October, 2001
page 66

Bottle and case coders identify liquor products

New bottling line runs five bottle sizes and more than 1,000 skus for contract bottler and packager, Frank-Lin Distillers.

Jack Mans, Plant Operations Editor Click Here to Email this Article  Click Here to Print this Article
From San Francisco to Taipei, and in more than 79 countries, Frank-Lin Distillers' products are warming up dinner and cocktail parties every day. This distilled-liquor-products specialist offers contract-packaging services that range from package and label design to large-scale bottling of favorite vodka brands. With an impressive assortment of distilled liquor tanks and eight automated bottling lines, Frank-Lin's San Jose, CA, plant produces more than five million cases of liquor products a year. To appeal to the largest possible customer base, Frank-Lin has invested in becoming a full-service company with import, export, wholesale and, of course, bottling and packaging functions. Frank and Lin Mastri's one-bottling-line distillery of the '60s is now a multimillion-dollar contract packager with more than 3,500 accounts, ranging from small Silicon Valley specialty liquor stores to Russian giants, and comprising 10,000 stockkeeping units.

These customer-oriented and full-service strategies make for an interesting production challenge: to keep accurate track of an incredible variety of products through quality control, using methods such as ink-jet coding. During the same shift and on the same bottling line, high-end 750-mL recyclable glass bottles of Tequila may be followed by 1.5-L recyclable polyethylene terephthalate bottles of Caribbean Rum, without a glitch. Frank-Lin adjusts its schedule every hour of the day to offer up to 35 different types of bottles. Attention to detail is of utmost importance in this plant. "If there were to be a manufacturing problem, we would have to identify it by the minute," explains Tony Molinaro, production manager at Frank-Lin.

Bottle and case printing is essential
Key steps in achieving this continuing identity are the bottle- and case-printing processes. "We are printing a production code on every bottle and on every case that is shipped. Those are just good manufacturing practices," says Molinaro. Bottle printing is performed by Imaje S4 1.1G small-character continuous ink-jet coders, while the shipping cases are identified with Imaje large-character high-resolution case coders. Full-service Frank-Lin now has a full-service coding partner with Imaje USA. "Our Imaje ink-jet coders have been working flawlessly since we acquired the first ones three years ago," says Molinaro. "The new large-character coders we just purchased from Imaje are also giving us very good print quality and so far are dependable."

Empty bottles, which are packed upside-down in RSC reshippers, gently drop out onto a takeaway conveyor, above, as the inverted cases are lifted into the air.
Each bottle is tracked thanks to its bottling line designation letter, the manufacturing Julian date, the last two digits of the production year and the time it was produced (military format). This is all placed in a code printed right above the label directly on the neck of the bottle, at speeds up to 280 bpm. "We like the Imaje ink that we use because it works on all of our recyclable glass and PET bottles. Some customers want a special code on the label also; we can do that with the same printer and the same ink. It helps us stay flexible and versatile in our manufacturing," Molinaro explains.

Each shipping case is identified with its bottling line designation letter, a sequential number and the packaging date, on one line. The second line of large, variable characters is used for specific customer information, product information and/or a bar code. "The Pulsar case coders give us the flexibility to print on any one of our shipping cases with a different code on every case," points out Molinaro. "They're more versatile than our older units, since they print bar codes, and are, of course, more economical than applying a different label on each case."

When quality control became a top priority a few years ago at the fast-growing distiller, the production team evaluated all major ink-jet coding suppliers on the market and ran extensive tests with each piece of equipment. This led to a unanimous recommendation for the S4 coder manufactured by Imaje. "The startup of the printer is excellent, as well as its operation in general," confirms Molinaro and his team. "No time is wasted in programming a new code or getting the printers started at the beginning of a shift. Our operators have been trained easily on the printers, even though they weren't familiar with the technology at all. We literally start our ink-jet coders in the morning and go away without a worry. We never have a coder problem."

