I just returned from Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, WI, and today’s Converting Influence meeting. Theme for the half-day conclave: “Automation, Efficiency and The Next Big Thing.” Forthwith, here are synopses of the panelists’ presentations:
Dale Helgren, director of mfg. for HiTech Manufacturing Solutions, Inc. (Green Bay, WI), says his firm fills in where the OEMs leave off, providing automation that gets everything to work well together. Robotics are entering the converting industry now, partly due to the higher number of shorter runs and greatly reduced cost of robotics in the past five years. In Helgren’s experience, customers want a one-year ROI, maybe 18 months, so automation must be flexible to achieve this goal.
There has also been a sea change in the use of machine vision on converting and packaging lines, he said, with 50 percent of the supplier’s jobs now making use of it because of the wide variety of product/package sizes and shapes. High-speed pick-and-place robots tied to machine-vision systems mean fewer people are needed. He also mentioned how automation and inspection are becoming required as final product/packaging quality must be perfect today. (Walmart has zero tolerance to damaged or imperfect packages, rejecting entire truckloads in the process.)
Tom Johnson, president of Papersoft (Pelham, AL), listed seven mistakes companies make by not using software automation. 1) You don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, not using available technology immediately puts you behind the curve. 2) Lack of real-time inventory knowledge (for example, roll widths, weights, etc.) means making the wrong decisions about what to manufacture and how much of it. 3) Software needs to be integrated so that decisions across the company are correct. 4) It’s hard to make “off-the-shelf” software automation work. It just doesn’t know your business or products well enough. Johnson said his company has even replaced the vaunted SAP for some clients. 5) Lack of real-time data analysis means it’s impossible to make decisions based on what’s happening right now. You need costs-of-goods sold daily or even hourly, or by customers or product grade. 6) Automated data collection is vital today. You just can’t rely on handwritten notes or data anymore. Operators often can’t be bothered or can fudge the numbers. 7) Using non-professional (your son’s college roommate) or outsourced/outside-the-industry software usually translates into costly maintenance and frequent revisions.
Kim Johnson of Multi-Conveyor LLC (Winneconne, WI) said, in essence, that efficiency is the whole idea behind conveyors in the first place. They provide customized orientation of product at the right speed and with the right spacing, making any downstream operation easier, faster and more efficient.
While Multi-Conveyor’s main business remains tissue and sanitary products, it’s seeing strong growth in the food, food-processing and pharmaceutical fields as well. For the paper industry, in particular, many applications have centered on upgrades and retrofits to existing lines during the recent economic downturn. Payback has always been a top customer goal, Johnson said, and a good ROI based on achieving the job’s criteria equals future success.
Doug Brown, president of Biax-FiberFilm (Greenville, WI), revealed the latest breakthroughs in The Next Big Thing: sustainable, renewable meltblown nonwoven materials. Unlike spunbonded nonwovens, meltblown-produced nonwovens have traditionally been weak although very fine-grained. His company has developed the newest meltblown materials to be much stronger in a monolayer substrate by biaxially-orienting them in the cross-direction incrementally across the web (called Microspan Stretching).
Sustainable developments include adding polylactic-acid (PLA) resins to the standard PE, PP and nylons. Also new cellulosic fibers in a wet-process solution, meltblown, then dried are yielding a 100-percent renewable nonwoven that has 1-micron fibers (vs. 15-micron for spunbonded) and with tensile strength 300-percent higher than synthetic nonwovens. Potential applications: dry and wet wipes, food-product absorbent pads, medical gowns or blankets, and the burgeoning filtration market.
My Thoughts: It was a long way to go for a half-day outing (300 miles roundtrip) but well worth it. In addition to the information-packed 90-min panel, there were about 10 tabletop exhibits and a tour of FVTC’s Bordini Center of packaging graphics and print production. That site is seeing a strong resurgence in business and industry operator training since January 1 as package printers and converters are investing again in their employees’ skill sets and operations. Let’s hope that only speeds up even more as the economy rebounds.