Hot pace for heat sealer

Packaging Automation has slashed its production cycle times using CAD/CAM, discovers Diane Palframan

A £2m investment over the past five years means Packaging Automation, a manufacturer of heat-sealing machinery, can design and make parts in a fraction of the time it used to take. The firm bought new machining centres and a CAD/CAM system.

The family owned, Knutsford-based company, employing 120, has captured the major share of the UK market for machines that heat-seal ready-made meal containers. It has a £6.5m turnover and supplies most of the UK’s biggest food manufacturers.

Its 15-year search for the right CAD/CAM system was guided by chairman Anthony Penn. `I’m an engineer and I wanted something I could design a machine on, not something that converted 2D drawings into a computer image,’ he says.

His drawing staff would have settled for Autodesk’s 2D AutoCad package, but Penn persuaded them to look at five different systems that offered 3D solid modelling. His vision was of an integrated design and manufacturing process. Pro/Engineer software from Parametric Technology (PTC) was chosen, running on Silicon Graphics workstations.

The company also bought PTC’s Pro/Manufacture, which uses the CAD model to create cutter paths for machining, and a Hitachi Seiki CNC machining centre, programmed using data from Pro/Manufacture.

The first application of its new systems was to develop the tools customers use on their heat sealing machines. `We can now design and make a set of heat-sealing tools for a particular shape of plastic tray in a day,’ says Penn. `Before it would have taken a week to design on drawing boards and manually program the machine tools.’

Unusually, the first person to learn to use the system was Penn, a computer enthusiast who believes you have to understand the basics of systems to use them effectively. He then encouraged others to overcome their fear of computers. `You wouldn’t believe the speed they work at now,’ he says.

The firm has moved on to designing complete machines on the CAD/CAM system. Its latest project is to link CAD/CAM with production control so that a parts list, generated during design, can be fed automatically, rather than by hand, into the manufacturing system. `We’ve been trying to bridge the canyon between Pro/Engineer and our Swan manufacturing system for two years,’ says Penn. `But I think we’ve recently found a firm that can solve this.’

The investment made by Packaging Automation, he adds, revolves around increasing the speed at which tasks are carried out and removing bottlenecks. `But none of this will work unless people are switched on.’