New bottling line is bubbling

Jack Mans, Plant Operations Editor

January 29, 2014

12 Min Read
New bottling line is bubbling

A new liquid bottling line is paying big dividends for Surefil LLC, Grand Rapids, MI, a premium contract manufacturer of personal care and OTC liquids, lotions, creams and gels, including low-alcohol containing products. The company recently secured the contract to run Lander® brand bath and personal care products for Grand Brands LLC, a Michigan-based brand licensing company, on the new line. Lander is reputedly the largest manufacturer of bubble bath in the world.

Surefil also recently added 50,000 sq ft of additional space that will be initially used for warehousing, but will eventually house another filling line.

“Surefil has produced Lander products before, and they always did an excellent job, so it was an easy decision to continue to use them now,” says Grand Brands senior vp of sales John Ciotola. “We market a wide variety of products ranging in size from 12-oz baby products to 64-oz bubble bath, and Surefil adapts to our requirements with no problems. Our needs sometimes change unexpectedly, and Surefil is always extremely flexible and consistent.”

A major global personal care company that is headquartered in Europe with operations in the U.S. named Surefil its No. 1 copacker in 2007 and early 2008, but this has not been an easy time for the company. It filed for chapter 11 in June 2009 to reorganize debt. However, it has successfully continued to operate: Increasing sales, adding employees and growing the company’s overall profitability by $1.6 million in 2009 over 2008. 

“We increased our sales by $9.4 million in 2009, more than doubling our results for 2008,” says president Bill Hunt. While the economic climate has proved challenging, the company attributes the increase in sales to its dedicated staff, taking steps to reduce costs and launching new services and products to attract additional business. The company expects to emerge from Chapter 11 next month.
15 head rotary labeler

During PD’s visit, the new line was running Landers 64-oz bottles of children’s bubble bath at a speed of 280 bottles/min. To start this operation, the bottles are dumped into a floor-level hopper of a bottle unscrambler from New England Machinery Inc. An elevator carries them up and they discharge into a rotating hopper, from which the bottles drop onto the discharge conveyor in a laying-down position.

If a bottle is in the proper orientation with the bottom leading, a finger slips over the bottom of the bottle, and it continues to a point where it drops onto a conveyor in a standing position. However, if the open end is in the leading position, the finger slips inside the neck of the bottle and flips it over, so it is properly oriented when it drops onto the take-away conveyor.

Surefil installed a tabletop conveyor that uses vacuum to keep the lightweight containers from tipping as they are conveyed. A vacuum chamber runs beneath the conveyor, and slots in the tabletop conveyor enable the vacuum to hold the bottles as they are transported. The conveyor is covered for sanitation purposes.

The bottles then enter a 15-head Model 5600 rotary pressure-sensitive labeler from Shorewood Engineering Inc. Bottles enter the labeler through a feed screw that separates them, and they then enter a star wheel that places them on the individual labeling plates. Simultaneously, one of the cap fixtures on the rotating top descends onto the cap.

The labeler is equipped with three labeling station, although it only applies front and back labels to the bubble-bath bottles. It can also apply wrap-around labels, if those are required. For the bubble-bath bottles, after the front label has been applied, the labeling plate rotates 180 deg so the second label is applied directly opposite the first.

Surefil runs some bottles with hinged caps, and labels for these bottles must be aligned with cap. For this application, a small gear attached to the bottom of the labeling plate rotates the plate until a lug on the bottom of the bottle is oriented for proper labeling.

The labeling heads are driven by stepper motors, although servos are also available. When a bottle reaches a certain point in the table rotation, a sensor triggers the stepper motor for that particular label reel to energize and pull the label web into the machine.

The web travels past a plate that strips a label from the web, and the label is picked up by the rotating bottle. The bottle then travels past a wiper that finishes the application,  repeating this at each labeling station.

Net-weight filler
The bottles then travel to a monobloc filler/capper system from Acma USA that incorporates an18-head rotary net-weight filler and a 12-head rotary capper. In this monobloc machine, the filler and capper are mounted on a single base and are driven by a common motor and drive system. This has many benefits. 

