Increased product demand, the need to increase worker safety and improve the look of the package drove Swisher International Inc. to automate their mail pouch tobacco line.
Swisher International’s business in the Mail Pouch tobacco market has been steadily changing over the past few years. Their traditional business has been in a 12 count vertical display carton. The growing demand has come from new two count (Buy one/Get one free) and the three count (Buy two/Get one free) products. The new promotional packaging was initiated by Swisher International to increase its own market share in the category as well as increase overall volume. As demand increased, it became clear Swisher International needed to move from a manual packaging line to an automated solution and they turned to BluePrint Automation, based in Colonial Heights, Va., to help them make the move.
One of the largest manufacturers of cigars and smokeless tobacco in the world, Swisher has been in business for over 141 years. The company manufactures cigar brands such as King Edward, Swisher Sweets and Optimo, handmade and imported cigars such as Bering, Siglo 21 and Macbeth; and a smokeless tobacco line that includes Silver Creek, Redwood and Kayak moist snuff and loose chewing tobacco brands such as Lancaster, Mail Pouch and Chattanooga Chew.
In addition to working to meet the increased consumer demand, Swisher was also trying to improve worker safety with the new line. “Swisher International is safety conscious. We looked at the ergonomics of the way that we were handling the packaging in the packing operation and in the promotions area. Both these areas were highly repetitive hand and wrist motions. Sales and marketing were also looking at how to better present our products at the retail level. This automation was able to achieve these goals,” says Greg Vike, plant manager at Swisher’s Wheeling, W. Va. facility.
Swisher’s Mail Pouch tobacco line was traditionally a manual operation. The product was packed into 12-count cartons, regardless of whether 12-count, two-count or three- count was needed for the retail channel. When the two-count and three-count was required, the 12-count cartons would be manually opened, pouches repacked (with tape) into two- and three-counts and reloaded into the opened cartons. This was all done with temporary help, as the demand for these new products was low. This process resulted in tape covering the entire label to be sold on the shelves of convenience stores. Consumers liked the pricing of the two for one packages and three for two packages but did not like having the product taped together. Over the next few years the demand for this product grew to almost 50 percent of the business. Spurred by a successful project in 2004 to automatically produce the same type of deals in their snuff can tobacco category, Swisher International embarked on automating the Mail Pouch production.
CREATING THE WINNING CONCEPT
BluePrint Automation had been working with Swisher International since 1999, providing budgetary concepts to pack the 12-count displays. In early 2005 the relationship between Swisher International and BluePrint Automation jelled when Swisher decided they needed to automate, and asked BluePrint to provide a solution. Swisher wanted one line with the capability to package all three formats, and they also wanted the two- and three-count deals to be packed into individual cartons for product presentation.
“Swisher wanted to create a system that could easily run and changeover from the new two and three count designs to the existing 12-count cartons,” says Rocco Fucetola, northeast regional sales manager for BluePrint Automation, and the lead project manager for the new line. “The challenge was to size the two- and three-count cartons so that the finished tray would be the same size as the existing 12-count carton. The entire automated line needed to be just as efficient as the manual packing operation to meet Swisher’s standard production numbers. And since the manual packaging operation was 100 percent efficient, our challenge was to design a line that met these numbers.”
The initial goal was to have all three cartons packed into the same size case, for ease of shipping, distribution, etc. Both BluePrint and Swisher International worked together to develop a tray that the two and three count cartons would be placed into. The tray size would be similar to the 12-count carton size. Therefore, six, two-count cartons or four, three-count cartons would be loaded into the tray. The tray would then be overwrapped before being case packed.
BluePrint put a concept together using as many standard components as possible from industry leading manufacturers. The line incorporates equipment from at least 11 different suppliers including Garvey Corporation, Shanklin, a division of Sealed Air Corporation, Wexxar Packaging Inc., Kliklok-Woodman, Nordson Corporation, Label-Aire Inc., Mettler-Toledo High-Speed, Alpha Checkweighers, Videojet Technologies Inc. and Rockwell Automation/Allen-Bradley. Another key player was Rex Corporation, based in Harrinton Park, N.J., supplying the cartons.
“Rex Corporation had prior experience working with Swisher and supplying materials for their products. Their immediate response time during the carton and tray design enabled the project to continually move forward,” Fucetola says.
