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Don’t settle for slower speeds – you can fill faster 

Steve Clarke | Manufacturing Global | 20 july 2017 

Your manufacturing network has within it the capability to package 30 percent more products each year – by unlocking speed limitations caused by ‘the nature of your product’.

Like many manufacturing companies, your products probably require some weighing, measuring, separation and dosing to get them into their primary pack. Pressure is mounting for increased packaging capacity to satisfy existing and new product demands. Ideally you’d achieve this through the existing manufacturing network but you’ll often need new machinery. Standard machinery seems to be the most logical route to achieve the lowest capital spend as any development costs have already been spread across many hundreds of machines.   

It’s not me, it’s you

The process of due diligence often starts with your favourite machinery builder (OEM) and discussions begin about their latest high speed models. You send them a product sample for evaluation (this is almost always their first question). After a time you discover that for ‘your product’ the machine is not quite as high speed as initially envisaged or hoped. The reasoning is often vague but one answer is the most common: 'it’s due to the unique nature of your product.’ 

In short, you’ve discovered that your 200mph supercharged car can only really do 150mph – and that’s only under perfect conditions. Our recent experience shows that this machinery slow-down is typically 15 percent (and up to as much as 30 percent) against the advertised machine speed. This is frustrating, but makes sense. OEMs are looking to sell as many of their machines as possible and have spent years broadening the capability of their equipment so they can sell in multiple markets and sectors. Their R&D teams actively target development efforts to make their equipment ‘good’ for the masses, which means it can’t always be ‘great’ for you. This frustration is made worse knowing the rest of the equipment is capable of achieving much higher speeds – it’s the step of filling or dosing that fundamentally slows the machine down.

What slows you down

There are a number of technical challenges that limit filling or dosing speeds of a product into its primary package (whether that package is a tub, sachet, bag or pouch). These include:

  • The dosing tail: products that fall under gravity form like a tear drop. Those that reach the package first can arrive in under half the time of those that arrive last. Low density powders are especially affected, but this tail can also be seen with bulk liquid products. The machine speed is limited by the time it takes for the end of the tail to enter the package plus an appropriate safety margin for the unexpected.
  • The initial spray: when a powder or liquid is dosed, the initial start of the dose becomes a spray with an advancing cone angle. Changes in valve opening and backpressure can affect this initial spray angle, often with the challenge of keeping the cone within the confines of the pack edge or neck.
  • Escaping air: as the product falls, it needs to displace the package’s current content – air. This displacement causes a number of dynamic challenges – associated turbulence (causing the product to miss the package), a buffering effect (further slowing down the drop of the product into the package) and aeration (adding additional bulk and causing the product to overflow out of the package).
  • Batch-to-batch variation: product dosing characteristics change by batch because of changes in bulk density, product rheology, viscosity, temperature and so on. To achieve filling consistency, manufacturers generally set the machinery to accommodate worst case conditions, slowing down the production line.
  • Combined measuring and dosing: to reduce costs and space, filling technology often combines measuring and dosing into a single step. Bulk product industries have seen speed improvements by separating these objectives (for example multi-head weigh with drop gates), making each step more effective by using focused technologies. 
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How to speed up

Overcoming these challenges is possible. Last year we worked with a client to convert multiple existing powder filling lines to improve production speed by more than 30%. The key to unlocking speed loss is understanding the science and behaviour of your product and the existing manufacturing technologies. You can use a range of techniques to identify the characteristics of the product dose that are slowing things down. These include:

  • High speed video: by capturing 100s of frames a second it’s possible to truly see what the product is doing from the time it’s released to the time the ‘tail’ reaches the package. This is particularly useful as production speeds are pushed higher and higher as you can see beyond the obvious failure mode (like an overspray) to more hidden and subtle effects. 
  • Computational fluid dynamics and mathematical modelling: by using highly detailed tools, typically well known in the aerospace industry to model aircraft flight, you can virtually simulate filling and verify this against actual observations. The benefit of virtual development is the speed of iteration (minutes not days).
  • Practical rapid testing: informed by previous modelling, you can develop fast, ‘dirty’ feasibility jigs. Often we find that this step generates a large amount of intellectual property (IP) which is directly secured against competition. This starts arming the competitive advantage of the new technology.
  • Engineering demonstration: using what you’ve learned, you can design and build a functioning engineering demonstrator. This equipment is the ultimate demonstration that this new technology is capable of achieving filling rates required to unlock the speed of the production line. 

Armed with technical designs, a body of evidence and physical equipment, the hard part is done. A number of options exist to capitalise on this IP and technology. We recently rolled out a machine retrofit programme working directly with the existing machinery OEMs. We combined the new technology with their equipment expertise to create retrofit-able production modules designed around existing machines within the supply network. This process of technology development is also a way of the OEM gaining competitive advantage as they can licence and apply it within non-competing markets.  

If it’s not possible to retrofit a solution, it is possible to incorporate the ‘speed unlocking’ technology into new equipment. We’ve found that achieving faster speeds often supports the business case for replacing an aging fleet, repurposing lines towards a simpler product or relocating those lines to emerging markets.

Take your opportunities now

The benefits to production of unlocking machine speeds are clear: increasing production from 15-30 percent, reducing the cost of goods and higher return on investment. But there’s no doubt that further opportunities exist. Manufacturers often compromise products to make them easier to process: homogenising their formulations – making the ingredients less identifiable by the consumer – and making them less appealing. The desire for fresher products with ‘cleaner labels’ will change the landscape of product formulations. 

As these products become more complex and machinery platforms more agile, the need for that machinery to automatically adapt to the product on a dose by dose basis becomes increasingly necessary. Whilst machine learning is not yet mainstream, it is a reality. Smart manufacturers are already adopting autonomous intelligence and connected technology principles to prepare for a more complicated product landscape – satisfying more immediate business goals of higher output per capital spend at the same time. We think early adoption of these technologies is key to staying ahead of the competition.

Steve Clarke is a consumer and manufacturing expert at PA Consulting Group

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