Leading edge technology was seen in abundance at last month's PPMA Show, attracting over 80 first-time exhibitors, the largest influx of new companies since 1988 when the show began. Rodney Abbott reports

Kuka dazzled the brave with its Robocoaster, a robot that had little to do with packaging but a lot to do with fairground activity.

The Robocoaster was the epitome of fun and promotion and did much to relieve tired feet. Me… no way. I kept my feet firmly on the ground. After circumnavigating halls 6-9 at the NEC half a dozen times my head was already in a spin.

Kuka’s more serious side was reflected in its Series 2000 robots which won an IF Design Award earlier this year. One version palletises, packs, order picks and stacks with ease.

In addition, the KR180PA handles large payloads at high speed in an improved working envelope. Its vertically oriented wrist functions through a passive axis, eliminating the need for its own motor or gear unit.

Kuka also managed to get in on the act on the DVT Systems stand, a KR15/2 robot kitted out with image sensor technology demonstrating the benefits of robotic visual inspection for packaging purposes.

Meanwhile DVT was leading the way with its Legend Smartimage 520. Billed as “the most affordable machine vision sensor in the industry,” it has a lot to live up to.

The Ethernet-ready 520 utilises CMOS imaging technology for complete vision inspections, barcode reading and OCR.

But DVT was not prepared to leave it at that. For those that want eyes in the back of their head, Omni Ray – DVT’s Swiss automation provider – has worked in conjunction with lighting designers Volpi to develop all-round simultaneous inspection.

Attaching four fibre-optic cables to a DVT camera enables a 360° field of view. Interestingly, this sector of the packaging industry – worth $860M in 2001 – is expected to top 1.3$bn by 2006. This represents a compound annual growth in the general-purpose machine vision market of 8.9% over five years.

Talking of foresight, Firstsight demonstrated some unique tools to enable integrators to build vision into their systems, along with powerful barcode and OCR tools and Manto which can read handwritten numbers and letters, recognise surface textures, and detect surface faults.

Named after the seeress of ancient Greek legend, Manto paves the way for digital image processing in a world made up of industrially manufactured, standardised and illuminated objects with a stable light source.

It also embraces ever-changing environments populated by organic forms and textures with a high degree of deformation and poor reproducibility.

Another software – Minos – serves the printing industry well, particularly labelling. I must confess that much of it is all Greek to me but I am still convinced that such disciplines warrant close inspection.

Just like the wheel-tappers and the shunters, the coders and markers were there in force.

I think Videojet and Domino had the most to shout about with their S25 and S200 laser systems.

Videojet’s 25W laser coding system offers the user increased line speed compared to its forerunner – the S10. It has been designed for marking paperboard, claycoat or secondary packaging labels, PET or PVC.

Standard features include tri-line, tower, reverse and invert print options, static or dynamic operation, serialising, date and time inserts, print counter and lower and upper case letters.

Up to 20 100-character messages per line can be stored and two RS-232 ports are provided for downloading software and running the user interface.

At the heart of Domino’s new S200 series is a groundbreaking micro laser, resulting in the smallest and lightest laser head in its class. The control cabinet also has a small footprint, allowing it to be wall-mounted for optimum position on production lines.

Domino has replaced the conventional rectangular laser head construction with a circular design that allows operators to adjust code position with a simple turn.

It has been designed to code packages and products in the food, beverage and personal care markets with its ability to mark logos and graphics, serial numbers, batch codes, bar codes and 2D codes.

A 2D code needs a 2D-code reader. A solution was found in the Medusa Lite that was launched by Absolute Vision. It is reputed to be an easily configured entry-level code-reading system that is supplied with complementary software and a USB image acquisition device. The software will support 1D and 2D codes and error correction systems including ECC200. The system is also supplied with an array of pre-configured image set-ups.

When it came to labelling, Weber contrived to display three Geset labelling systems – the SE1600, the RSE2000 and the RSE2500 – as one unit.

This optimal solution for wraparound and side labelling reduced footprint and increased label production considerably. Using the Alpha 86 HS, labels can be applied at up to 58m/min.

This modular method of construction allows the user to find the right machine configuration for each application. It has been particularly successful in the pharmaceutical sector.

Meanwhile, Bizerba showcased its new graphic labelling machine [GLM-1] that is reputed to increase through-put, provide greater functionality, improve system integration and reduce downtime.

Capable of operating from above and below, this weigh-price labeller offers labelling speeds of 70, 100 and 150 packs/min.

The GLM-1’s modular flexibility enables the effective integration of other product handling systems and minimises life costs as individual sections can be replaced as required.

This concept extends to the printer assembly and the conveyor system that features a rapid belt exchange mechanism.

