- September 01, 2009, By Edward Boyle, Contributing Editor
Like many forms of packaging, the foil “capsules” converted by Sparflex of California for use on wine, champagne, spirits, and water bottles provide both tamper evidence and decorative appeal. Capsule materials are converted using the same type of equipment and technologies as other forms of packaging, such as boxes, bags, tags, and labels. But the final products ultimately shipped to wineries across the Western Hemisphere from Sparflex's 15,000-sq-ft facility in Ukiah, CA, are anything but ordinary.
“Actually, we are a lot like other converters in that we basically take materials, like polylaminates, heat-shrink PVC [polyvinyl chloride], and aluminum foil, and custom print them roll-to-roll using an eight-color rotogravure press,” explains Tim Pletcher, VP of operations. “But as a secondary process, we slit the materials and then use specialized forming equipment to create a decorative, secondary closure or capsule. The capsule is installed at the winery to protect the cork or primary seal. Being in a niche market, there aren't many converters that do what we do.”
The quality and decorative design of the capsule, along with the accompanying label, often have more to do with a customer's decision to choose a particular bottle off the shelf than knowing the quality of the wine itself. In fact, surveys have shown 70% of wine purchases are impulse buys prompted more by the appeal of the packaging than the product it carries.
Maintaining that look of quality is just one of the reasons that Sparflex last spring installed a BCON 3000 NW 100% print inspection system from Nireco Corp. on its 15-in., eight-color Chesnut Engineering rotogravure press. The Nireco system, which reportedly provides unmatched ease-of-use for an advanced defect detection system, inspects 100% of every repeat with its color, line scan camera.
The BCON 3000 NW system features COAS 3CCD Line Scan Technology to inspect the web for defects that are both random and repetitive, including plate lift, scratches, streaks, and register errors, as well as the most subtle shifts in color. The unit monitors and inspects pressure-sensitive paper, films, and foils for the wine and medical supplies industries, among others.
“From our perspective, anything that runs through the press is going to use the system,” says Pletcher. “Because we want to ensure that the quality is consistent and that we're not creating scrap material by printing defective product, it's just a standard way of doing business for us.”
Setting Acceptable Levels
At the start of a run, the operator enters the job parameters and essentially tells the system which elements of the printed material to monitor, what to ignore, and what to flag, i.e., the difference between an ink blotch and a tiny trademark symbol. When the system detects a defect on a single label or capsule or over a repeat length, a spraying unit that interfaces with the inspection system marks the back of the web. Those defective segments then are automatically removed when they reach the forming equipment.
“It allows us to set the level of defect (minor, major, or critical) that we're inspecting,” notes Pletcher. “If it's a minor defect, it registers it. If it's a major defect, it sprays it to be cut out; if it's a critical defect, the operator is warned to take immediate action such as stopping the press to prevent scrap waste.”
The Nireco 100% print inspection system also gives managers total control over those settings, which can be changed only with a password. This prevents overzealous operators from allowing minor quality variations to cause shutdowns, so line speeds can be maintained.
Pletcher notes that rather than viewing the Nireco system as an intrusive and omnipresent form of Big Brother that is constantly looking to “catch their mistakes,” press operators actually have embraced the system and the quality improvements that accompany its use. “Operators find the application very easy to use,” adds Sparflex of California's technology manager Tom Seward. “Nobody likes change initially, but once they use it day in and day out, they really rely on it. They've bought in on it, and now the operators are not allowed to run the job without the camera working, nor would they want to.”
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The Nireco BCON 3000 NW inspection system also lets plant managers, quality control personnel, and others monitor a job being printed on the plant floor in real time while sitting at their desks. Run data also is stored so the details of every job can be reviewed if a customer reports a problem.
“It keeps an inventory of our print jobs, so if we have a customer who wants to know the history of a particular job, we have the information to share with them,” says Seward. “If there's any question, you can run through the whole job with them and show them if and when errors occurred during the printing of that particular job.
“It's also important to note the support we get from Nireco,” says Pletcher. “It's been exceptional, more than any other piece of equipment we have.”
He notes Nireco's technical support personnel can log in from their facility across the country in Port Jervis, NY, and monitor the system activities. Says Pletcher, “They can take care of conflicts or software updates from 3,000 miles away.”
In addition to the Chesnut press, Sparflex's northern California facility also houses two 26-in. Stanford slitters and a Manz Automation capsule-forming system developed by Christian Majer GmbH. The Chesnut press is capable of running at speeds of 100 mpm, with an average run length of just 500-600 m due to the short-run nature of the business and the relatively small size of each capsule.
The French Connection
Ironically, Sparflex had installed an identical Nireco BCON 3000 NW system at its corporate headquarters in Epernay, France, three years ago, but Pletcher and his team weren't aware of the installation when they began their own search for a web inspection system in March 2008. They later found that the unit had been particularly beneficial in France, where they print very expensive champagne capsule materials.
“We're the leader in champagne capsule production in France, and whenever you're selling a luxury item, it has to be perfect,” notes Pletcher. “We didn't know our sister company had the same camera until after we decided on it, and we spent a lot of time researching it. We looked at competing systems during our search at other converting facilities in the United States. We also interviewed press operators at other plants to see how they worked for them and if they were actually using the systems.”
Pletcher says Sparflex also has used the Nireco system to inspect the raw material of one of its suppliers, which provides a white impregnated PVC material with some inherent manufacturing process limitations. The substrate has an “allowable” level of defects and impurities, which are precisely measured with the Nireco BCON 3000 NW inspection system to make sure they don't exceed acceptable limits. This allows Sparflex to use the material without sacrificing quality.
The Nireco system also acts as a selling tool for current and potential customers who not only demand a quality end product but also proof that their finished capsule or label is defect-free. For some customers, says Pletcher, “it's a feel good kind of thing,” providing a general sense of security that the end product is defect-free. Others appreciate the fact that the entire run is archived in the inspection system, and all or part of it is available for review.
Contributing editor Edward Boyle, based in Reading, PA, has covered the converting industry for more than 24 years. Contact him at EJB Communications; 610-670-4680; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Building Customer Confidence
At Sparflex of California, the Nireco BCON 3000 NW inspection system serves as an important demonstration tool when customers come to oversee a press run. Rather than simply watching converted materials or labels race by at high speed, customers can get microscopic views of the product and witness first-hand the extreme lengths to which Sparflex goes to maintain quality.
“Some of our customers do want to come in and audit us,” says Tim Pletcher, VP of operations. “And it really builds their confidence when we're able to present a process control history of the jobs that we've printed for them. It's clearly a benefit for us.”
Sparflex of California | 425-A Kunzler Ranch Rd., Ukiah, CA 95482 | 707-462-2963 | www.sparflexcal.com