Excel Automation, the UK’s leading supplier of automated materials handling systems, has recently completed the third phase of a major upgrade of Chivas Brothers’ Palletisation and Automatic Despatch (PAD) Facility at the Kilmalid site in Dumbarton. The project, for one of Scotland’s largest bottling plants, consists of four phases all of which required separate tenders from a number of different suppliers. All phases of the major turnkey refurbishment contract were won by Excel Automation.
Chivas Brothers’ success in its drive to become the global leader in Scotch’s fast-growing premium sector, requires a significant increase in production from the company’s Palletisation and Automatic Despatch (PAD) facility in Dumbarton on the outskirts of Glasgow, as it plays a key role in the distribution of brands such as Ballantine’s, Beefeater Gin, Chivas Regal 25 year old and Malibu. It is currently undergoing the third phase of a major 4-phase upgrade designed to achieve maximum production from the site and provide Chivas with an estimated 50% increase in output. All four phases of this major refurbishment have been awarded to Excel Automation.
The first phase covered the refurbishment of eight narrow-aisle stacker cranes and the second involved the installation of new in-feed pallet conveyor systems for each of the automated stores.
The recently completed Phase 3 is a major upgrade of the Palletisation Facility at the Kilmalid site. The project required main contractor, Excel Automation to provide overall project management to ensure that while the new equipment was installed, existing plant would maintain production until it became redundant.
Phase 3 includes new conveying systems to transport different sized cartons containing a variety of bottle sizes, from the existing bottling plant into a completely new palletising plant where they are automatically sorted into pallet profiles. Before cases enter the eight new palletisers, the top of the cartons are sprayed with a cold glue to hold each layer of cartons together to form a stable block that is then delivered to the wrapping area.
Cases leave the Clyde bottling hall on eight production lines, each of which is assigned to one of the eight new palletisers. Each palletiser is capable of handling two lines simultaneously to allow routine palletiser maintenance to be completed. The dedicated case conveyor lines that now transport cases between the bottling plant and the palletisers are designed to handle a range of different case sizes and pallet quantities. The lines travel at a speed of 60 cases per minute.
In all more than 1,000 metres of Excelveyor 500 series belt driven carton conveyor were installed. Every 600mm section of roller conveyor installed up to the palletising area is equipped with an Itoh Denki soft-start system consisting of a 10-speed adjustable motor, a variable frequency controller and a photocell. The motor drives the rollers, the photocell detects the position of the boxes and the controller decides when the line needs to start and stop. The resulting line-mode accumulation prevents cases colliding, bottles breaking, and liquid spillage and generally manages the flow of cartons on the conveyors.
As a carton operates the ‘occupied’ switch on its conveyor section the controller looks ahead to the next controller. Providing the next section is clear and ready to run, it will start moving and the carton will transfer from one section to the next. With the conveyors set to train mode a line of cartons will simultaneously index along the conveyor. If a controller detects the conveyor section in front is not ready to receive a carton it will wait until the line is ready to move again. The Rockwell PLC only controls the conveyor at points where it has to interface with other conveyors or where it needs to be forced to operate outside its usual control parameters, for example when switch and merge points are used during palletiser maintenance. All conveyors are programmed to achieve the fastest cycle possible with the softest contact.
From the bottling plant, cases are fed into an accumulation tunnel which allows the system to build up a pallet load. As different brands and bottle sizes require different case sizes more than 50 different pallet filling combinations or ‘patterns’ are automatically available within the system to achieve maximum efficiency from a standard pallet size. Pallet loads of cases are then transported to the PAD building and from there, incline conveyors carry them to the high level (7.8 metre) in-feed for the palletisers.
When cases enter the palletisers a layer is formed and placed onto Chivas’ own captive pallets (1200mm x 1000mm), which are used until loads are transferred to customer pallets (up to six different types) in the despatch area. The empty captive pallets, stacked 12-high, are fed by one of two Excel pallet conveyors into two de-stacking machines, each of which then distributes individual pallets to four of the eight new palletisers. The second pallet conveyor transports the loaded pallets from the palletisers to the wrapping machines.