A production code, which includes the bottling line designation and the packaging date along with other information, is printed on every bottle and case produced at Frank-Lin.
Constantly researching and testing new bottle and label designs, and new package materials and molding, with production efficiency and quality control in mind, Frank-Lin is counting on all its suppliers, including Imaje, to partner with them in making their products more appealing to consumers. "The look of the bottle plays a very important role in the purchasing-decision process when selecting a bottle of distilled liquor in the store. Our job is to make sure that the design is appealing to the consumer. Even the tiny ink-jet code on the bottle has to look good," says Molinaro.

New packaging line
Two of the Imaje printers are installed on Frank-Lin's newest packaging line, which started production in '00. The new line, which runs five bottle sizes at speeds up to 300 bottles per minute, replaced an old line running two bottle sizes at 130 bottles per minute. The line runs more than 1,000 skus, which means frequent changes. During PD's visit, the line began running 5 O'Clock gin and then was changed to Winnert's gin, both in 750-mL bottles.

A p-s labeler applies neck, front and back labels to bottles that require this type of label.
Empty bottles, which are delivered to the new line on pallets, are packed upside-down in RSC reshipper cases with unsealed tops. Workers place the cases on a conveyor that transports them up an incline to an overhead 180-deg turnover section, which places them on a conveyor feeding a Model 49 automatic uncaser from A-B-C Packaging Machine Corp. Cases are inverted with the unsealed side down, and are continuously fed into the uncaser's vertical unloading side belts without indexing (no gaps between cases). The vertical belts are rough, rubber-surfaced belts that are set to gently squeeze and grip the outside length of the case. The belts are easily crank-adjusted to handle different size cases. Prior to the case being lifted, the major flaps fall away approximately 45 deg or less to enable a package plate to slip between the major flaps and support the closed minor flaps and bottles. The major flaps are then plowed open to a vertical position. After the case's front edge and minor flap have passed over the edge of the package plate, the weight of the bottles pushes open the minor flaps, and the bottles gently drop onto the unloading belt. The bottles are routed out onto the single-filing table, and the empty cases are gradually lifted up toward the end of the uncaser by vertical side belts, to be tipped over another 180 deg onto the overhead empty-case takeaway conveyor. Cases land on the conveyor in the upright position with the sealed flaps resting on the conveyor. Empty cases go up an inclined conveyor to an overhead conveyor that takes them to the case packer.

A Tribloc combination system incorporates a cleaner, top, a filler, center, and a capper, bottom, all driven by a single drive shaft. The system operates at speeds of up to 260 bpm on 750-mL bottles.
Bottles travel single-file to a Tribloc combination cleaner/filler/capper system supplied by U.S. Bottlers Machinery Co. The system, which is designed to operate at speeds of up to 260 bpm on 750-mL bottles, consists of a DS-16 Sanitair air cleaner synchronized with a 42-valve pressure-gravity filler monoblocked to a 14-head rotary-chuck-style capper. A single motor drives the three machines from a common driveshaft. This Tribloc configuration enhances bottle handling, shortens time the product is exposed to air and reduces floorspace requirements. Another advantage of the Tribloc configuration is that all three machines have a common control cabinet and operator station.

The air cleaner uses a compressed air/vacuum process to ensure the most positive cleaning. Bottles are fed to the entrance starwheel of the unit through a feedscrew. As they enter the cleaner, a clamping bell descends and grips the top of the bottle, and an air tube enters the bottle, which is rotated into the upside-down position as the unit turns. When the bottle is in the vertical position, the central air-distributing valve releases compressed air to flush any particles. Simultaneously, a vacuum draws the air and particles back out of the bottle opening and into a collection bag located outside the machine cabinet.

The cleaner has a duplex station configuration that handles two bottles simultaneously in two 180-deg-opposed clamping bells. Bottles make two trips around the cleaner–one while the cleaning takes place, and a second trip during which they are turned upright. When one bell descends to pick up a bottle, the opposite bell is holding an inverted bottle. As the unit turns, and the one bottle is being inverted, the opposite bottle is turned upright for discharge. Bottles exit through a starwheel onto a conveyor with a synchronous feedscrew that delivers them to the filler.

