By: Kevin Swartz
SME Packaging, Sr. Process Engineer
IPS- Integrated Project Services, LLC
How do you case pack when your pharma packaging line has a rate above 150 cartons per minute but less than 1 case per minute? A few years ago, you’d put a few operators after the cartoner and manually erect, load, tape and palletize the cases. The cost of a fully automatic case packer couldn’t be justified and if your lot sizes were small, the changeover time of a semi-automatic system wasn’t worth the effort.
Then came serialization! Or actually, aggregation. Now you need to know which carton went into which case. A camera system needs to read all carton layers in the case to verify and aggregate the contents. Now, more people aren’t enough. You need multiple cameras because multiple cases would be loaded at the same time to keep up with the line. Those cameras and aggregation kiosks start getting expensive. So now, you look to the fully automatic case packer. It does the job: erects, loads, aggregates and closes the case automatically. But it doesn’t come close to fitting on your existing line.
The semi-automatic systems of old aren’t much better. They’re not as large, but the loading is usually still manual and hence can’t keep up because of the cycle time of camera verification. The operator can’t get into a rhythm and any scanning hiccup requires the case to be put aside to be dealt with later or by other operators.
But recently, more hybrid semi-automatic case packers have come on the market. These machines require the operator to fold a case and place it into the machine. The cartons arrive from upstream and are serialized, stacked, loaded layer-by-layer, and aggregated. The operator then gives the case a little push through the tape machine and manually places the aggregated case label onto the case before manually stacking it onto the pallet.
These are a lower cost than multiple manual aggregation kiosks and require few operators (usually only 1). And the best part about them for everyone with an existing line is… they are small! Not kiosk small, but certainly half the size of an automated case packer and probably about the same size as your packing table from a few years ago.
This is a great solution that fills a void. Major manufacturers along with small, privately owned OEMs have nice selections of these semi-automatic case packers with various features and configurations depending on your needs. You no longer have to throw people and money at this problem in order to only get a mediocre solution to mid-speed lines.