Because the conveyor systems and the eight high-speed high-level palletisers operate at significantly higher speeds (the palletisers have a maximum throughput of 62 cases per minute), pallet stability was an important consideration. Having experienced pack damage with six strapping machines previously used to secure pallet loads, Chivas specified the Lock n’ Pop cold glue system for the new operation.
Trials against hot-melt systems proved particularly successful in reducing pack damage, especially on Beefeater cartons which are printed using high quality preprint liners with a varnish finish. Stability is also greatly improved as pallets are conveyed from the palletiser to the wrapping area and during the actual stretch-wrapping process.
Two 1040-litre totes of pre-mixed, water soluble adhesive feed the eight palletisers. They are sited centrally at ground level on a standard 4-way entry pallet for ease of forklift handling. The automatic Lock n’ Pop applicators supplied to the plant are equipped with triple spray guns to allow palletiser software to determine which box size receives which application. For example, guns 1 & 2 would fire onto a narrow 6-bottle box and guns 1 & 3 would fire onto a 12-bottle box.
Commenting for Chivas Brothers, Project Manager Stephen Trainor says: “The system is handling luxury goods and the loads are quite fragile, so the combination of Lock n’ Pop and soft-start conveyors provides very effective protection for the valuable cargo. By eliminating lateral movement between the layers of boxes, Lock n’ Pop also enables us to reduce the amount of stretch wrap used on each pallet and allows easy de-palletising without damaging the carton surface or its graphics.”
Before loads enter the palletiser the Lock n’ Pop system now sprays the tops of all cases with a light coating of glue to hold the layers together as a ‘block’. As conveyors feed cases into the palletising area a ‘pusher’ automatically moves them around the pallet to match the correct pattern profile and create a pre-formed layer. A vertical carriage equipped with four perimeter guides then centralises the layer on the pallet before returning for the next, and so on until the load – up to eight layers deep – is completed. The last layer in the order is flagged by a reflective tape on one of the cases, which ends the order and informs the warehouse management system that the palletiser is ready to receive the next order. The pallet then leaves on the lower (0.75 metre) level conveyor for the stretch-wrapping area (already renewed as part of the Phase 2 installation).
In its specification, Chivas required that any palletiser could be stopped for service or maintenance without interrupting production. The Excel design therefore allows each of the eight palletisers to accommodate the maximum production of two lines using a combination of hinge belts and diverters. The palletiser software then automatically prioritises the next available batch from either of the two lines.
The order for Phase 3 was placed in June 2007 and work started on site during the week before Christmas 2007. Yet despite the complications of installing new equipment while the old plant was still operating, Excel’s new system was meeting Chivas Brothers production needs by April 2008 – one month ahead of the contracted date.
Explaining the importance of Excel’s project management to the success of Phase 3, Stephen Trainor says: “A significant advantage of the Excel proposal was its dual-line design, which actually fitted into the existing building and could be built whilst allowing the previous inline system to continue operating.
This was achieved by carefully coordinating the building of the new system and the dismantling of the old while taking advantage of the increased speed of the new equipment to compensate.” He adds that the success of the project is a credit to Excel’s engineering and planning skills.
Excel director and general manager Gary Sweeney says the installation teams made use of night time, weekends and the 2007 Christmas shutdown period and didn’t lose a single day’s production while the work was being done.
He adds: “We are delighted that our performance has fully justified the Chivas Brothers decision to trust Excel with the complete £3 million supply and project management contract.”
Excel has already been awarded the final, fourth phase of the contract for completion in April 2009. This will complete the PAD refurbishment with an upgrade of the despatch area where loads are transferred to customer pallets prior to being automatically loaded onto transport vehicles.