By eliminating extended feed screws and unnecessary bottle handling, and by precisely matching the pitch between filler and capper, the monobloc configuration enhances the transfer process, thus eliminating feed screw spills and jams. It also enables both machines to have a common control cabinet and operator station and reduces floor space requirements.

A feed screw at the entrance of the filler meters the bottles into a star wheel that transfers the bottles onto individual plates on the rotating filler turret. A sensor at the turret inlet senses if a bottle is missing and signals that fill valve not to open. Each plate incorporates a load cell that weighs the empty bottle, after which the valve opens and dispenses product. When the load cell senses that the set weight of product is in the bottle, it closes the valve.

Typically, there is a small amount of product that is “in flight” after the valve closes, so the set weight is slightly less that the total required weight. The computer on the filler senses the weight in the bottle when the valve closes and the weight after the material in flight is in the bottle and adjusts the valve closing, so the correct final weight is in the bottle.

To further maximize the fill accuracy, the filler bowl is slightly pressurized to help push the product through the fill nozzle. The pressure depends on the viscosity of the product being filled. The filler operates at a fill accuracy of 0.2 percent, which on the 64-oz bubble bath bottles works out to +/-0.13 oz.

Surefil was not using the monobloc capper during PD’s visit, so the bottles discharged directly onto the take-away conveyor.

The monobloc unit is controlled by a personal computer and has an operator panel on a swiveling arm, where the adjustments and data for different types of bottles or products are input. The operating parameters are retained in memory and can be recalled by identifying the item.

Advanced CIP system
Surefil has instituted an advanced clean-in-place (CIP) system, called SureClean™, that is used on the piping bringing product to the filler. SureClean cleans, rinses and sanitizes all of Surefil’s mix and compounding vessels, process piping, hold tanks and fillers. Pressurized hot water rinses the system, while chemicals sanitize it.

The system incorporates a pipe-scraping system, called SurePig™, that consists of a flexible plug, called a “pig,” that is launched through the transfer pipe. The pig pushes all of the product in the pipe to a receiving vessel, where the product is captured. The pig is then launched back to its starting point. To further enhance cleanability, the product tank on the filler has an inverted-cone shaped bottom with the lowest zone around the perimeter where the fill valves are located. This ensures that product drains completely when it is emptied or cleaned. “We look at every possible means for reducing scrap,” says Hunt. “Our pigging system captures at least an additional 1 percent of product.”

From the filler, the bottles enter a 12-head capper that is equipped with an Omron Electronics, LLC, inspection unit at the capper exit that incorporates a model ZFV smart digital CCD vision sensor to inspect caps and cap placement. The system includes built-in lighting and an amplifier with embedded LCD monitor that provides real-time grayscale measurement displays to show good and bad caps.

The caps are dumped into a floor hopper, and a flighted conveyor carries them up and discharges into the rotating hopper, which orients the caps in the open-side down position. They then travel down a chute and are applied to the bottles in the capper.

Bottles leaving the capper travel over a twin-belt transfer unit from Certified Machinery Inc. that lifts the bottles off of the conveyor with side-gripping belts so that a Domino Amjet Inc. A-Series Plus inkjet printer can apply date and lot codes to the bottoms of the bottles.

Multiple case sizes
Next the bottles enter a Model 500 Autocapsealer from Marburg Industries Inc. that applies tamper-evident bands. Bottles enter the continuous machine through a wheel that spaces the bottles properly for band application. A photoeye after the wheel senses the presence of a bottle and triggers the band application. Band material is supplied on a roll, and a servo drive moves it through the cutting operation.

The tube of material is opened by cross creasing, and it is then cut to the proper length by a guillotine-style cutter. The opened, cut band is held by vacuum in a slightly cocked orientation above the conveyor so the leading edge of the moving bottle catches its front edge, and the band is then pushed fully onto the bottle by a plate attached to an air cylinder.

The machine is controlled by a PLC that is programmed with the length of the band and controls the servo drive. After the band is applied, the bottles travel through a heat tunnel that shrinks the bands.
The bottles are then conveyed to a Model 360D case packer from Hamrick Manufacturing & Service Inc. The bottles enter the unit single file and are separated into multiple lanes, where a pneumatic container-agitator assembly helps achieve consistent lane accumulation and prevents lane jams. The machine can have up to eight lanes, depending on the bottle size and configuration. To achieve wide-side case loading if desired for oval bottles, a 45-deg rail turns the bottles as they enter the lanes.