Fill to level in a bottle
The pressure-gravity fillers fill to a consistent, pre-determined level in a bottle regardless of fluctuations in product or container characteristics, rather than filling a specific weight or volume of product. Thus, the U.S. Bottlers filler is particularly well suited for Frank-Lin, which wants all of the bottles to have the same product level. The unit at Frank-Lin incorporates a modified recirculating system in which product that overflows during filling is collected in a separate tank and then directed back to the main supply tank. In this operation, a level control actuates the fill valve in the supply tank and maintains the proper level in the tank. A centrifugal pump delivers product to the top of the filler to pressurize the piping, and the product is then dispersed by gravity through hoses to the individual filling stations.

Bottles are delivered to the 42-head, continuously rotating filler through a starwheel. As a bottle enters the machine, the filling valve descends onto the top of the bottle, and a dual tube-within-a-tube enters the bottle. The outer tube stops at the final fill level of product, while the inner tube continues down into the bottle and triggers product flow. The distance the outer tube penetrates into the bottle is adjusted to achieve the exact fill level desired. Filling continues as the table rotates, and when the level rises to the outer tube, product starts overflowing. The filling cycle is set so that the product reaches the overflow level as the filler rotation brings the bottle near the machine discharge starwheel, at which point the filling valve with the tubes is lifted out of the bottle, and filling stops. Bottles discharge through a starwheel, which delivers them directly into the 14-head, rotary-chuck-style capper. This close-coupled transfer is the essence of the monoblock system. By eliminating feedscrews and unnecessary bottle handling, and by precisely matching the pitch between filler and capper, the monoblock enhances the transfer process, reducing atmospheric exposure of product, and eliminating feedscrew spills and jams.

After a bottle enters the capper, a capping head descends and screws a cap onto the bottle. Caps, which are supplied in corrugated boxes by the Kerr Group, are dumped into a floor hopper. A flighted, inclined conveyor transports the caps up into a rotary centrifugal sorter that orients the caps and delivers them down a chute to the rotating cap pick-up star. The linerless polypropylene screw caps, which have a tamper-evident tear band, have an unscrewing-thread design that provides a tighter seal and a longer vertical closure length that fits further down onto the bottle.

Caps in the chute are fed to a gate system on the cap pick-up star. When a bottle arrives, a sensor opens the gate and triggers the cap to be fed to the cap feed star, which places it beneath the chuck. The chuck then picks up the cap, and a cam lowers the chuck assembly with the cap onto the bottle. The chuck rotates and screws the cap onto the bottle until the magnetic clutch reaches the set torque and slips. At this point, the chuck system opens and disengages, allowing the bottle to be transferred out of the capper. A separate spindle drive enables the chucks to rotate independently from the rotational speed of the capper turret. This allows for fine adjustment of the cap application speed to best fit the thread profile of the cap and bottle. The capper handles 18-, 28- and 33-mm caps as required by the different bottles run on the line.

Bottles discharge single-file from the capper and are conveyed past a five-lane, 18-ft-long accumulation conveyor. Bottle, case and accumulation conveyors were all supplied and installed by Pioneer Conveyor Co. Bottles that require pressure-sensitive labels then enter a PE Master labeler (represented by B&J; Machinery) that applies neck, front and back labels. This unit incorporates a side-spotting option that locks the bottle plate at the point of label application for more precise label registration and five axes of adjustment at each label station. Frank-Lin was not running bottles with p-s labels during PD's visit, so this machine was not in operation. However, an accompanying photo shows this labeler in operation at another time for Skyy vodka.

Gentle case packing
After moving through the PE labeler, bottles pass the Imaje S4 1.1G small-character continuous ink-jet printer that prints directly on the bottle as described previously. Bottles then travel around a 180-deg section of conveyor, pass another accumulation conveyor, and then go through an old three-station labeler, retained from the previous line, that applies front, back and neck labels with cold glue. In this operation, fingers pick labels out of magazines, wipe them across glue stations, and then swing in and apply them to the bottles that are passing by on the conveyor. Compression pads come in and press the labels into place, followed by swinging brushes that complete the label application.

