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Technologies boost packaging efficiency

Technologies boost packaging efficiency
The experts at Omron reckon that effective use of remote diagnostics, servo-based positioning systems and vision systems could all help to boost packaging machine efficiency.

It\'s very easy to state that efficiency is a primary goal for all users of packaging machinery, and there are few who would argue with this statement. But what are the key factors that influence machine efficiency? Out of the many possible answers, Omron suggests that three of the most important factors are downtime due to faults, time lost during product changeovers, and reject rates. Fortunately, these are all areas where modern technology can deliver significant improvements.

A very effective way of reducing downtime due to faults, for example, is the use of remote diagnostics. Essentially, this involves providing the machine\'s control system with a communication facility that allows a service engineer to connect to it and interrogate it from a remote location. This means that many types of fault can be diagnosed and corrected without the need for the engineer to make a site visit, resulting in big time and cost savings. Even if a site visit does prove necessary, the information about the fault provided by the remote diagnostics facility will enable the engineer to remedy the fault more quickly when they reach site, as well as helping them to be sure that they have with them any replacement parts that may be needed to correct the fault.

The best remote diagnostic implementations are those based on a holistic approach that uses open networking technologies to integrate all of the major elements of the control system including, PLCs, HMIs, motion controllers and visual inspection systems. This approach allows all essential machine data to be accumulated at a single point, making remote access much easier and more effective. Machine downtime due to faults is one concern, but lost time during product changeovers is just as costly and inconvenient. The solution is to automate changeovers by, for example, using servo drives to reposition moveable stops rather than requiring operators to reposition them manually. The control system can also be designed to store all of the information that the machine needs to handle each type of product.

Simple machine reconfiguration
If this approach is well implemented, it can often be made possible for operators to change between products with no more than a single keystroke or a single touch on an HMI screen. This simple action initiates the required reconfiguration process, which is typically completed in just a few tens of seconds without the need for further operator intervention. This single-key set up can cover every aspect of machine operation including, for example, motion, position and temperature control and automated visual inspection. It is also possible to take this approach further by using a barcode or RFID system that allows the machine to recognise products and configure itself automatically. Such an arrangement offers the fastest possible and most efficient changeovers, as no operator intervention is needed.

While remote access and single-key set up are very effective ways of boosting the up time of packaging machines, they are of limited value if the machine delivers a high rate of reject packs. The situation is even worse if the defective packs remain undetected as, in today\'s litigious society, the legal penalties for supplying incorrectly packed or labelled products are often draconian. The best solution is 100% inspection but human inspectors are costly and, because of the repetitive nature of the work, are never totally reliable. 

A much better and more cost-effective approach is automated inspection implemented with a machine vision system. In the past, these systems have had the reputation for being expensive and difficult to configure, but with the latest generation of products, these concerns are no longer valid. Modern systems are very cost effective, especially when considered in relation to the costs that can be associated with defective packs reaching the market. 

In addition, vision system user interfaces are now much more intuitive and can integrate seamlessly into the overall control system - they make it easy for users to set up the system to suit their own specific needs without requiring them to have expert knowledge in areas such as lighting, optics and filtering. Some machine vision systems now also provide support for full colour imaging. While in many packaging applications this may not, at first, seem to be an essential requirement, in practice it makes many types of inspection easier to implement and much more reliable.

Machine vision is, of course, an effective way of detecting and rejecting defective packs but, by logging detailed information about the types of defects it detects, a well-implemented system can do much more. Both the machine user and the machine supplier can make use of this information to fine-tune the machine\'s operation so that the defect rate is minimised. This is an important step along the route toward the universal goal of achieving zero defects.

Packaging can in some ways be seen as a necessary evil. Though it can rarely be eliminated, it adds cost to products, it provides opportunities for defects to occur and, if the packaging system is working badly or not at all, it can disrupt production. As we have seen, modern automation technology provides solutions to address all of these issues. It is, however, essential to choose the right technology, and to ensure that it is correctly applied. In achieving these objectives, advice and guidance from an expert supplier with proven experience in the packaging sector, such as Omron, is invaluable.
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