfaces (HMI) picks up on the look & feel of smartphones. Thanks to the intuitive operation via a touch-sensitive surface, it is possible to input data and navigate using gestures.

Industry 4.0 components create the prerequisite for the synchronisation between the individual components and for the networking of the machines among each other. Controls, servo drives, pneumatics, I/Os and sensors – every component is trimmed to efficiency and makes a contribution to the overall performance of the line. Fast, real-time compatible bus systems replace the old cables more and more frequently. Due to the provision of all common fieldbus interfaces such as CAN bus, Profibus, ProfiNet or EtherCAT, a cross-manufacturer universally configurable connection to the control can be realised, which keeps pace with the growing data rates. What was still considered to be utopian a few years ago, is now within reach thanks to compact servo drives with decentralised control intelligence: the mass-produced packing machine without a control cabinet.

Starting signal for the digital twin

The packing mechanical engineers are currently taking the vision of Industry 4.0 to the extreme with the realisation of an ambitious concept: the digital twin. It is soon to accompany every plant from the first idea through to the modernisation. We are聽talking about a virtual image of the real machine, which is constructed and expanded parallel to the real machine – ideally throughout the entire life cycle. Here, virtual sensors process the measured data about the status of the plant into complex reports. In this way, even before the first real food is packed, the engineers can simulate the production process, find out weak points and integrate further modules into the plant in a targeted manner. The concept goes much further than merely mapping the packing machine. It functions bidirectionally and enables an optimised machine design, uncomplicated commissioning, short changeover times and faultless operation. In this way, the real and virtual production merge together to form an intelligent overall system.

The initial approaches of the digital twin for packing machines will be on display at Anuga FoodTec from 20.-23.03.2018. Wherever the journey is heading: Armed with the machines and components presented in Cologne, the food manufacturers will be well equipped for packing their products fast and flexibly.

The next Anuga FoodTec will take place from 20 to 23 March 2018 in Cologne. The trade fair is jointly organised by Koelnmesse and the German Agricultural Society (DLG).

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