While many production lines run consistent product, there are also a good handful of plants that require chaotic product flow from their lines. In this case, chaotic product flow is referencing different types of product running on the same line rather than a uniform product. When comparing conveyor scales and manual scales, each method has unique benefits for chaotic product, so we’re going to examine the differences between them.
When it comes to the standard weighing situation, conveyor scales tend to take the cake, but there are still situations where manual weighing might be a realistic solution. Think of a plant that handles offal products as an example. The offal is the leftover parts which are unused for standard cuts of meat, like the tongue, heart, or other organs. They are usually shipped to various other countries or places specializing in some sort of ethnic cuisine, so it is important that they are documented well.
The offal handling is a smaller operation, and with so many different destinations and products, it is almost easier to manually weigh and label the boxes. This lets you be very specific with each box of offal that you handle.
If you combine a manual scale with a labeling printer and controller, you can have a fairly efficient manual labeling system. You can weigh a box and input the product type into the controller to print out a specific label for that product. With the right operator, this can be very quick like an automated system, but it is lacking in consistency. Label placement isn’t necessarily uniform and handling time varies with employees.
On the flip side of things, if you take the same operation and you size it up to a much larger scale, manual weighing just won’t cut it. This is where pre-identification would come in handy.
If you have a chaotic flow of products that requires speedy handling, a conveyor scale is a necessity. When paired with an automatic labeler, it can find the product weight and have it printed on the label quickly and consistently. The question then becomes, “how do you accurately label different products without stopping the lines to make labeling adjustments?”
With pre-identification scanners, you can scan boxes or barcodes before they get to the labeling section. These preliminary codes or labels can tell the controller what the product is so that it can pass on that information to the labeler. A print-and-apply system can then print out a specific label to match that product and affix it to the box/package. This requires no human involvement besides a little monitoring and maintenance every once and a while, making it the obvious choice for a larger operation.
There are reasons to consider both of these options, and we have systems available for both situations, so look around our blog or contact us to find out what might work out best for your operation.
See our Manual Box Labeling Systems
When designing a system where a decision is being made by that system’s controller for an action to be taken further down the line, you have two methods to choose from for that controller to make the action happen. One is time-based the other is encoder-based.
The time-based option operates very simply. Let’s say that a product is being weighed in motion to determine a certain line that the product should be sent down. Once the products weight has been established by the controller and the appropriate location has been determined, the controller will have been programmed to know that the line is a certain amount of time away, so it will begin counting down, and when that countdown ends, a divert will be activated to send that product down that line.
This is a very simple and effective system as long as nothing ever changes, like line speed. If the line speed is sped up, the product would be past the proper divert before it was activated, and if the line was shut off even for a brief amount of time, all of the timing could be thrown off.
To safeguard against this, we like to use an encoder-based system. To explain what an encoder is, basically, the system’s controller will count how many times the shaft on the conveyor turns. Now every system is different but let’s just say that, with this system, every time the shaft turns one time, the conveyor belt will travel six inches. So, with this encoder-based system the controller will have been programmed to know that the divert is a certain number of shaft revolutions away, and all it has to do is count these revolutions and then activate that divert. With this system, speeding things up, slowing things down, or even stopping the system will not affect the process.
That was a very basic description of an encoder. Encoder technology is actually much more advanced than that. In the previously mentioned system, the encoder would send one electrical signal to the system controller for every revolution of the shaft signaling six inches of travel. If this encoder were to send two electrical signals for every shaft revolution, the system’s controller would know that every electrical signal from the encoder would be equal to three inches of travel. Four electrical signals from the encoder would mean each signal would equal one and a half inches of travel.
Encoders are available that can send over one thousand electrical signals for each revolution of the shaft. This can allow for very accurate tracking of anything on a conveyor.
This is a question that we often hear, and it is understandable that customers would ask such a thing. The problem is that there is no single answer. Rather, we have to answer this question with a number of our own questions.
From one operation to the next, labeling requirements vary greatly, and these requirements can cause major differences in the time needed to label.
A complex or large label is one thing that can impact the labeling process. Printers can only produce labels so fast at their current level. The preprinted route for labels can help out a lot in this scenario. If all of the labels are going to be roughly the same format, you can have them premade onto a roll of labels. You can still print dates and weights onto those preprinted labels if the machine is set up correctly, and the print time is greatly reduced.
The next big thing is the type of labeling and quantity of labels needed per item. Many packages are labeled on the top and bottom, which can go relatively quickly with tamping and wipe-on labelers; but what if you need to label the front or back of the box?
