Operating and Maintaining Automatic Packaging Machines

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When most people think of automatic packaging machinery, they do not picture in their mind manual labor. Of course, automatic machines do allow a wide variety of products to be filled, capped, labeled and otherwise packaged without constant human intervention. The use of these machines, in general, speeds up the packaging process and allows larger production demands to be met, while also increasing consistency and reliability. However, such equipment will always require an operator or technician on occasion to ensure proper functioning of each machine and the automatic system as a whole.


Before any piece of packaging machinery can perform properly, it must be positioned and set up properly. In many cases, inline packaging machinery is used, allowing individual pieces of equipment – liquid fillers, capping machines, labeling and coding equipment – to simply be rolled up to an existing power conveyor system. However, before turning the equipment on and running through bottles or containers, the machine must be leveled on the production floor. Normally the leveling will be accomplished by adjusting the legs of the machine to compensate for uneven flooring or other issues.

The positioning and leveling of the packaging machinery will occur when the equipment is first delivered to the production floor and, occasionally, when equipment is repositioned to accommodate other machines or new line layouts. The operator or technician will not spend a majority of their time positioning and leveling the machines, but this is an important task that is necessary to ensuring ideal performance from the packaging line.


Once the packaging machinery is in place and leveled, the operator may assist in the initial set up of the equipment. The word “may” is used because in many instances, the initial set up of the machine will occur at the plant of the manufacturer using sample bottles, caps, products and other components of the project. If samples of all products and packages to be run are provided by the end user, the manufacturer can often find the parameters for each combination and save these same parameters on different machines, such as rinsing and filling equipment. The parameters may include rinse durations, fill durations, pump speeds, indexing times and more, depending on the type of machine being used. In these cases, the operator can complete much of the adjustment for a specific bottle or product with a few simple touches to the PLC operator interface, saving significant time in trying to fine tune rinses, fills and other actions each time a change over from one bottle to another is required.

Even with this time saving benefit though, not all adjustments can be made at the touch of a button. For most systems, when a move is made from one bottle or container to another, the operator of the automatic equipment will need to make some hands on adjustments. Power conveyors will require some adjustment to the guide rails if there is a significant difference in bottle width or height. The operator may need to adjust the bottle clamp and nozzles on a rinsing machine. Bottle fillers may also require height and nozzle adjustments and indexing systems along entire packaging line may need to be modified.

Many of these adjustments may be tool free, simply requiring the loosening of a knob and repositioning of some component of a machine. At times, a few bolts may need to be loosened to make adjustments and in rare occasions, such as the addition or removal of double gripper belts on a spindle capper, whole components may need to be added or removed. The amount of time the operators of a system spend on changeover will depend on the machinery and features found on each packaging line as well as the number of different products and packages being used.


Once the line is up and running, the operator of the packaging system will not need to assist in the filling, capping, labeling or other packaging functions, with the possible exception of adding bottles, caps or other package parts to the line on an occasional basis. Instead, the operator will monitor the entire line, keeping an eye out for issues such as bottle jams, bottle tips and malfunctioning machinery. Even the burden of this task can often be lessened with the addition of alarm lights, sensors Emergency Stop buttons and other machinery components. However, when issues do arise, the operator will be needed to clear the errors that do occur and restart the equipment.


Once the production day is over, the operator will also want to spend some time cleaning the equipment to avoid dirt, dust, product or debris buildup that could negatively effect the performance of the machine. The amount of cleaning necessary and the time taken to perform this chore will depend in large part on the equipment and product being used as well as the environment in which the packaging takes place. Some equipment may be washdown compatible, allowing for the spraying of most or all of the line to wash away debris. Filling equipment may include CIP systems, allowing the product pathway and tank to be cleaned without disassembly. Other machines may simply require a quick wipe with a clean cloth to avoid the buildup mentioned above.

In addition to machine cleaning, the operator will want to inspect the equipment to ensure all components, and especially wear parts, are in proper working order. From time to time the operator should check nozzle seals on filling machines and chuck inserts or spindle disks on capping machines to ensure that these wear and contact parts have not run through their useful life. If wear parts do need to be replaced, the operator will normally be responsible for making these changes as well.

Though automatic packaging machinery can run continuously with limited human contact, the operator of the line is still essential to keep the equipment efficient, consistent and reliable. Without quick intervention, knowledgeable set up and changeover and proper maintenance, the equipment will simply not perform to maximum potential, and it is still up to the human element to provide these skills.

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