BluePrint’s experience in handling pouches, from the Bartelt pouch form/fill/sealers to the carton loaders was instrumental in keeping 240 pouches per minute under control. Each Bartelt produces 60 ppm. The design was to have two Bartelts feed one BluePrint carton loader. Each in-feed had to use a merge table allowing two random inputs of pouches at 60 ppm each, with a net out-feed of 120 ppm. Engineered with a range of top-performing attributes, the PLC-controlled Inline 9000 has two product sensors, one positioned upstream at the input side and one downstream at the exhaust side, tied into the PLC. The machine ramps up and down automatically. If there is a bottleneck at the filler, for example, the Inline 9000 delays labeling until the line starts moving again.
The overall system uses four gantry pick and place machines from BluePrint (two carton loaders, one tray loader and one case packer). The machines are similar in design, with common components that can be shared for each operation. “The line uses one common platform for all loading machines,” Fucetola says.
The carton loaders use BluePrint’s pick and place top loader, with a twist. Since there are two formats for loading the different products, BluePrint designed the system to handle all the pouches with the Smart-Trak collation system. When packing the two- and three-count cartons, the inside leg of the in-feed is used to place the pouches flat into the Smart-Trak system.
These pouches are then picked flat and placed flat into the waiting cartons. Every layer is rotated 90 degrees in the opposite direction to nest the pouches, making as small a carton as possible. When packing the 12-count cartons, the outside leg of the in-feed is used to place the pouches into the flights, but over the sprocket end of the conveyor. As the Smart-Trak conveyor indexes forward (the rest of the way around the sprocket) the pouches naturally stand up. Once twelve are collated, the pattern is also picked and top loaded into the waiting carton. Therefore, upon opening the cartons, the two- and three-count pouches lay flat in the carton while the 12-count pouches stand-up.
Feeding each BluePrint carton loader is a Kliklok SR4WD carton former. These machines are designed for quick changeover, using change part sets as opposed to manual adjustment. The formers use a double head system for the two- and three-count cartons to keep up with the necessary rate of 60 cartons per minute. The 12-count carton uses a single head design, because the carton rate is ten cartons per minute. “Working with BluePrint, we selected the SR family of large format carton formers, two of which produce lock formed cartons for the primary packaging of the tobacco products, and the other one which was used for glue forming a master pack carton,” says Ross Long, vice president of sales and marketing for Kliklok Woodman based in Decatur, Ga. The filled cartons exit the BluePrint carton loaders and proceed to the Kliklok Vari-Right top closers. These closers are designed with a Charlotte transfer system to make the process of sealing the end flaps very easy. “With respect to the Vari-Right carton closers, our variable flight technology ensured positive carton control and easy integration to a variable carton supply from the BluePrint robotic loading solution,” Long says.
Once filled and sealed, the finished cartons have one of two places to go. For the two- and three-count cartons, the cartons stand up on their edge and are accumulated into the BluePrint tray loader. The tray loader either picks six, two- count cartons, or four, three-count cartons and top loads them directly into a similar sized tray.
After filling, the cartons pass through a Model MW-16 checkweigher from Alpha Checkweighers based in Exton, Pa. The checkweigher detects missing pouches, and kicks any cartons off the line that do not have the correct number of pouches per carton. “The checkweigher was added as an extra quality check after the line was up and running. The simplicity of our checkweighers allowed the customer to set up the equipment without incurring the cost of having us send a service technician to do the installation and set-up,” says Jack Jones, vice president, sales, Alpha Checkweighers.
Once again, a Kliklok SR4WS tray former was used to erect the empty trays. This system is almost identical to the carton formers, other than it is a glue system. “The unique advantage [of this system] is that both the two lock formers and the glue former share common design features, but are used to produce two different types of cartons (lock and glue form). This helps standardize the integration of the line, and speed-up operator and maintenance training on a new packaging line for Swisher,” Long says.
The filled trays exit the BluePrint tray loader to be overwrapped and heat-sealed in a Shanklin Triumph L-Barsealer and T7LX tunnel. The initial challenge was that the packages were getting “dog eared,” according to Kristina Rossiter, SPD territory manager, Sealed Air Corporation headquartered in Riverfront, N.J. “We went in and did an audit and found that the bag length was too long. We made a minor adjustment and the package looked great. We also made three or four additional adjustments to make the wrapper run smoothly. We set these new adjustments up as recipes in the system so they are easy to access,” Rossiter says.
The new equipment brought Swisher up to speed. “The Triumph allowed Swisher to obtain speeds of up to 35 packs per minute,” Rossiter says. In addition to upgrading the equipment, Rossiter and her team suggested a change to single wound (SW) film, D955 60 gauge, instead of the center fold (CF) product they were using to reduce the number of roll changes needed.
