Automation Shifts Packaging into High Gear

by William Leventon

 

If you can afford it, a form-fill-seal machine could supercharge your packing process.

A manufacturer laid out its situation for Patrick Lennon: The company had 50 people at 50 hand-packing stations who took two hearing protectors, put them into a bag, sealed the bag, and dropped it onto a conveyor. The conveyor carried the bags to another worker who packed them into a box.

"What can you do for me?" the manufacturer asked Lennon, product manager–medical for Circle Packaging Machinery Inc. (Green Bay, WI).

As many as 50 pack designs can be stored in the memory of Doyen Medipharm's four-side-seal machine for automatic pouching of wound-care dressing.

What Lennon did was help define an automation plan for his packaging operation. As part of that plan, Circle Packaging Machinery proposed a pouch form-fill-seal machine to package 600 sets of earplugs per minute—and cut the head-count on its packaging line from more than 50 people to less than five.

Stories like this aren't unusual, according to Lennon. "There are usually huge productivity increases when you go from manual to automatic packaging," he says.

Spurred by the prospect of such increases, many medical device manufacturers are switching to form-fill-seal. Considering the switch yourself? Despite the attractions of form-fill-seal, the decision to purchase a machine isn't one to be taken lightly. And if you do decide to buy, there are a few things you should know that will help you avoid problems and get the most out of the technology.

HOW IT WORKS

Instead of using premade packages, form-fill-seal machines create packages with rollstock materials. Film is pulled into the machine, heated, and formed into cavities. At the next station, packaging personnel or machines load products into the cavities. To complete the process, a top web is pulled over the bottom, and the two parts of the package are heat sealed together. Machines that do this are sometimes called thermoformers.

Some people expand the form-fill-seal category to include pouch machines. These machines form open bags, which are then filled and sealed.

Key International's Enflex F-14 form-fill-seal machine handles up to 60 pouches per minute.

When it comes to packaging speed, form-fill-seal easily beats manual processes. "It can go like a shot," says Earl Hackett, a research associate for DuPont Tyvek's medical packaging group (Wilmington, DE). According to Hackett, form-fill-seal can cut packaging time by 50% or more.

Besides speeding up the packing process, form-fill-seal reduces the number of people on the packaging line, thereby cutting per-pack labor costs. The idea of faster, less labor-intensive packaging appealed to R-Group International (Gainesville, FL), which decided to use form-fill-seal to package its medical tubing sets. "We feel we can get more product volume with fewer employees," says Darren Kahn, R-Group's sales manager.

Form-fill-seal also offers users lower material costs. "The cost of a roll is significantly less than preformed packaging per thousand square inches of packaging material," notes Lynn Damske, vice president of sales and marketing for Hayssen Inc. (Duncan, SC), a maker of form-fill-seal machines.

By eliminating premade containers, form-fill-seal eliminates the complications they add to the manufacturing process. "If you're dealing with containers of any kind, you have to buy them, store them, inventory them, track them, protect them," says Bruce Teeling, manager of form-fill-seal products at Key International Inc. (Englishtown, NJ). "With a form-fill-seal machine, you form packs as you need them. You don't have to warehouse 100,000 pieces of a rigid container."

What's more, you don't have to worry about obsolescence. "If marketing says they want to give 10 or 20% more of something to the consumer, you'd have to redesign and refabricate those rigid premade containers," Teeling notes. With form-fill-seal, by contrast, "you just go to your packaging machine and put in a set of change parts. Then you turn a few knobs, and instead of a 4 x 8 container, you make it a 5 x 8 container."

Container size often shrinks when form-fill-seal replaces manual packaging. By forming the cavity to fit your product, "you can minimize the size of your package," says Wil Caraballo, technical manager for the medical division of Multivac Inc. (Kansas City, MO), a manufacturer of form-fill-seal machines. "So you save in cartoning and shipping space. That's one of the main advantages of form-fill-seal."

Form-fill-seal could also save floor space if you have to expand your packaging operation. "If you need to go from a million to 10 million packs a year, you'd have to hire a lot of people to do that manually, and they'd take up a lot of space," says Ray Johnson, president of Doyen Medipharm Inc. (Lakeland, FL), which sells packaging machines to the medical industry. But if you bought the right machine, Johnson says, the same unit that's cranking out a million packages a year can crank out 10 million a year—without the aid of additional workers.

Johnson also thinks form-fill-seal offers more-consistent package quality than manual methods. "Human intervention leads to human errors," he points out. "But if you have a machine that's fully validated and 100% repeatable, you're much less likely to have any critical package defects."

Kahn is impressed with the form-fill-seal packages he's seen. "It's a much cleaner, neater package for some of the products we make," he says.

POTENTIAL DOWNSIDES

But those clean, neat packages come at a hefty price—one that starts at about $200,000 or so. Form-fill-seal machines "are very expensive pieces of hardware," Hackett notes. As such, they make financial sense only for high-volume packaging operations, where savings in material and labor costs will allow purchasers to recoup their investment fairly quickly.

