Modern flow packing machines are much faster, more reliable and easier to operate than previous generations of the same equipment. Servo drives, programmable controllers and better mechanical components have made a difficult packaging operation simple for today's operators. As simple and robust as these systems are, however, there are a few issues that routinely cause problems for the operators and owners of flow packers. The purpose of this article is to discuss those issues and talk about ways to eliminate the most common problems in cost effective ways. If your product is packaged on a flow pack machine, the changes described here will earn you better margins and reduce the headaches in your season.
1. Moving and Installation
Many flow pack machines move with the crop from one packing house to the next. A good moving process is the key to a quick and painless startup. Prepare for the move with a standard skid that is used for every machine move. The skid must be heavy enough to hold the machine stable during loading, transport and unloading. Move the machine carefully onto the skid and bolt it down flat using the same holes every time. The machine frame is pretty tough, but it is no match for a forklift picking it up crooked. Flow packers are precision machines and will run precisely as long as they are not bent or shaken to pieces in transport. It is important to hire an air ride trailer to move your flow pack machine since a few miles of rough road will give you headaches that take a long time to chase out. Mark the skid so it is not thrown out during the season. Watch the forklift driver who moves the machine from the skid to the plant as well since a few extra minutes invested in moving can save hours of frustration later. Set the machine on a level floor, use a string line to get all the pieces straight, and use the levelers to set the entire unit into alignment before trying to run the machine.
2. Operators and training
In the old days it took months to train a new flow pack operator. Now, we expect a green recruit to have the machine humming in minutes. Training today is much easier than the old days, but it takes time for a new operator to figure out all the adjustments and how they work together. If you are moving your machines from area to area, you probably have seasonal operators who are not always the same from year to year. If you want to get running quickly and save yourself some big headaches, find a way to overlap the operators from one plant to the next. The operator from one plant can train two or three operators by example at the next location within a week. Always have a couple of backup operators learning the machine and find the people who really get good at making the machine perform. If you have separate maintenance personnel, do the same with maintenance. Your output will be higher, your costs will be lower and your headaches will be reduced significantly.
a. Air. These machines are made to run on dry clean air and a small investment of time and effort to setup and keep up your air system will pay big dividends in machine operation. Cleaning your separators and filters, checking your compressor oil levels and purging your air lines before installing your flow packers is much easier than trying to fix a machine plugged up with water or oil. The air components in a flow packer are only expensive when you need to fly new ones in to replace parts that are gummed up from a dirty air system.
b. Electricity. Make sure your electrical system is working correctly and giving you clean and reliable power. The electrical systems inside the flow packers protect them from most problems, but loose connections, weak breakers and undersized service will cause you headaches until you chase each problem out. The servo systems inside the flow packers need a steady and reliable electrical supply so they can make a complicated packing job easy for you.
4. Managing your flow pack machine as an asset
Your flow pack machine is an important asset in your business and a few simple management processes will help you make more money:
a. Moving plan and a hand off process: Write up a simple plan for what you expect to happen during each move and assign responsibility for those actions to responsible people in your organization. The sending group should have a list and the receiving team a different list and one person on each end should be responsible to execute your plan. Include a checklist of important things to inspect at each end and inspect the lists.
b. Preventative maintenance (PM): Someone at each location must be responsible to take care of the machine in a way that prevents breakdowns and responds to any issues that prevent operation. Writing a simple preventative maintenance list for daily and weekly activities will go a long way to eliminating shutdowns before they ever happen. You will need to assign responsibility to an individual to manage that work since groups just never get around to doing things like preventative maintenance. Your leadership in scheduling PM time during the operating week is critical to showing your team the importance of keeping the machine running
c. Spare parts: Even the best machines will wear out parts with time or break parts when something jams up. A few spare parts that travel with the machine will get your machine up and running again without the delay of ordering and shipping parts across the country. You will save money by moving a spare parts box with the machine from location to location and assigning one person at each location the responsibility of keeping your stock filled.
5. Cleaning and basic care
Modern flow pack machines only require a minimal amount of cleaning to keep them working the way they were meant to operate. Wiping up product residue and removing packaging material residues is a small job, but those steps help your machine to run faster and with less downtime. You will need to provide leadership in cleaning also by providing direction, machine time and supplies to keep the unit in good condition. Your operators will take better care of a clean machine than a dirty one and you will get more production at a lower cost.
These simple steps take much less time than the downtime caused by doing without them. Make a small investment of time and money and your return will surprise you.
Our guest contributor for this issue is Steve Dragt. Steve is an Agricultural Engineer and the Owner of Agile Innovation, Inc. Agile Innovation is a consulting group based in Bakersfield, California that works on product, process and packaging development projects for customers in the US and Europe. Steve grew up on a family farm and has a long career in production agriculture, packing operations, fresh-cut produce processing, and designing and building plants for packing and processing fresh produce, and so we value his advice. For more information contact Steve Dragt at telephone (661) 304-6125 or email Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.