Suction cups solve automation challenges for flexible packaging

By Jamie Hartford in Automation on July 08, 2019

Flexible packaging is on the rise, accounting for about one-fifth of the $167 billion U.S. packaging industry, according to stats from the Flexible Packaging Association. But the move to flexible formats poses challenges for another growing trend in packaging: automation.

In particular, vacuum-based automated systems can drop or deform flexible packages, leading to slower cycle times, stoppage and, ultimately, shrinkage and lost productivity for manufacturers. However, a new series of vacuum cups with specially designed bag lips from Piab seeks to solve these problems. 

The company’s piGRIP cups feature a plastic insert that prevents flexible packages from being sucked up into the suction cup of a vacuum-based automated system, as well as a flexible lip made of soft 50-Shore silicone that helps it to conform to the irregularities of a bag’s surface. These features help to prevent unattractive pucker marks and dropping of the packages, especially when working with thin bag materials such as plastic film.

A special fitting also allows more vacuum flow through the cup, enabling cups to be cycled faster.  

“The idea of having more of the cup’s surface area on the bag surface along with the cup’s strong body allows the user to increase speeds on their production lines without the danger of missing bags or losing bags,” Mike Tuohey, Regional Marketing Manager – Americas for Piab, tells Packaging Digest via email.  “More cup on the bag means a strong tight grip without risk of failure.”

A case study on Piab’s website details the experience of an Italian customer that was handling bags filled with coffee pods. Working cycles ranged from 20 to 40 picks per minute with standard suction cups, and heavier bags were sometimes dropped, resulting in production stoppages. When the customer switched to piGRIP suction cups, it was able to maximize speeds while eliminating dropping, thus increasing productivity.

Piab also touts potential cost savings due to the fact that the cups feature exchangeable bag lips.

“A suction cup, traditionally, is a one-piece unit plus perhaps a fitting,” Tuohey says. “If the lip starts to wear out on the cup, you need to replace the whole cup.  But, with the configurable piGRIP suction cup line, the lip is a separate part from the body of the cup, so when the lip wears out, you only have to replace one part of the suction cup, not the whole thing, and that is a very cost-effective solution.” 

The company says the bag lips were designed to handle dry food bags as well as stand-up pouches filled with liquid or dry or wet food or other substances. They can also accommodate matte finishes.

“On a smooth flat surface like a matte finish, the Piab cups have great friction capabilities that would make picking them up a breeze, more from the soft silicone lip that is key for a good strong grip,” Tuohey says.

Six diameter sizes (25, 34, 41, 48, 63 and 80 mm) can accommodate packages as small as fast-food ketchup packs or as large as animal feed sacks. Both the lip material and internal retainer piece are made from FDA-approved materials.

 

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