When it comes to designing high-function, end-of-line packaging machines, Schneider Packaging Equipment understands that less is more. While many machine builders add bulk to boost the capability of their equipment, Schneider focuses on slimmed-down design for tight spaces.
A prime example is the compact robotic handling system that Schneider recently developed to handle “K-Cups,” individually packaged coffee portions for automatic brewers. The machine functions as cartoner, case packer and end-of-the-line packaging system — all within a 300-sq-ft envelope.
The machine packs such a big design punch that Schneider, based in Brewerton, NY, won this year’s Rockwell Automation Extreme Machine award.
Space and Time Challenges
Brewing the design for such a complex yet condensed machine presented several hurdles. To save space, Schneider first needed to develop a small-footprint rotary cartoner, drawing from its 37-year history of designing packaging systems for the food, beverage, pharmaceutical, paper and personal care industries.
Adding to the design demands were time pressures. “Machine builders are constantly challenged by tight delivery schedules,” notes Schneider VP Pete Squires. “Our ability to use many of our existing modular designs bought us time in a tight schedule to develop the parts of the solution that weren’t currently available.”
To keep the coffee cups moving quickly and ensure they were packaged reliably, Schneider used their single interface of Rockwell HMI, communicating between the PLC and the robot’s controller.
“While traditional robot integrators typically integrate multiple operation interfaces such as the robot’s teach pendant and an HMI, Schneider believes that their customers do not want their operators to double as robot programmers,” Squires explains. “We build robotic systems with the intelligence to make the operator’s job simple.”
However, to ensure that the system could case, label and palletize the K-Cups at the rate of 280 cups per minute, Schneider realized they would need a sophisticated automation control system to act as the intelligence for this mechanical multi-tasker. They also needed safe and simple interaction between the machine and plant workers.
Schneider engineers turned to Rockwell Automation, a 15-year partner, for an integrated solution run by an Allen-Bradley® ControlLogix® Programmable Automation Controller (PAC). “Rockwell Automation was a natural partner for us,” says company President Rick Schneider. “Their history of experience in automation control, combined with their reputation for quality software solutions, made the choice obvious.”
“Schneider approached us with a very forward-thinking vision of how they wanted the controls and engineering to contribute to the machine’s successful design,” recalls Christopher Zei, vice president and general manager, Rockwell Automation OEM Business. “They came to us for the tools to make those ideas a reality.”
Good to the Last Drop
The result of this collaboration between Schneider Packaging and Rockwell Automation met all of the machine’s operational challenges. Result: An automations solution that begins with sealed plastic cups of ready-to-brew coffee entering one end of the line, with a pallet of labeled cases coming out the other.
Here’s how it works. When the coffee cups enter the machine from a conveyor, two side-by-side timing screws, each controlled by an Allen-Bradley Ultra-3000 servo with MPL motor, count the appropriate number of cups for a carton and feed them into a hopper. When the hopper is full, the machine dispenses the cups into an open carton.
To save space, Schneider implemented its rotary cartoner design, operated by another Ultra-3000 servo. The multi-station rotary cartoner processes the carton from a flat blank in several stages. It opens the carton, loads it while a series of air cylinders agitates the box to settle the cups properly in the carton, and then folds and seals the flaps with hot melt adhesive.
As the carton exits the rotary cartoner, a laser date code and label are applied to the carton. The carton discharges onto a conveyor, feeding Schneider’s combined robotic case packer palletizer. As the cartons accumulate at the end of the conveyor, the machine opens a blank corrugated case. A Schneider-integrated Fanuc R2000 robot lifts a layer of cartons and places it into the case, repeating the step as necessary. The loaded case is then sealed with hot melt adhesive and is ready to be picked for palletizing.
Schneider saved additional space by having the same robot present the case to a labeler, a process that often requires a separate apparatus to label more than one side of the case.
The cartoning, labeling, casing and palletizing processes are all seamlessly managed by an Allen-Bradley ControlLogix PAC. “The capability and reliability of the ControlLogix PAC allowed us to quickly and accurately accomplish these functions,” says Squires. “Without it, the machine operator would still be tethered to the teach pendant.”
The ControlLogix PAC leverages the Allen-Bradley Logix Control Platform, including a common control engine, common RSLogix™ 5000 programming software and communications services.
“It's a very complex machine,” says Schneider, “but working with it is relatively simple because the programming environment is very straightforward.”
To reduce time and costs, operators replenish empty cartons, cases and labels from outside the machine enclosure. Aside from replenishing packaging supplies, humans enter the safety enclosure only to remove the completed pallets. The entire labeling assembly resides outside the safety enclosure, permitting operators to service and supply it without shutting down the line.
It was the combination of all these features, particularly the ability to bundle a complex operation in tight space, that impressed the panel of manufacturing experts who determined Rockwell’s “Extreme Machine” award winner.