With non-alcoholic beverages alone surpassing one trillion in sales worldwide as of 2019, the global beverage industry is truly enormous. With a steady 3-4% expansion rate, constantly growing to meet consumer demands. Within this monolith, beverage containers form a subset of their own, valued at around $250 billion and expanding consistently alongside the market. These industries have great expectations to fill, and delays can have severe, rippling impacts.
To relieve one large thorn in the side of beverage companies and bottling plants the world over, Enpro, Inc., in collaboration with FEIG Electronics, has implemented RFID technology that promises to reduce the significant losses often seen during the can and bottle filling process.
Around the world, consumers show a vast preference for single-serve containers such as aluminum cans and plastic bottles; globally, approximately one million bottled beverages are sold each minute, and consumption of beer and soda uses an estimated 200 billion aluminum cans each year. While consumers may overlook the time and effort it takes for their favorite beverage to come to them in those convenient single-serve containers, beverage companies are constantly trying to meet the demand they create. Automated filling lines have become an instrumental tool in helping them do so.
Operating nonstop at breakneck speeds, automated lines produce as many as 2,500 completed products per minute, with major bottling plants running several at once to ensure necessary production levels. These machines are what make the wide availability of single-serve beverages possible at all.
Unfortunately, high-speed filling lines are touchy systems to deal with. As products move between four and six feet per second, separated by only three and a half inches, even the slightest mishap or malfunction is a massive detriment to the line. While operating one is quite simple, troubleshooting can be a difficult task. When products are liquid, loss at the hands of inefficient packaging processes is a significant concern and contributor to lowered production. One 2013 study, performed at the Durbin University of Technology in South Africa, found that 46% of this loss in the bottling process occurs during the filler-crowner stage, the most of any process in the entire operation.
But what about this process accounts for so much loss?
On the surface, the answer is simple: the filler-crowner process is where the product is finally transferred to its container, and so some loss is to be expected. However, closer inspection reveals that it is not the simple act of transference causing the most damaging setbacks but a problematic component of the machine performing it.
After a beverage is finally blended, it is sent to a filler, or filler bowl, where tubes will be used to transfer it into the appropriate containers, whether cans or bottles. Moving on an automated line, these containers move as quickly as six feet per second, separated by a mere three and a half inches. They are pressurized with CO2 to prevent foam and maintain carbonation during transfer. Filler tubes will be used to insert product from the top, with a diffuser distributing the liquid around the sides to mitigate foaming further. Yet, the CO2 must be released to do so, and for that, each filler tube has within it a smaller return tube, or vent tube, which allows the gas to escape while the product enters.
Despite its small role in the filling process, this vent apparatus is a continued source of stress and lost profits for beverage companies. A single vent tube can shut down an entire line, halting production and potentially causing whole batches of product to be lost. Vent tubes tend to come loose and go missing due to an upside-down can, a jam in the seamer, or any number of other unforeseen variables. When this happens, operations must come to a complete standstill until it can be relocated, not only because of the lines’ high speeds but because these tubes have real potential to be caught and sealed within the containers they enter.
To mitigate these incidences, bottling plants stop their fillers as often as twice an hour to have operators manually verify the presence of each vent tube and report to quality management. This solution is a drain on time and output, directly translating to lost revenue.
Today, Enpro has applied RFID technology to these systems to produce a solution to this thorn in the sides of beverage companies the world over. By placing a unique RFID transponder in the nozzle of each vent tube, they have created a system capable of accounting for tubes in real-time and detecting issues instantaneously. With every revolution of the filler, the Enpro system performs a scan to confirm tube presence and relays its findings to a laptop accessible by quality and/or management; if a vent tube does not report in, it sends a signal to the controller or PLC and automatically halts operations. This eliminates the need for manual checks and prevents the long delays loose vent tubes can cause and product loss when they cannot be found. It ensures that products are shipped to consumers free of foreign materials.
Although RFID is commonplace in areas like asset and inventory tracking, this application of the technology is quite new; within process control, detection methods like machine learning are far more common. So, why did Enpro choose RFID?
With lines running at dizzying speeds, traceable vent tubes live in a harsh environment where repeatable results can be challenging to achieve. Scans must be performed in literal milliseconds on tightly packed components surrounded by layers of liquid and metal, while the containers themselves constantly change per production needs. In these circumstances, RFID, and more specifically HF RFID, proved itself the ideal tool for the task, reading up to fifty tags per second with a near 100% six sigma reading accuracy. Due to the properties of the 13.56 megahertz high-frequency signal, it can do so regardless of tag location or orientation and without interference from surrounding materials. Further, it does so with food-safe transponders immune to damage from liquids and capable of providing each tube with a unique serialization. Coupled with FEIG technology, the Enpro system can read as many as 2900 cans in a single minute.
Also offering a handheld RFID device for operators to more easily locate lost tubes, Enpro is far from through with exploring how automated filling lines can be improved and better operated. Meanwhile, FEIG is proud to be a part of this innovation and constantly looking to, as they have here, push the limits of RFID technology to help any customer with any application.
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