After being labeled, bottles pass an inspection station where they are checked to see that lids and labels are applied properly, and then enter a Hartness 825 case packer. Bottles are directed into three lanes as they enter the packer, and when four bottles are assembled in each lane, the 12 bottles are released into the packing section. These bottles are sturdy and easy to handle, so the machine does not incorporate Hartness's unique air-transfer section, which uses inflatable air bags to transport the product over the grid zone. The back pressure of the accumulating bottles is sufficient to push the bottles into place.

Empty cases from the unloader are delivered to the packer and released individually beneath the packing zone. When the bottles are ready to be packed, an elevator raises the empty case so that grid fingers enter the partitions. These rigid fingers are designed with the points together to help prepare the pockets to receive the bottles, and to direct the bottles into the pockets. The plate holding the bottles then retracts, and the bottles drop through the fingers into the partitions in the case.

As the bottles drop, the case lowers to cushion the fall. This motion is part of Hartness's "super-soft" case platform, which includes pneumatic shock absorbers beneath the platform that further cushion the bottles as they drop into the case.

The next step in the packaging line is the Belcor BEL 252 automatic case taper. The BEL 252 is configured to seal "top only" in this application, as the cases have been previously bottom-sealed as part of the bottle supply process. The sealer features a patented synchronized side belt drive and safe "snap-folder" technology to ensure square cases and accurate, straight taping. The BEL 252 incorporates Dekka Industries tape heads with Sentry III sensors and a light tower that alert operators of potential low-tape, no-tape and tape-not-cut issues.

The case packer features a "super-soft" case platform, with pneumatic shock absorbers beneath the platform that cushion the bottles as they drop into the case.
Finished cases were being hand-palletized during PD's visit, but the plant is in the process of installing three new Currie Model LSP-8 (DR) automatic palletizers, which will be in a new warehouse and distribution center on the other side of a main railroad line from the manufacturing plant. Cases from each of the eight packaging lines will be elevated on Currie Model CE-3 case elevators to approximately 25 ft above the floor, and then accumulated and/or conveyed on overhead conveyors. Full palletloads of accumulated case products will be released to two of the three main transport conveyors by the conveyor control system. These conveyors will transport the product over an enclosed bridge that will connect the production plant with the warehouse. Accumulated product loads will then be delivered to two of the palletizers, and the transport conveyor carrying cases from the new line described in this feature will be able to deliver product to any of the three palletizers. The palletizers will automatically select the proper palletizing patterns based on communications with the conveyor control system. In addition to the palletizers, elevators and pallet conveyors, Currie Machinery Co. is also supplying supplementary equipment and controls, by others, for a complete turnkey system. This operation will be covered in detail in a future issue of PD.

More information is available:

Ink-jet printers: Imaje USA, 678/296-2202. Circle No. 242.

Case unloader: A-B-C Packaging Machinery Corp., 813/937-5144. Circle No. 243.

Tribloc cleaner, filler, capper: U.S. Bottlers Machinery Co., 704/588-4750. Circle No. 244.

Caps: Kerr Group, Inc., 717/299-6511. Circle No. 245. Conveyors: Pioneer Conveyor, 408/842-1212. Circle No. 246.

Labeler: PE Labelers, 39/376 39 97 41. Circle No. 247.

Labeler representative: B&J; Machinery, 513/771-7374. Circle No. 248.

Case packer: Hartness Intl., Inc., 864/297-1200. Circle No. 249.

Taper: Belcor Industries, 604/270-0811. Circle No. 250.

Tape heads, sensors: Dekka Industries, 604/278-7881. Circle No. 251.

Palletizers, elevators, conveyors, controls: Currie Machinery Co., 408/727-0422. Circle No. 252.