TrakRap: Wrapping its way to Industry 4.0

Posted on 29 Apr 2019 by The Manufacturer

A small company with a big vision is behind a revolutionary packaging system that is reducing the consumption of energy and material by food producers in the UK.

With its cold wrapping technology, TrakRap has not only taken heat and waste out of the packaging line; it is working with Siemens to provide its customers with all the benefits of manufacturing digitalisation.

Individual branded products such as tubs of yoghurt or trays of chicken are usually packed in batches for transit to the supermarket shelf or chilled cabinet. This process, known as secondary wrapping, often involves the application of heat in a shrink tunnel to produce the classic shrink-wrapped package.

Because of the amount of energy required, this procedure is both costly and inefficient. In contrast, TrakRap has created an alternative that requires no heat and reduces waste: an orbital wrapping process that applies a special ultra-thin stretch film to innovative packs that are themselves designed to use less material.

Chicken and Beef at the Market - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Orbital wrapping machines are designed, tested and built at the company’s engineering facility in Skelmersdale, Lancashire. TrakRap uses the Siemens SIMATIC and SINAMICS platforms to control film tension and the progress of packs through the orbital wrapping process.

The tension of the film and the speed and angle with which it is applied to a group of products is critical and must reflect the size, shape and weight of the items moving through the machine.

Positive customer feedback has created further demand for the orbital wrapping approach and TrakRap has continued to expand the range of products to which it can be applied. The company, however, faced a particular challenge with the design of a machine for handling aerosol products.

Because aerosols are potentially flammable, they are perfect candidates for cold wrapping technology but being typically tall and thin they are prone to instability during the packaging process.

Siemens has therefore been supporting TrakRap as it develops a new machine specifically designed to wrap aerosol canisters.

Through a collaborative project with several partners, including The Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in Coventry, Siemens technology has been used to virtually develop, test and commission TrakRap’s latest machine using a digital twin, a fully functioning 3D computer model of the machine.

The MTC employed Siemens NX™ software to design the machine, the Mechatronics concept design software to simulate the physical properties of the machine and the Simcenter™ portfolio of simulation and testing software from Siemens PLM Software to simulate and test the two-stage wrapping process in a virtual scenario.

The simulation even extended to the control and automation environment.

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From digital to physical

Through the creation of a digital twin, TrakRap gained accurate and detailed information, for example the digital wrapping process revealed that the first wrap was critical. Digital simulation showed the direction and force of the film as it touched the pack and demonstrated the specific instability of a group of canisters within a tray.

With this crucial feedback from a virtual production run, members of the design team at TrakRap were able to limit the force of the first wrap, use a different orientation for the second wrap and achieve a stable process.

As the assembly process of the first physical model began, TrakRap CEO Martin Leeming comments, “Our digital twin has been really useful in developing the first machine that we’re now building. We know this machine works in a way that is going to deliver exactly what we want.”

In addition to the manufacturing predictability that TrakRap has gained, time to market has been reduced by 40% and development costs cut by 30% because the physical prototype stage has been eliminated.

More critically, a new precedent has been set. “We now think of our machine not so much as a physical entity but as a flexible software platform that can adapt to different types of environment, product and set up, enabling us to predict quality, throughput and timescales,” says Leeming.

A changing business model

Digitalisation is changing everything about TrakRap, transforming the way it provides and monitors machinery and the way in which it supports customers.

The company works with Siemens Financial Services so that it maintains ownership of the machines it produces and provides customers with a service based on output and measured in terms of ‘pay-per-wrap’. TrakRap’s solution therefore requires no capital investment from customers and offers added value because of the significant reduction in the amount of energy and packing material consumed.

CROP - Siemens’ ‘Mindsphere’ IoT operating system can use digital twins to help optimise product development, production management and in-service performance – image courtesy of Siemens.

After a physical machine is installed on a customer site, it will be permanently paired with its digital twin. Existing applications will feed real-time operational data to MindSphere, the IoT (Internet of Things) platform developed by Siemens, for comparison with data generated simultaneously by the digital twin.

With 24/7 microscopic management of each machine, potential issues will easily be anticipated and downtime avoided.

TrakRap Operations Director, David Robinson, notes: “This will mean a fundamental difference to the way in which we operate. We have in the past measured the performance of our machines by how often they break but we now have the power to pre-empt failure. We can, for example, schedule maintenance within a window to minimise disruption or provide more focused operator training and advice.

“At the same time our customers will gain valuable feedback about the performance of their equipment. We can move from a reactive past to a proactive future, effectively managing our servicing and call out costs.” TrakRap expects a 53% reduction in call outs and a 72% reduction in machine down time.”

24/7 connectivity, control and efficiency

Leeming recognises huge future potential: “Because each piece of Siemens equipment on our machine has its own digital twin, our digital twin is effectively a collaboration of communicating parts. We therefore envisage a future connectivity that will open a whole new world of savings and efficiency, both for us and our customers.”

TrakRap customers will be able to place a TrakRap digital twin into a virtual factory, ensuring not just that the TrakRap machine is going to work but that the whole production line will work. Having all that operational understanding up front will reduce risk, resources, time and cost for food manufacturers.

The company is now in a position to provide a higher quality product – a continuing service in the form of a flexible and integrated solution that reduces total cost of ownership and supports UK manufacturing’s move towards Industry 4.0.

“The digital journey we’re on means that the future looks extremely bright for TrakRap,” Leeming concludes. “It’s allowing us to make a massive stride in an industry that’s very competitive.”