For back and front labels, a swing arm applicator is really the only viable method. These tend to take a lot more time and space than a tamping piston would. First of all, they need to have room between products to be able to swing out. Second, the action of their application simply takes more movement than the top and bottom labels. A tamping piston takes just a second to apply and release the label. The arm needs to rotate from the side of the conveyor, apply the label, and return to its original position before being ready again.
Corner-wrap labels are even more complex and take more time. The box is pushed into an arm that applies the label in part on the front. As the box or case moves forward, the applicator pivots around the corner of the box and pushes the remainder of the label onto the side. Products requiring this sort of finesse will take even longer as a rule of thumb.
Speed is regularly impacted by the size of your product and number of labels required. If a box has multiple labels, the system might need to run slower to make sure that they are all being placed accurately. Box size could limit the operation speed just because a heavy box might require the conveyor to move at a slower pace to reduce system stress.
There are a lot of questions to be exchanged when designing an automatic labeling system, but the benefit is worth it.
When it comes to looking for equipment that is wash down rated, you should probably draw the line when it comes to most labeling applications.
The main exception to the above statement might be jet spray applications designed to place limited amounts of information directly onto products, such as date information. Some companies say they have met NEMA 4X standards for that, but that is quite different from applying labels to the top or bottom of products. It is also completely different from weigh-price labeling and from applying fixed weight labels to boxes, as well as net weight labeling of boxes, cases, and combos.
We are frequently asked if that kind of labeling equipment can be washdown rated. Here are three reasons for why it is not and likely won’t be in the near future:
- The state of print engines
- Label dispensing mechanisms
- The lack of direct food contact
When we design labeling systems for our customers, whether manual or automatic, we can accommodate print engine brand preferences. The print engines that are the most popular by overwhelming percentages do not offer washdown options. Each of the major brands that supply print engines require customers to keep them away from water spray because water would corrode the components and would interfere with the clarity of the printing process.
The next item to consider is the mechanism that dispenses the labels. It is obvious that you need to keep your label stock dry. But, consider this as well: if there is an opening large enough for a label to get out, then there is an opening large enough for water to get in. Keeping label stock dry would represent a gigantic research and development investment for a washdown labeling system. That brings us to an even larger point about the lack of R & D that could lead to a washdown rated labeling system.
In order to have a NEMA-4X labeling system, everything from the control panel, to the electronics, to the label stock housing, to the print engines, to the label dispenser, would have to be able to prevent water ingress or function while wet. Since there is no direct food contact on any of those components or the overall system, there is no incentive for companies to commit the massive amounts of money that would be required. The solution is simple. If you need to label in a wash down environment, make sure you can enclose, cover, or move the labeling system. We have helped many customers do all three and achieved amazing results.
The simple answer to this question is “yes,” but there are dangers that come along with forcing different systems and software together.
We run into this problem very regularly with automatic box labeling because customers understandably have their own software and databases. This is most often old 3rd party software which has been used for some time in the plant, possibly even before automatic labeling was used.
There can be a number of problems with software like this. If it was made pre-automatic labeling, it is probably missing out on a lot of features that get the most out of automatic labeling. If it is 3rd party, it could have been created by programmers who have never been anywhere close to an environment like yours. With no personal experience in a plant where labeling is actually occurring, they probably don’t have the understanding to provide you with what you need.
When asked to interface or share the work with proprietary software for labeling, we try to shy away because, in reality, this can actually hinder the labeling process.
Here is a regular example of how this workflow goes when we are requested to integrate software together. Most quality automatic box labeling scenarios involve a pre-identification scanner. This tells you what the product in the box is and any important data that needs to accompany it on the label. Normally, we would just cross-reference that product with data stored in our labeling machine’s database, but proprietary software often throws extra steps into the works.
With other software, we are often required to query a separate database for that product data after scanning the product for its PLU number. Adding this step adds communication time, but it also runs the risk of data loss and down time.
If your facility encounters any sort of network problems, the labeling system might be unable to get the appropriate data from the customer database, meaning that labels couldn’t be applied with the correct data. This system would effectively be down for the count when a network goes down.
With our system and software, the process can be contained to that unit, so as long as the labeler’s database is updated whenever PLU information is changed, it can run regardless of network troubles because it has a drive which can store information until the network is again active.
Using our software greatly simplifies the process and keeps the labeler running even when your network drops out on you
, and we can work with you to get the information that you need.