As machinery manufacturers, NPACK Packaging Specialists seldom have a conversation about liquid fillers without discussing automation. The level of automation necessary for any given product will depend in part not only on how many bottles a packager needs to fill at present, but expectations for future demand as well. In general, automation levels include semi-automatic and automatic models, though many other factors play a part in choosing the correct equipment. Assuming a company is currently hand filling a product, let's take a look at how their automation levels may change over time.
TABLETOP FILLING MACHINES
Tabletop liquid fillers provide the simplest filling solution, using limited space while adding speed and consistentcy to the filling process. Most tabletop filling machines will use a slide track, requiring the operator of the machine to place bottles under the fill heads and actuate the fill via a finger or foot switch. While speed can be added, the major benefit of these filling machines are the addition of consistent and reliable fills over and above what can be achieved by hand filling bottles or other containers.
Like almost every filling machine manufactured, tabletop equipment can expand on initial production capacity. This can be accomplished by the simple addition of fill heads on many machines. For example, a two head tabletop filler could be upgraded to add two additional fill heads, doubling the output of the machine. However, as production demands rise, a packager may eventually need to consider options other than tabletop machinery.
PORTABLE SEMI-AUTOMATIC MACHINES
Semi-automatic filling machines built on a portable frame are, in a manner of speaking, automatic machinery in waiting. In the most basic of models, these fillers will include a slide track and, like the tabletop models, will require an operator to place bottles and begin the fill cycle with a finger or foot switch.
However, semi-automatic equipment on the portable frames allow much more growth than tabletop machines in a number of different ways. First and foremost, these frames will allow up to a maximum of sixteen total fill heads, whereas tabletop machines will normally stop around six heads. While these bottle fillers still require manual labor, the extent can also be minimized by the addition of a power conveyor and a simple indexing system. Having moved from hand filling to a tabletop machine to portable semi-automatic equipment, the continued expansion of production will eventually lead to a fully automatic liquid filler.
FULLY AUTOMATIC MACHINES
Manufactured on the same frame as the semi-automatic machine described above, some companies may upgrade existing equipment to perform with full automation. If not already existing, a power conveyor and indexing system can be added to the filler, along with the addition of, or modification of, a PLC and operator interface.
The automatic bottle fillers will allow the operator to set all parameters for a fill cycle from one centrally located control panel, including fill times, indexing times, height adjustments and more. Once setup is complete, the operator of fully automatic machinery will simply need to monitor the equipment and perform changeover for runs with different products or packages. Fully automatic machines can also be upgraded with additional fill heads as production grows, literally filling tens of thousands of bottles per day.
Of course, almost no packager will progress from hand filling to tabletop to semi-automatic and finally automatic. But the above provides a good sample of the different levels of automation available to packagers. The first step for our Packaging Specialists will be to analyze any project with the packager, including current and future expectations, to identify the ideal level of automation for that specific project. From there, the fill principle, the options necessary or desired and any other factors will be added to the automation level to build the best solution for that packager's project.