The SW roll is 8,750 linear feet, while the CF web is only 4,370 linear feet. Swisher could use either. For example, if the package required 12 inch wide rolls of shrink film when using CF product, it would use 24 inch wide rolls of shrink film when using the SW product. “Because the CF product is folded, it has two layers for every revolution on the roll. Thus a SW roll is approximately two times the length, reducing changeovers by 50 percent,” explained Jeff Potts, director of marketing, Sealed Air Corporation. Both the finished wrapped trays of two- and three-count cartons and the finished 12-count cartons are transferred on a common conveyor to a BluePrint pick and place side load case packer. This system was designed, through the product, carton and tray sizing, to not need any changeover.
A Wexxar glue case erector and Belcor top glue case closer were used for the erecting and closing of the shipper cases.
Garvey Corporation provided the pouch, carton and tray conveying from the vertical form fill and seal machines to the carton loaders from both empty and filled cartons. “Garvey’s modular conveyor design helped to overcome system layout adjustments during and after installation,” Fucetola says.
Swisher needed the ability to smoothly handle their products throughout the line with minimal changeover time. “We provided a high quality custom conveyance and diversion system that not only performs its function, but also leaves the room in case the market dictates changes in the line,” says Ben Garvey, engineering manager, Garvey Corporation headquartered in Blue Anchor, N.J.
Over 300 feet of Garvey stainless steel conveyors from their 9600 Series can run anywhere from 15 to 80 feet per minute, depending on function and line conditions. “Swisher needed to be able to divert pouches between numerous filling and packing lines. The diversion system we designed gently moves pouches from one line to another without damaging the package and provides 100 percent changeover repeatability,” Garvey says. “Accessibility was also an issue in some areas, requiring conveyors to run over top of machines and each other. Taking good dimensions and planning up front always pays off in the end.”
This was a lot of equipment to visualize on a piece of paper. Swisher visited BluePrint Automation to gain a closer understanding of certain details. This visit not only made the formal introduction between the companies, but also gave BluePrint the chance to provide assurances through some prototyping done in advance. The trip also included a visit to Kliklok to see a test of the cartons being formed and closed.
In July of 2005 Swisher International selected BluePrint Automation to provide the overall system.
Once the project began, a project book was created, with copies for each major contributor to the system – Swisher, BluePrint, Kliklok, Garvey and Rex. In addition to the normal purchase order item and terms and conditions, this project book also included speed/performance guarantees, carton/tray/case specification, overall project layout, testing and installation phase drawings and a matrix of each piece of machinery (size, weight, utilities). This project book became the bible for the project.
Weekly update meetings were held on Wednesday mornings. Each meeting reviewed designs, schedules and any other issues related to a project of this size. The meeting minutes, updated schedules and continually revised layouts were posted on a secure website. The website was password protected to allow only the involved parties access.
The weekly project management meetings and engineering staff at BluePrint resulted in a relatively flawless execution of the project. Every milestone for schedule was met. Preliminary trips were made to both Garvey and Kliklok to review the equipment before it was shipped to BluePrint for acceptance testing assembly. Each phase of the system was set up entirely at BluePrint for acceptance testing and de-bug and each section (three total) left BluePrint on, or ahead of, schedule.
The first two phases installed were designed in such a way to allow Swisher to keep running normal production during the install. The most complicated portions of the system were able to run a month before the line was to be running production.
As the installation was completed and production started, there were some obvious hurdles. The Swisher and BluePrint personnel worked side by side for a few weeks to iron out just about every bug and have the system perform at the rate and efficiency Swisher needed to keep up with demand. “This is an example of a highly integrated system, which is only as successful as the weakest link. On that premise, BluePrint sourced the leading suppliers of the basic equipment to ensure the highest possible level of success,” Kliklok’s Long says. “And I would say that, acting as an integrator of best-in-class packaging machines, BluePrint demonstrated the value of an autonomous integrator as opposed to single companies which try and fit their own machinery solutions to specialized applications.”
The system has been running since the summer of 2006. The demand for the new two and three count cartons is soaring. This business is now more than 60 percent of the overall demand. The overall demand has increased to the point that a third leg (carton form/load/close) has been placed on order to bring the total pouches per minute up to 360.
The tray forming/loading/wrapping and case erecting/packing sealing portions of the system were initially designed with the ability to increase the overall speed by 50 percent, one of the key details that came out of one of the weekly meetings.
The Swisher Mail Pouch packaging line shows that moving from a manual packaging operation to full automation can be done successfully with the right team in place, the right technology for the application and clear lines of communication. As the demand for the Swisher Mail Pouch products continues to increase, Swisher and BluePrint are currently working on adding two additional lines to the operation, bringing the total number of packaging lines to six.
Published in PMT (Packaging Machinery Technology), November/Decmeber 2007. Written by Maria Ferrante, Editorial Director.