Digital Magazine

Automated Sortation System Boosts Customer Satisfaction

Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. Lithographics, a sheet-fed offset label supplier producing $50 million worth of labels annually for the food and beverage industries, recently invested $3.7 million to modernize the finishing operations at its St. Charles, IL, and Greensboro, NC, facilities.

The goal was to enhance customer satisfaction by reducing or eliminating the number of “mixes” received by customers. A mix occurs when a carton of labels shipped to a customer contains even a single label for the wrong product, which slows the customer's production schedule. More importantly, if such a mix is not eliminated from the production process, it could have the potential for adverse health effects on the customer's end-users.

The modernization project that Smurfit-Stone undertook was implemented in three phases over the course of one year. The first phase involved installation of a sortation system from Accu-Sort Systems to sort bundles of labels by UPC code automatically. “We knew of Accu-Sort based mainly on word-of-mouth within the industry,” says Cindy Anderson, manager of the 110,000-sq-ft St. Charles plant. “After reviewing various options and interviewing representatives of Accu-Sort, we were satisfied they understood our concerns about potential mixes and would provide the best sortation system for our needs.”

The second phase addressed carton verification, and the third phase was printing and applying label stencils on the outside of the cartons. The volume and variety of production — 35 million labels a day and 2,500 different SKUs — made manual performance of these functions virtually impossible. Also installed were new cutting, slitting, and banding equipment, as well as new jogging stations — all designed to make the production process more efficient and accurate.

The Operation
The St. Charles plant uses more than 15,000 tons of paper a year, supplied by Pasadena Paper Co. and Westvaco. Ink is supplied by Flint Ink Co., and Noveon/Algan and Coatings & Adhesives Corp. provide coatings.

Smurfit-Stone prints, cuts, and stacks labels into bundles of 1,000. The bundles then are shrink-wrapped and put into cartons for shipment to customers that will label cans, bottles, and other containers at their packaging facilities.

The process begins in the sheeting department where a Lamb-Grays (no longer in business) precision sheeter operating at 500-600 fpm cuts rolls of 60#, 40-56½-in., coated-one-side and coated-two-side paper into sheets ranging in size from 28 × 32½ in. to 44 × 64 in. and stacks them at 6,000-10,000 sheets/stack.

Then the stacks are transported to one of two pressrooms where they are printed on sheet-fed lithograph presses. The main pressroom is equipped with a 64-in., large-format, seven-color Planeta press and a 54×77-in. Harris press that prints four colors plus varnish. An additional six-color, 40-in.-wide press is available also. A second pressroom contains a large-format, eight-color Planeta press on which the company has printed 21 colors simultaneously by splitting the ink fountains. This press also includes a unit for applying high-gloss, water-based coatings. Equipped with perfecting units that automatically flip the sheets so both sides can be printed at the same time, the Planeta presses average 6,000 sheets/hr. The press facility also includes a plate-making operation.

Printed sheets in stacks of 1,000 are loaded onto pallets and transported to a series of new Knorr Systems jogging stations in the plant's finishing department, where they are compressed to remove air trapped between the individual sheets. From the jogging stations, operators move the stacks over ergonomically designed air tables to one of two slitters that cut them into strips. Three PMC strip cutters cut the strips into two or more separate bundles of 1,000 labels, after which they are banded and shrink-wrapped.

The Sorting Begins
The finished bundles enter the sorting system via four Hytrol minimum-pressure-accumulation conveyors that transport them to a merge station, where they are accumulated and then released onto a single conveyor with proper spacing for scanning and sortation.

A Hytrol belt conveyor carries the labels under two Model XLT200 omnidirectional laser scanners, one of which serves as a redundant unit. “We wanted to have a backup to the system,” Anderson explains. The XLT200 is capable of reading UPC bar codes in any orientation; however, only picket fence and ladder orientations are presented in the Smurfit-Stone system. The XLT200 overcomes high levels of specular reflection, in this case from the glossy packaging film, which often causes poor read rates in conventional scanners.

Its unique design incorporates mirrors that indirectly reflect the signals to the sensor, thereby minimizing the reflective effect of the packaging and the product. The scanners read the UPC bar codes at the rate of 50-75 scans/sec, depending upon conveyor speed, bundle size, and spacing density. Once scanned, the label bundles are diverted to 1 of 26 sort lanes. Errors from scanning, spacing, or incorrect materials handling are tracked and diverted to one of two selectable reject lanes for visual inspection and resorting.

An IBM computer programmed with Accu-Sort's Windows-based software controls the sortation function. The PC provides lane assignments, sortation statistics, shift reports, bundles/bin, and other relevant data. Accu-Sort also provided all hardware necessary for sortation control. The PC controls bundle tracking through the use of tachometer and photoeye input. Photoeyes are positioned at each sort lane to provide tracking, acknowledge diverts, and abort diverts when bins are full. Aborted diverts are tracked and diverted to a secondary lane. The PC activates swing-arm diverters at each lane, which redirect the bundles into packing lanes.