According to Johnson, most manufacturers won't buy a form-fill-seal machine unless they expect a payback in two years or less. A machine packaging a few million units a year usually pays for itself in that time, he claims.

The price of a form-fill-seal machine depends on the extent to which the equipment automates the packaging process. Some machines, for example, require manual loading, while others are well suited for automatic loading. "All the machine types could be highly automated or highly manual," Johnson says. "More automation drives the price up."

And the financial hit is immediate. Before the machine is even delivered, buyers usually have to put down a 50% deposit. To lessen the financial strain, some sellers offer leasing arrangements with an option to buy the machine at the end of the lease.

Circle Packaging Machinery's form-fill-seal machine packs catheters, gloves, and other medical devices.

 

There are other downsides to form-fill-seal besides high up-front costs. According to Caraballo, the current technology can't handle rigid films as well as processes that produce preformed trays. As a result, he says, the material distribution and overall quality of preformed trays are better than anything form-fill-seal can deliver, though new form-fill-seal technology is closing the gap.

For Damske, the main disadvantage of form-fill-seal is "the limited number of packaging styles you're stuck with." You may be out of luck, he says "if you want a different style of package—for shelf presence, easy reclosability, easy opening, or whatever the reason." Package designers could get past such limitations, notes Lennon, by "clearly identifying the package style that will demand the volume of packages to financially justify the project." If the volume of packages or the package design is in question, a copacker may be useful for test markets and market introduction, Lennon says. "If future package designs obsolete the present package design, customer requirements and a financial justification would need to be completed.

If for no other reason, cost alone certainly justifies caution when deciding whether to buy a form-fill-seal machine. For those who aren't quite ready to take the plunge, there's another option to consider: contract packaging. Sometimes, says Johnson, a small manufacturer whose budget is too tight for a form-fill-seal machine will turn to a contract packager. The manufacturer does so in the hope that its production volume will eventually increase to the point where it can afford to bring the packaging operation in-house.

There are other reasons to opt for contract packagers. For example, a manufacturer that is introducing a new product might not want to take the financial risk of immediately buying an expensive machine to package it. "What if you buy all this [form-fill-seal] equipment and the product bombs? Now what do you do with this equipment?" says Teeling. "So instead, you go to a contract packager to minimize your exposure for the project."

Despite the possible advantages, Teeling says some manufacturers will never go the contracting route. "They want to make the product in their house, and they want to package the product in their house. They don't want anybody outside of their approved people touching the product."

AUTOMATION CONSIDERATIONS

For manufacturers who decide to tackle automated packaging themselves, there are many things to consider. First and foremost, they have to figure out what packaging material to use. Film that is drawn into a machine will thin out considerably, according to Hackett. "You might start out with a 7-mil-thick polymer, but if you have a really deep draw, you might have 1 or 2 mils left in the corner, so it really thins out," he says.

"The corners are the weakest spots. You have to make sure they're strong enough to withstand impacts and loads put on them during shipping."

An operator loads a Multivac machine with medical products.

 

To prevent packages from being punctured in the corners, Hackett recommends three potential courses of action. Manufacturers can (1) use more of a less-expensive material that thins out fairly quickly, (2) use less of a more-expensive material that does a better job of maintaining its thickness, or (3) use a thin layer of expensive material that is sandwiched between two layers of less-expensive material.

What about the material you used in your manual packaging process? For a variety of reasons, it may not be suitable for a packaging machine. For example, if your pouch material can't be melted, it can't be used in a thermoformer. "That means you may have to go through a whole FDA approval process on new materials again when you go to an automated machine," Johnson says.

Besides changing your materials, form-fill-seal will change your labor force. "You're going to have fewer people handling products and more people monitoring processes," says Lennon. "You're going to lose head count because of the loss of manual labor. The head count that remains will be more highly skilled and better trained."

Repair and maintenance skills are crucial to the success of automated packaging operations. "Packaging machines need to be adjusted, calibrated, and maintained on a regular basis or they're not going to produce good-quality packages," Johnson says. "Although the machines are very intelligent, no machine is smart enough to maintain itself."

Another consideration for those switching to automated packaging is the equipment that will interact with the form-fill-seal machine. Though tempting, it may not be wise to link your new form-fill-seal machine to automated feeders and cartoners right away. "People love fully integrated lines when their volumes are big and it works right, but for manufacturers just starting out it can be a major challenge," says Johnson, who advises smaller manufacturers to start with manual feeding and cartoning until their labor force has digested the new technology.

Since they carry such a hefty price tag, form-fill-seal machines should meet your packaging needs for many years. But it's important to take a good look ahead before you buy. When Garden State Nutritionals (West Caldwell, NJ) was shopping for a form-fill-seal machine, the company's top priority was diversity. "We had to make sure we had something that could handle everything that was requested of us," says Bill Howard, the company's manager of packaging technology.

Now, though, Howard gets requests that his packaging machine is not equipped to handle. "If we had predicted this three years ago, perhaps we would have stepped up to a larger, more diverse machine," he says.

The lesson? "You have to roll with the punches of the industry. If your machine can't do that, you're going to end up getting duplicate machines. So try to plan for what you think the future may hold."

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