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Blister machine speeds EZ packing

As much a part of the American landscape as is baseball and apple pie, PEZ® novelty candy and dispensers from PEZ Candy, Inc., Orange, CT, have been entertaining both children and adults for more than 50 years, using themes and characters that reflect current, popular trends. Some of the candy company's latest three-dimensional dispenser creations include Star Wars collectibles, Chicken Little figures and Nascar helmets.

Just as PEZ has followed pop culture with its dispenser styles, so too has it evolved its packaging options to suit new distribution channels and provide consumers with a greater product selection. Last year, the company invested in a new, automated blister-packing line from Koch Maschinenbau GmbH (www.koch-maschinenbau.de), supplied by its exclusive North American distributor Action Packaging Automation, Inc. (www.apaiusa.com) that provides greater speed, flexibility and cost-efficiency in the production of various candy and dispenser blister-pack combinations.

The story of PEZ dates back to 1927, when Viennese confectioner Eduard Haas introduced a peppermint candy as an alternative for smokers. The compressed breath mint was marketed in a dispenser shaped like a cigarette lighter and took its name from the German word for peppermint, "pfefferminz." In 1952, Haas brought his product to the U.S., but initial sales were slow. In 1955, he reintroduced the candy in fruit flavors and packaged them in a new dispenser that doubled as a child's toy. Among the first PEZ character dispensers were Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse. Today, PEZ candy and dispensers are available in more than 60 countries worldwide, with more than 3 billion of the candies consumed each year in the U.S. alone.

At PEZ Candy's Orange location, approximately 150 employees work to produce the wrapped candies and package them along with the dispensers—sourced from China, Austria and Slovenia—for sale in supermarkets and mass merchandise, drug, convenience, toy and gift stores throughout the country. The 96,000-sq-ft facility houses full processing capabilities for the trademark 3/8-in.-long, brick-shaped candies. Packaging equipment includes machines to overwrap the candies in 0.29-oz rolls with foil and paper, as well as those that produce film bags holding a dispenser and candy, film overwraps for candy rolls and blister-packs for candy and dispenser combinations.

Until last year, PEZ Candy was using several blister-sealing machines, along with preformed blisters, to create its carded combination packs. In 2002, it began searching for an alternative to the labor-intensive system. "We wanted to increase our output and reduce our material costs by producing our own blisters," relates Mark Morrissey, chief operating officer for the company. "The main requirements for the equipment were that it could form six blisters per cycle at sixteen to eighteen cycles per minute, as well as provide quick changeover and automation of the candy placing."

The challenge faced by machine manufacturers was to devise a way to orient and feed the 2.3-in.-long candy rolls to the machine from several bulk hoppers, as well as create a pick-and-place transfer system to load different combinations of rolls into the blisters, while maintaining the required speed. "Koch was the only company that would take the responsibility to build the infeed," relates Morrissey. "With the blister-sealing machine, we were manually putting the candy rolls and dispensers into the blisters. We wanted to automate the new system as much as possible to increase output."

After an initial meeting at the PACK EXPO International 2002 tradeshow in Chicago, PEZ Candy and Koch met several more times over the next year and a half to create an infeed and pick-and-place solution around Koch's KBS-PL (Pallet Linear guide) high-capacity blister-packing line.

The final system was installed in March 2004 and was in production the following month, producing blister-packs containing one dispenser and three rolls of candy, or packs with candy only, in seven-, eight- and 10-roll varieties. According to an estimate by John Wojnicki, sales manager for APAI, the final system comprises approximately 30-percent standard Koch machinery and 70-percent custom automation.

The blister-packing process at PEZ—which, during a recent visit by PD, involved placing three different varieties of candy and one dispenser into a pack promoting DreamWorks Animation LLC's computer-animated film Madagascar™—begins with Koch's automated candy-roll infeed system. Designed with four infeed lanes, the system can accommodate up to four different flavor varieties simultaneously. To begin the process, unoriented product is dumped into four separate bulk hoppers equipped with stepper feeders.

From this nonoriented state, product is delivered via the stepper feeder to a feed belt in a flat position. The rolls then travel end-to-end on the conveyor belt past a vision system from Cognex (www.cognex.com) that determines the orientation of the candy rolls by inspecting the direction of the print on the package. Incorrectly oriented rolls are diverted to a turning station, where they are rotated to the correct position and reintroduced into the line.

Next, the product in all four lanes travels in a straight line to a stacking station that accumulates the required number of rolls (up to 10) and flavor varieties for the current job into a horizontal position. Once released, the collated rolls travel through a condensing conveyor and to the pick-and-place station, where they are transferred into the blister.

Meanwhile, blister-film is guided into the machine from rolls and is preheated in preparation for forming. According to Morrissey, PEZ uses polyvinyl chloride film from a number of suppliers in thicknesses of 10 and 12 mil for the candy-pack blisters and deep-draw, candy and dispenser packs, respectively. The film is then advanced via the forming station. As it is advanced, the film is formed into a blister and released onto a tracking system, where it is slit in longitudinal and transversal direction into six lanes.

Next, a hole-punch mechanism punches a hole into the blister that matches the size of a hole die-cut in the blister-card that will allow the finished product to be hung on a peg for display. Blisters are then picked by grippers and placed into individual trays, or "pallets." A sensor checks for the presence of the blisters in the trays.

The trays then advance to the automatic infeed, where the candy rolls are placed into the blister. After being filled, the trays convey past an operator, who manually places a dispenser into the pack. If the pack will contain candy rolls only, the trays go directly to the card-placement station, where blister-cards are placed upside down on top of the blister. PEZ uses preprinted blister-cards made from .016 SBS and measuring 9.5 in. long and 3.5 in. wide, from several suppliers. Next, the trays advance to a sealing station, after which the product is picked from the conveyor and discharged from the machine.

The Koch system is controlled by the TwinCAT PLC and motion-control software system from Beckhoff Automation (www.beckhoff.com). The software operates on a PC running Windows 2000 with a color-touchscreen operator control.

While Morrissey cannot comment on specific improvements in PEZ's blister-pack productivity and costs realized as a result of the installation of the Koch system, the line has definitely met the company's requirements for speed, automation and minimal changeover time. With its custom-designed, automated infeed system, the line delivers properly oriented candy rolls in a variety of combinations, with blister-packing speeds of 16 to 18 cycles/min. And, Morrissey says, changeover, which requires only a change in the plugs used to determine the size of the blister, is just a five- to 10-minute process.


More information is available:
Action Packaging Automation, Inc. (APAI), 609/448-9210. www.apaiusa.com.
Beckhoff Automation LLC, 952/890-0000. www.beckhoff.com.
Cognex Corp., 508/650-3000. www.cognex.com.
Koch Maschinenbau GmbH, 07445/181-0. www.koch-maschinenbau.de.
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