When sortation is complete, operators place the bundles into a shipping carton, affix a label displaying the proper UPC code to the outside of the carton, and place the cartons on a takeaway belt conveyor. Smurfit-Stone says it adopted the use of single- rather than multiple-layer cartons for ease of verification and handling.

After the UPCs are affixed and the cartons are placed on the conveyor, they are scanned by two Model 24 laser line scanners. One scanner reads UPC bar codes in picket fence orientation; the other scanner reads them in ladder orientation. The scanners transmit read data to another IBM PC, which controls the print format for the carton labeling. The data for these carton labels, including product, item number, number of cases, next available case, job number, UPC, and other pertinent information, is downloaded from the mainframe server on a LAN to the IBM PC, which runs Windows NT for the carton verification system. An on-line printer-applicator automatically prints and applies a dated and time-stamped carton label indicating quantity, UPC, customer number, job number, Smurfit-Stone's own case code, and a description of the contents.

Before the carton label is verified, the contents are scanned and verified. Cartons pass under four Model 55 laser line scanners, which read and verify the label bundles inside the cartons. Two scanners read ladder bar codes, and two vibrating-vane units read picket fence bar codes. The scanners validate that the bar codes on the label bundles inside the carton match the bar code in the customer file with the correct number of bundles. The cartons then pass under two more Model 24 scanners that read the front of the cartons to verify that the UPC bar code on the automatically applied carton label stencil matches the operator-applied product label.

If everything matches, the cartons are conveyed and diverted to an automatic case sealer and are hand-palletized according to item number or UPC at 1 of the 15 packing stations. If a verification error occurs, the cartons are transported to a reject station.

“This eliminates a lot of congestion in the department,” says Anderson. “It's become a much cleaner operation since we installed the new system,” she explains, noting that prior to the installation of the sortation system there was more waste generated in the finishing operations.

At the end of each job, every case in the order is hand-scanned using Norand portable units, and the data is uploaded to the system's mainframe computer.

Safety Is an Added Benefit
In addition to the operational efficiencies and economic savings delivered by the system, Smurfit-Stone realized significant safety improvements as well. No accidents have been reported at the St. Charles facility since it was installed. Back injuries have been reduced dramatically, Anderson reports, with the elimination of much of the manual handling previously required and the introduction of ergonomic factors such as the use of single-layer cartons and positioning the takeaway conveyor and packing stations at the optimum height for operator comfort.

“The sortation system actually sorts all of our labels by UPC code in two separate packing stations, so we don't have the opportunity to put them in the wrong carton,” says Anderson. “We have had zero label mixes since the Accu-Sort system went into full operation.” The company was also able to reduce the head count in the St. Charles finishing department by 45% and improve throughput efficiency by 60%.

Based on the success of the St. Charles project, the company decided to install a similar but smaller system in its Greensboro, NC, facility. Even though the facility has only half as many packing stations as St. Charles, it too realized dramatic labor savings and improved efficiency. According to Michael Wilson, controller for both operations, “We were able to reduce the head count in Greensboro by nearly 30 percent and improve efficiency by 45 percent. To date we have exceeded our overall return on investment target of 40 percent.”

“I would recommend Accu-Sort to anyone in our industry,” Anderson says. “They not only took our input but anticipated things we never thought about. When we implemented the project, they were here whenever we needed support and worked with us to resolve issues as they arose. And they got our people involved, which is very important. They didn't come in and act like they were experts in our process. It's been a very good relationship.”

Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.
St. Charles, IL
Ph: 630/584-2900

Fax: 630/584-8521

Accu-Sort Systems, Telford, PA; ph: 215/723-0981; 800/BAR-CODE; fax: 215/996-8249.

Pasadena Paper Co., Pasadena, TX; ph: 713/475-6200; fax: 713/475-6518.

Westvaco Corp., New York, NY; ph: 212/318-5312; fax: 212/318-5028.

Flint Ink Corp., Ann Arbor, MI; ph: 734/622-6000; fax: 734/622-6060.

Noveon/Algan Coatings, Chagrin Falls, OH; ph: 440/543-9829; fax: 440/543-7523.

Coatings & Adhesives Corp., Leland, NC; ph: 910/371-3184.

KBA Planeta North America, Williston, VT; ph: 802/878-9400; fax: 802/878-3313.

Harris/Heidelberg, Kennesaw, GA; ph: 770/419-6500; fax: 770/419-6609.

Knorr Maschinenbau, Künzelsau, Germany; ph: +49 7940-92140; fax: +49 7940-921414.

PMC Printing Machinery, Cincinnati, OH; ph: 513/891-9000; fax: 513/891-0449.

Hytrol Conveyor Co., Jonesboro, AR; ph: 870/974-5642; fax: 800/482-2798.

Norand, Cedar Rapids, IA; ph: 319/369-3100; fax: 319/369-3453.

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