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Getting a handle on multicontainer packaging

Article-Getting a handle on multicontainer packaging

Product packaging serves a variety of obvious purposes, including point-of-purchase advertising, content information, product protection and ensuring freshness. However, a purpose considered less frequently is the easier organization and transport of packaged goods. A key component in this area of packaging is the multipack handle. In 1992, Jim Borg, founder of PakTech, designed the TwinPak® handle to accommodate a pair of gallon-sized milk containers and the rest is handle history.



Machine applies handles to bottles.



Today, PakTech makes handles to unitize two to 12 containers, as well as the UniPak® bale handle for carrying large, single bottles. PakTech also makes machinery to apply handles inline at almost any speed necessary. PakTech also offers in-house products and services that can be hard to find, including part design and engineering, mold development, injection molding manufacturing, UPC label application, as well as the design, manufacture and service of in-line application equipment.

PakTech's business is two-fold, as they sell handle application machine systems and manufacture the plastic handles. PakTech also makes its own tooling equipment to mold the handles that its machines apply. PakTech machines can serve just about any application for the bundling of products. PakTech also integrates its systems with those of container manufacturers in order to add handles to their products before filling.

Typically, PakTech customers initiate a new project because they require a new multipack handle design. PakTech gets a clear idea of the custome's project and provides a 3D image of the handle within a week to begin a prototype. PakTech can easily provide injection-molded samples within two week's time, and this has helped PakTech remain competitive by adapting to changing requirements and quickly bring new products to market.


Squeezed by PLC prices

"During the process of developing a new control system, we required a control solution that wasn't as restrictive and tightly packaged as our previous solution," says Dan Shook, director of operations, PakTech. "We also sought a user interface that was specific to our type of equipment, so that the look and feel would be the same across different PakTech platforms. Until this time, we used touch panels from a very large PLC manufacturer along with its proprietary software to create push button interfaces. In addition, we wanted to develop a more brand-specific look and feel to PakTech application machinery."

PakTech began a redesign of its handle application machinery starting with its MPA60 model. This versatile machine is a multipurpose applicator that can apply handles at 60 cases/min. The machine seamlessly integrates a robot arm so the operator doesn't have to be heavily trained in robot programming. PakTech aims to make the process as easy as possible for customers by installing the machine at the end-user's facility, says Shook. Essentially all the customer has to do is select the product by hitting the start button.

"PakTech must go to market against several competitors with very low cost machines. Offering a machine simply with better speed won't win the order. It must also be affordable. We needed to bring down our controls costs to find a better balance of performance and price," Shook notes."Our competitor's machines are often in the 25 case/min range with a lower quality die-cut handle. Its answer to more speed is by adding more machines that are operated in parallel, but this is simply not sustainable if you want to control your plant floor utilization and machine footprint."

"For a competitor's solution to get a 50 case/min machine, they're offering two low performance machines at $120,000. The base PakTech model with the previous major brand PLC cost $200,000 or more," Shook recounts." We needed to expand our control ability, while reducing our costs, which we couldn't do with separate servo and PLC platforms. Several layers of components just kept adding up, and we couldn't specify the control system we needed for under $50,000 with our previous vendor. This was a serious threat to our competitiveness and sustainability"

"We came to the conclusion that we had to have something like a PC tying everything together," Shook says. "There are many IPC solutions from this large vendor, but cost-wise, we would still be adding too many layers engineered into the solution. We would still be increasing our controls cost well outside of our competitors' offerings in price."


PC-based control improved performance and cut costs

"Once we laid out our PC-based objectives, we began working closely with Beckhoff Automation to move in the direction to be more cost-effective and user-friendly for our customers," Shook says. "The Beckhoff solution permits my engineering team to program code more easily and to efficiently push information back to the robotic equipment using a standard Ethernet interface. We got our first introduction through Husky injection molding machinery, which we still use to manufacture our plastic handles," Shook adds. "Through Husky, we see that Beckhoff's brand of PC-based control technology is well-thought out, tested in the field for several years and it's trouble-free."

During the redesign process, the PakTech team was inspired to do some out-of-the-box thinking about remote connectivity in order to ideally assist customers over the Internet to reduce support expenses. "Having an industrial PC installed on the machine is a critical component to best-in-class remote connectivity," Shook reasons.

PakTech systems typically integrate with a conveyor and receive products upstream. Sensing when the products are present, PakTech machines control the sequence to a particular location and apply handles via pick-and-place, which is handled via a Fanuc Robotics robot. PakTech systems check if the handles were applied correctly, and then the products move downstream for further packaging steps. The system also communicates line speed to other systems in the plant.

"With the Beckhoff controls, PakTech has been able to easily provide machine information to customers' ERP systems, which wasn't as convenient in the past," Shook says. "In addition, we've looked at a couple of different platforms to facilitate remote maintenance, but Beckhoff is one of the only vendors that has the components to facilitate this easily.

"It's possible to connect remotely using the traditional PLC, but there's the required software license on your machine and you can see it all remotely, but the PLC is all you see with that license," he explains. "You don't see the HMI and you don't see the robot interface. Those are all connections you must establish with separate licenses."

The MPA60 from PakTech utilizes a complete Beckhoff automation and motion control system comprising a CX1020 Embedded PC with Intel® Celeron® M ULV, 1 GHz processor  or C6920 Industrial PC with Intel® Coreâ„¢ Duo, CP6201 Control Panel, TwinCAT NC PTP software and TwinCAT PLC HMI.

