Blending operations are the core of every lubricant manufacturing plant, but after oils and greases are made, they must be put into containers that will carry them to end users. This is where packaging comes in.
Most lubricants are packaged in automated lines that speed the processes of filling containers and preparing them for distribution. It is no simple task, however, to assemble machines that will accommodate the specific parameters of a particular blender-operator – not only the type of lubricants that are made but also the types of packages, labeling, caps and many other aspects.
Industry insiders say blenders are looking increasingly for equipment that has the flexibility and versatility to efficiently package different products in different containers. Getting lines that do what they want requires a lot of careful planning.
The lubricants industry continues to build blending plants – particularly in developing countries. A list of projects recently completed or under construction includes facilities in Germany, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, China, Jordan, Sudan, Vietnam and Indonesia. Most blending plants include packaging operations, so this creates demand for packaging equipment, as do upgrades and expansions.
The Middle East and Asia-Pacific continue to be major sources of projects involving expansion of blending and therefore new filling lines, said Enrico Bernini, Middle East area manager for Ocme srl, a Parma, Italy-based supplier of fluid handling equipment for the lubricants and other industries.
Bernini added that packaging equipment produced today offers greater performance flexibility for blenders that want to fill different containers. We had a lot of requests for easy and quick format changes, he said. Companies also want machines that have the ability to handle containers and labels with special features. Todays machines have also improved in efficiency and precision, allowing operators to improve on their profit margins.
According to industry insiders, the key to effective packaging operations is to carefully integrate them into the blenders overall operation. Europack Owner and General Manager Werner Moeller advises that the first step is to develop a comprehensive list of requirements that cover every aspect of the operation. It goes without saying that blenders need to consider the types of lubricants and types of packaging they will be using and procure equipment that accommodates them.
Less obvious, he said in an e-mail exchange with LubesnGreases, is the need to consider quality control requirements for the products being packaged. Lube producers with low tolerance for variability need packaging equipment that allows more thorough flushing between product runs. They need to consider the temperature at which products must be packaged. If the products are particularly smelly or noxious, operators can buy filling equipment that contains the odor.
Once product considerations are complete, blenders should determine package requirements, said Moeller, who is based in Hamburg. Europack consults on packaging, labeling and logistics issues for the lubes industry.
Package parameters include the number, shapes and sizes of containers to be used, along with the materials they are made from. The speed at which they are filled is also germane.
Closures, such as caps or lids, may seem insignificant but must also be taken into account, according to Christian Musiol, sales director at Bericap GmbH, a Budenheim, Germany-based closures supplier. During a March presentation at the Petroleum Packagers Council in the United States, he said that packaging lines must accommodate closure sizes, which are continually evolving.
The global trend is toward 38- to 40-millimeter diameter closures, he said.
A related requirement is designing and procuring labeling that meets government requirements while helping to market the product. Factors to consider here, said Musiol, include label material (plastic or paper), ad hesive type and application method, printing method (preprint or on-line) and language requirements (single or multiple).
Blenders should remember to consider how a packaging line will fit within their overall operation. Filling equipment needs conceptual and detailed designs to ensure it fits within the companys facilities, Moeller said. Developing a strategy for package supply, storage and transfer is critical for the filling line to function properly, Moeller said. The lubricant producers warehouse, for example, must have sufficient storage, transportation and stocking capacity.
Once the tender is issued, it is the duty of the packaging or filling line manufacturer to build and install the filling or packaging line, overseen by a project manager assisted by a representative of the lubricants company, Moeller said. In many cases the whole setup of the filling and packaging line is a combination of various equipment and appliance manufacturers that won the bidding process and are assembled by the lubricants company, he noted.
The very last step is demonstration of the capability and functionality of the equipment per all previously agreed requirements, as well as final approval of the system by the lubricants company or the customer.
Experience shows that the form of a packaging line, its configuration within the facility and its reliability are key elements for producing a finished product successfully. Cost-effective operation relies on maximum automation and minimal waste in container production.
But the interface between packaging and other functions – especially blending – must be well-designed, said Moeller. Smooth operation requires precise integration of the blending and filling equipment, he said.
Some companies broaden their packaging activities by making their own plastic bottles, meaning that they must purchase blow-molding equipment. LLK-International, the lubricant arm of Lukoil, did so this past couple years at blending plants in Perm and Volgograd, Russia.
Several equipment manufacturers competed to supply blow-molding machines for LLKs new 50,000 t/y blending plant in Volgograd. But the winning company was Uniloy Milacron because the form of its filling and packaging lines met our companys technical requirements while providing optimum quality and price, said Irina Rybalchenko, LLK-Internationals spokesman.
The blow-molding operations in Perm and Volgograd both make one-, four- and five-liter containers that are filled at those locations. LLK said recently that it plans to expand the blending plant there to 250,000 t/y by 2015. The plant will need some kind of containers for the additional output.
LLK did not discuss details of the filling line in Volgograd but Rybalchenko said the company was pleased with the results. The lines configuration is arranged in a way that requires minimal manual labor, while allowing for detailed supervision of the automated packaging production process. Thats why we were able to limit the number of line controllers, Rybalchenko explained.
Europack sees a trend toward packaging lines that are bigger and broader in scope. Currently, we see a lot of centralization and specialization of blending and filling facilities for costing and capacity optimization reasons, he said. Fast movers [want] to install fully-automatic equipment. However, a smaller number of producers, such as toll blenders and other slow movers, still choose semi-automatic. In either case, he said, the key is to comprehensively assess their own packaging needs.