This D model machine incorporates microprocessor and servo technology in every area and is specifically suited to run non-round containers in pack patterns that are at least two wide.

The case packer and lane divider are under constant control from a PLC and control is derived from an internal software-based sequencer. Product changeover is expedited with up to 10 separate sets of timing values that are in the PLC and up to 255 unique lane positions in the servo-controlled divider.

The corrugated cases are erected by a machine from Pearson Packaging Systems. Case blanks are placed on an infeed conveyor and suction cups open the blank to form the case. The case travels through a section of timed flights where the bottom minor and then the major flaps are closed, after which it continues through the bottom-gluing zone. The infeed conveyor on the erector is more than 20 ft long to provide extra capacity for the case blanks, so that it can operate longer than a normal machine without running out of blanks.

The case erector is located outside the packaging room in the warehouse for sanitation reasons, and the cases are conveyed through the wall and enter the Hamrick case packer traveling in the same direction as the bottles, which are on the conveyor above them. The packer loads two cases at a time, so it releases two cases from the backup and a flight bar pushes them into the loading zone. Simultaneously, the machine releases enough bottles to fill the two cases, and they also travel into the drop zone and are held back by a gate. Once both the cases and bottles are in the proper position, a plate opens beneath the bottles and they drop into the case. The case is lifted and has just started back down as the bottles are released, thus cushioning the impact of the drop.

Synchronized operation  and communications
The filled cases are conveyed back through the wall to a Pearson top gluer. Both the case erector and the top gluer use hot glue from Nordson Corp. Cases leaving the top sealer travel past a Model 5200 hot stamp printer from Weber Marking Systems Inc. that is equipped with a ZebraTechnologies model 110PAX print head. After the label is printed with the date and lot code, it is stripped from the backing roll, and an arm swings out and applies it to the case as it passes on the conveyor.

Cases are then manually palletized, and the pallets are moved by a lift truck to a model Q-300XT stretch wrapper from Lantec. This machine is a huge time saver because workers can start the stretch wrapping cycle with a remote-start lanyard switch, and they are finished. The machine remotely attaches the film to the pallet, and then cuts it after the pallet is wrapped. The operator is free to do other things in the plant.

Bottle control critical
The new line features relatively closely spaced equipment with minimum accumulation between machines, so bottle control is critical. Surefil worked closely with systems integrator Feyen Zylstra LLC on the installation, integration and control sequence for the entire line.

For example, all of the machines are linked together and communicate with each other. Sensors located along the line sense bottle backups and adjust the speeds of the individual pieces of equipment accordingly. Thus, if bottles back up after the filler, it will slow down. If bottles back up ahead of the filler, the labeler will slow down, and so on. Feyen Zylstra installed an extra router for the line and networked all of the individual machines.

Surefil has standardized on controls from Rockwell Automation throughout the plant, and that continued for this line.

An interesting feature of the Surefil operation is the relatively small number of pallets stacked in the warehouse. To achieve this, Surefil maintains close communications with its customers and lets them know as soon as it has a truckload (26 pallets) of product ready to be shipped.

ACMA USA Inc. 804/794-6688,
Certified Machinery Inc., 609/912-0300. 
Domino Amjet Inc., 847/244-2501.
Feyen Zylstra LLC, 616/224-7707.
Hamrick Manufacturing & Services, Inc., 800/321-9590.  
Lantech, 800/866-0322.
New England Machinery Inc., 941/755-5550. 
Marburg Industries 760/727-3762. 
Omron Electronics, LLC, 800/556-6766.
Pearson Packaging Systems, 800/732-7766.
Rockwell Automation, 414/382-2000.
Shorewood Engineering Inc., 952/442-2526.
Weber Marking Systems Inc., 800/843-4242.
Zebra Technologies, 866/230-9494.


About the Author(s)

Jack Mans

Plant Operations Editor

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