For communication, the MPA-60 features EtherCAT Terminal I/O, EtherCAT Box modules for IP67-rated I/O for mounting outside cabinets in harsh environments. The motion system includes Beckhoff AX5000 EtherCAT servo drives, which are used as variable frequency drives, and AM3052 series servo motors.

"The CX1020 Embedded PC was selected because it's a flexible DIN-rail mounted controller, and with its 1 GHz processor, it's a very powerful device for automation," Shook notes. The CX1020 is also exceptionally small, measuring roughly 6-in. W x 4.5-in. H x 4-in. D in PakTech's configuration. The CX1020 also provides a direct backplane connection to Beckhoff I/O terminals.

"With TwinCAT NC PTP, we're making a bridge to help our customers venture over to structured text," Shook explains. "We're using TwinCAT's ability to work with ladder logic so we can make code that looks like what some of our customers are used to when necessary. We prefer to utilize function blocks, structured text and the programs created in C+ in a way that's in the background from the customer's perspective and are lockable. This goes a long way to protect PakTech's intellectual property and enhances flexibility."

Systems from PakTech include one-touch operation, easy to set up controls and tool-less changeovers. PakTech also eliminates the time-consuming and costly efforts to modify and debug PLC code for its customers. "Breaking through the old way of d designing packaging systems in North America, while maintaining customer trust is vitally important for us," Shook says. 

For the I/O and information exchange on the robots and vision system, PakTech must also have networking infrastructure to accommodate PROFIBUS and EtherNet/IP. For teaching the robot and vision system, PakTech has implemented a user-friendly Web-browser system over the EtherNet/IP connection. The previous control system required the user to connect with a laptop computer, establish an IP connection, navigate to a main screen with the controller and so on.

"This required too much training and documentation to be a workable solution," Shook recalls. "Today with Beckhoff's PC-based control architecture, we've implemented a simple push button on the machine that opens the interface in order to teach the robot and vision system; it's exceptionally simple by comparison."

The machine-mountable EtherCAT Box I/O solution enables PakTech to meet the requirements for high performance networking and data acquisition in the field to various areas of the machines. "In the past, all our I/O was centralized and we had a great deal of wiring back and forth to the field. EtherCAT Box I/O has eliminated this and the costs and time required," Shook adds.

Not limited to just the I/O equipment, PakTech also utilizes EtherCAT as a drive bus. "For us the two-channel AX5000 EtherCAT Servo Drive was a surprising fit when used as a VFD. It further consolidated the panel, because we now have two motor outputs with every drive," Shook notes. "We were previously using a dedicated VFD, and those were fairly large units, taking up a large amount of cabinet space by comparison. We, of course, also have the flexibility to utilize the AX5000 for full servo control when a customer application requires it.

"We needed to implement motion control flexibly without having an automation platform that was overloaded with unnecessary controllers," Shook continues. "For instance, our previous control technology involved a PLC and a separate motion controller communicating via SERCOS. PakTech has successfully consolidated these components. With EtherCAT and PC-based control we can implement the motion and logic in the same controller. This was a technological leap forward for PakTech and, naturally, it helped us reduce required electrical panel space to a considerable degree."

High performance machine control

"The Beckhoff system became a game changer for our engineering team and our customers," Shook declares. "It cut our required training time in half for our customers, because of the time that previously had to be spent in the plant training the maintenance technician on how to navigate through the previous system. Now, the navigation is essentially as simple as pushing a button."

PakTech has also gained the ability to interact with the entire machine platform over a remote connection versus logging into one component at a time as with the previous control architecture. "We expect a number of additional efficiencies as a result of using the Beckhoff PC-based control system. We're confident we'll maintain 99 percent efficiency with installed machines and we're expecting a 20 percent improvement in reliability over our previous design.

 "Today we have 20 percent more control cabinet space to accommodate additional hardware requests from customers. We also estimate that switching to the Beckhoff system will eliminate an entire eight-hour period out of our panel build phase."

Claiming cost reductions

PakTech has also seen notable equipment cost reductions. "We have the ability to scale up to full servo functionality with the Beckhoff AX5000 today without buying anything extra, and we're paying about the same amount as our previous vendor's VFD that provided zero servo capability,"Shook notes.

"Going through this vendor for a suitable servo system would cost approximately $3,000 more per axis compared with the Beckhoff system, because with the CX1020 Embedded PC and C6920 IPC, we already have the necessary hardware installed to control servo axes."

As PakTech control engineers get more accustomed to Beckhoff technology, they are working to introduce the system as the standard platform across all machine lines. "Some of the things that really aggravated us were the runtime licenses we needed to purchase and renew yearly from our previous PLC vendor. With Beckhoff, we buy the license once and all updates are free, regardless of how old the license is," Shook explains.

Expanding the momentum PakTech has generated on the electrical controls side, the company also recently released a revolutionary multipack solution for the canned beverage market. The innovative system applies new proprietary plastic handles developed by PakTech for six- and four-can soda and beer packs.

These plastic handles cover the tops of cans, allowing them to remain 95 to 98 percent cleaner, based on recently completed third party testing, than those with standard rings. "This high-performance CCA2400 machine will apply the closed top rings at an extremely fast rate of 2,400 cans/min. To keep up with this speed, we intend to utilize PC-based controls from Beckhoff Automation on this market-changing solution," Shook concludes.


Beckhoff Automation LLC,262/388-3779.

PakTech, 541/  

Fanuc Robotics, 800/477-6268.


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