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Test Codes

Each pail is coded according to EPA regulations before leaving Bell Laboratories’ plant in Madison, WI.

Bell Laboratories Inc., Madison, WI, manufactures a variety of rodenticides and rodent-control products for the consumer, professional pest-control and agricultural markets worldwide. In a typical eight-hour shift, the company can produce up to 12 tons of bait boxes—a popular rodent-control product often distributed in farm and home-improvement stores.

Tomcat All-weather Bait Chunxs, one of the company's more than 500 products, is sold as 1-lb bars and in 4-lb plastic pails at Blain's Farm & Fleet stores in the Midwest. Tomcat is a mold- and moisture-resistant bait, formulated to attract both rats and mice with patented gnawing edges and kill them in four to six days using an anti-coagulant.

Because the product contains a poison, albeit a small amount of poison—Tomcat has just 0.005-percent of diphacinone, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires Bell Laboratories to code each pail in case of recall. To help the agency identify the point of manufacture, Bell Laboratories codes all rodenticide packaging in accordance with EPA rules. The codes also help Bell Laboratories conduct its own internal quality-control processes.

A cat in gloves catches no mice

The company has long used Videojet (www.videojet.com) printers to code its containers. Bell Laboratories owns three Videojet 43s models, and the bait manufacturer also has been alpha- then beta-testing the Videojet 1510 small-character continuous ink-jet coder since February 2008.

Pails are hand-filled with bait before being placed on a short conveyor for coding

By participating in the testing program, Bell Laboratories gets free use of the machine and is provided with the necessary supplies, such as the ink cartridges. In exchange, Bell Laboratories provides feedback to Videojet about the coder's performance in a rather hostile environment.

“Videojet approached us [about testing the 1510], and the reason they came to us is because of the factors in the plant,” Bell Laboratories manufacturing manager Dan Hineline explains. “They felt we would be a very good challenge for the machine, and we are.”

Bell Laboratories' rodenticide formulations use human-food-grade ingredients, many of which can be very powdery. The dust from these powdery ingredients can lead to printhead clogs.

To ensure the manufacturing and packaging output closely matches its customers' current needs, Bell Laboratories uses a just-in-time order fulfillment process instead of requiring customers to buy from existing inventory. Therefore, manufacturing and packaging line equipment must not only be able to handle high volume but also must be able to start right up after sitting for extended periods of time. “At times, we would shut it off for an extended period of time and not use it, which is a real challenge for a coder,” says Hineline. “Can it start right up when it sits for a day or two? Can it start right up when it sits over the weekend? These were the types of things that were ongoing issues for us, so we were an ideal testing facility from that standpoint.”

Temptingly lethal

Depending on the day, Bell Labs runs up to 15 production lines of different products, including bait blocks, bait stations and mouse traps.

On some days, Bell Laboratories runs up to 15 production lines of different products from bait blocks to bait stations to mousetraps. On the bait block line, a giant blender mixes ingredients that include human-food-grade products, such as flour, sugar, oats and even butter pecan flavoring. The mixture is sent through one of Bell Laboratories' two cold-extrusion lines, then placed on a cooling conveyor, which moves the bait to the filling area. There, an operator manually fills decorated number-two plastic pails and visually measures the amount of bait needed. The operator places the filled pail on a mobile conveying cart, where the packaging is coded. An operator then puts four pails into a master carton, which come preprinted from Menasha Corp. (www.menasha.com). The carton is sealed manually.

From two to many

While this setup allows Bell Laboratories to have multiple production lines that are fed from the same core machinery, it also presented Videojet with challenges even before the 1510 was installed.

“We kind of have a homemade conveyor system that works very well with the way that we do production work in our plant,” Hineline explains. “It's a really compact unit that we're quite proud of. The structure is made out of 80/20 (www.8020.net). It's an extruded aluminum that's kind of like an adult erector set. You buy these components, and they bolt together really well. It's a very versatile material. Then we have Dorner conveyors (www.dorner.com), which are high-end conveyors, on the carts. It's a very short, little conveyor. The whole thing is small, and it's on casters.”

Because the carts are not standard equipment, Videojet engineers needed to find a way to integrate the coders onto this small space securely. “That's something that they needed to come back and forth a few times before they actually had it right,” recalls Hineline. After some trial and error, the Videojet team did create mounting plates that would keep the coder secure during the frequent moves. “This Videojet doesn't get to stay in one place very often,” Hineline comments. “It gets rolled off, then we change the line over and it gets rolled back in place.”

Reducing downtime

Depending on a specific customer's needs or changes in orders, the codes imprinted on the packaging also change several times throughout a day. The prototype features a new user interface (UI), which is designed to be easy-to-learn. “The UI is very similar to the unit that we had in house so our operators didn't have a hard time learning it,” says Hineline. “Only, Videojet improved it: They've gotten rid of some of the quirks.”

Overall, Bell Laboratories says the simpler UI has resulted in reduced downtime. Because every manufacturing employee can use the printer, production line workers can change roles or the printer can move to different lines in the facility easily.

To help operators with varying skill levels replace inks, the Videojet 1510 Smart Cartridge uses a microchip that identifies when the correct ink has been installed.

The printer itself experiences very little downtime. In Bell Laboratories' experience with other ink-jet coders, operators would clean the printhead at least once in every shift, which could add up to 30 minutes every day. The 1510 printhead is designed to stay clean and automatically adjust to changes in the environment.

In the bait manufacturer's experience, the 1510 printer can be run around the clock or remain idle for several hours while employees do other jobs. The printer also has a sleep mode, so it does not have to be restarted after every idle period.

The 1510 is designed to run for 9,000 hours, which can be up to 18 months of operation in typical applications, before requiring preventive maintenance. Operators receive an alert when it's time for a new “core,” which consolidates filters, valves and the pump into a single unit. As of press-time, Bell Laboratories was preparing for the printer's first core replacement. According to Hineline, the printer shows no signs of needing a new core but Videojet wants to be proactive in seeking potential problems during this testing phase.

Testing has its advantages

According to Bell Laboratories’ manufacturing manager Dan Hineline, the new user interface (UI) is much better than the UI used for the manufacturer’s older coders.

While Hineline did not disclose any major problems uncovered during the testing, he did say the testing did uncover a minor problem. One of Videojet's goals is to create a printer with no recessed areas that can trap fluid. During testing, an intermittent problem came up that the Bell Laboratories staffers weren't able to resolve. The testing uncovered a hidden cavity where ink can collect. The Videojet technician servicing the prototype machine was able to quickly fix the problem by turning on a feature on the machine, and the machine has worked well since then.

Hineline does say that small problems like this are not major issues for Bell Laboratories. “In terms of that, those little things are always going to happen [during testing], and there was very good resolution of the problem,” he remarks.

A Videojet technician checks on the machine every Thursday, and Hineline says it's not unusual for the technician to come more often. Therefore, Hineline says the advantages of participating in the product-testing program greatly outweigh the potential negatives for Bell Laboratories.

“The type of development Videojet is doing is the kind of development that would make the 1510 a better piece of equipment for me,” he explains. “My objective is to help them with this, and I can use this type of equipment if it's good.”


More information is available:
Videojet Technologies Inc., 800/843-3610 . www.videojet.com.
80/20 Inc., 260/248-8030. www.8020.net.
Dorner Mfg. Corp., 800/397-8664. www.dorner.com.
Menasha Corp., 800-558-5073. www.menasha.com.
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