Innovation in the packaging machine sector was plentiful. A number of exhibitors provided interesting solutions to common problems.

For example, trays with a small denest gap have traditionally had to be destacked by hand but Packaging Automation’s denester offers an automatic solution to the problem.

The denester is mechanically driven from the chain conveyor, giving full synchronisation and is supplied with a low-level tray sensor. Tray sizes can be changed in minutes using a quick release drive mechanism and inter-changeable tray magazines.

Trays of various shapes, sizes and materials, including CPET, APET, PP, PVC along with EPS and smooth wall foils, can be destacked. The denester consistently achieves speeds of up to 100 trays/min.

The Sesam provided an improved system within the Supreme Plastics Joker series of bag-filling machines, with improved opening rods and a new bag design.

It combines a simple bag opening and closing system with bespoke, linked bags. The bags are supported and opened ready for filling by two parallel arms and are pulled along the line continuously or intermittently.

The new system is able to keep several bags fully open to insert products along the length of the rods. The plastics chain design has been improved to reduce the volume of waste. Existing users may upgrade Classic machinery with a conversion kit.

The latest development from the Doboy and SIG Demaurex partnership uses vision-guided, high-speed Delta robots to feed product directly into the infeed chain of a wrapper at up to 400 packs/min.

The Delfi is capable of feeding products from production lines as wide as 1300mm and is suitable for handling delicate products.

A vision system detects the position and orientation of the individual products on the production line so the robots can place them into the wrapper with precision.

Grippers can be designed to pick up almost any kind of product and one operator can perform production changeover in less than five minutes.

It has always been difficult to make an effective zip-resealable pack on continuous flow machinery. Now Line Equipment and Supreme Plastics have worked together to produce Reseal 460X.

This reliable cross-web zipper application system offers cost savings and pack integrity with no loss of speed. The applicator uses paired gears and servo-driven timing belts with guide channels to feed and position the zipper.

This enables zipper sealing to a moving web of film. The system preserves pack integrity, preventing leakers and reducing wastage.

With the continuously growing requirement in the market place for wrapping many different products at low cost, the Quick Pack Group launched its Multipla system.

The system enables the user to pack products of different sizes [quantity and quality] in a quick and practical way. A blowing assembly [patent pending] opens the film to load product.

Digital sealing temperature controls eliminate carbon residue, fumes and fragile sealing, especially on large formats. The roll is motorised and the sealing frame is pneumatically lowered.

Monitoring and inspection is key. With increasing demands on production quality, repeatability and traceability, there is a need for automated monitoring that, not only dispense accurately, but also provide documentary evidence of material movements.

Permex has provided two solutions. The LiquiBatch system allows chosen details of a liquid, quantity and operator’s ID to be fed back into the company’s BatchTrace system.

It is designed to work as a stand-alone batch controller, able to control up to six input liquids and able to output details of the batch locally. Or, coupled with the BackTrace, it is able to give more comprehensive control, traceability and monitoring of the process.

For use in zone one hazardous areas, the LiquiBatch keypad is capable of handling up to six metered lines. Only a single unit for each filling machine is required. The office based PC is used to set up the jobs directly rather than entering on the keypad.

The filling machines can then fill containers as required and each fill is recorded on the PC and the quantity offset against the bulk store value.

Each line already has a dedicated flow meter and only one line is used at a time. Previously, they had no facility to record throughput or to check against bulk store.

There has long been a need to identify improperly sealed containers [leakers] and reject them from production lines. The Puffinacher project has evolved a system that supports line speeds up to 800cpm.

The Puffinacher system from PCL Control Instruments prepares each container for proper seal inspection and utilises the ADR-50D universal closure monitor as the lid inspection and rejection vehicle.

The pneumatic model PPS is designed for cold-fill applications and incorporates a mechanical and pneumatic system to prepare the container for subsequent lid seal integrity inspection.

It should be used when a vacuum has been drawn after the containers have cooled.

The non-pneumatic model NPS is designed for hot-fill applications and should be used immediately after the filler and sealer when the containers have been pressurised or semi-pressurised.

In the field of controls, Reo came up with a new range of sinusoidal filters that reflects the current need for compact units. They complement the firm’s new generation of variable speed drives that are progressively being reduced in size.

The new sinusoidal filters also deliver lower power losses and hence lower running temperatures than their predecessors plus the ability to run above 8Khz. They also reduce the whistling noise associated with high frequency switching.

Finally, visitors from the food and beverage sector saw a family of new plug-in connectors from GDL and cables from Lumberg.

These can withstand harsh environments such as those created by aggressive cleaning agents, large temperature differences and high-pressure cleaners.

Lumberg has chosen PVC and special steel to ensure that wiring components have a high level of functional safety.