Agribusiness & Food

Bulk system triples production at seed lubricant plant

High-speed planting methods have fuelled demand for seed-flow lubricants. Van Sickle Paint Manufacturing reached out to Flexicon for equipment that could help it keep up with the market.

High-speed planting methods have fuelled demand for seed-flow lubricants. Van Sickle Paint Manufacturing reached out to Flexicon for equipment that could help it keep up with the market.

Seed-flow lubricants improve seed planting by reducing static electricity and/or moisture that causes the seeds to bridge. 

Tom Hubers, a project engineer at Van Sickle Paint Manufacturing, said it makes everything plant better.

“Farmers pour this material in with their seeds to coat them so that they don’t clump,” he said.

Van Sickle entered the lubricant business 10 years ago. The products come in three versions: a graphite powder, a talc powder, and a talc-graphite blend.

Hubers said it was a manual operation, with workers dumping 23 kg sacks of graphite and talc into a blender.

“They would pre-label containers of various sizes in one room, and then bring them into another room to fill one by one. They’d put the container under the filler, step on a pedal to start the cycle, fill it, screw on the cap, and put it in a box. It was a labour-intensive operation,” he said.

Converting to bulk bag discharging

To automate and expand its packaging operation, Van Sickle leased a new warehouse and distribution centre in 2020, dedicating half of it to packaging the seed lubricants. In addition to the efficiency gains achieved by automation, the new system enables the company to purchase talc and graphite in one tonne bulk bags at lower cost than in 23 kg bags.

Materials are now handled, from unloading of the bulk bags through blending and final packaging, using three Bulk-Out model BFC bulk bag dischargers and five flexible screw conveyors, all supplied by Flexicon Corp.

One discharger feeds a packaging line that fills graphite into 0.6 kg and 2.3 kg containers. The other two dischargers––one for graphite and one for talc––deliver material to a blender that empties into a surge hopper. From there, the mixture is conveyed to two packaging lines, one filling 3.5 kg jugs and the other filling nine kg and 18 kg boxes.

Bulk bags of graphite and talc are stored near the production floor for quick delivery to the dischargers, each of which is equipped with a bag lifting frame and an electric hoist and trolley that rides on a cantilevered I-beam, allowing bulk bags to be hoisted from the plant floor into the frame without using a forklift. 

Once the bag straps are hooked onto the lifting frame, the operator uses a pendant to hoist the assembly, roll it into the frame, and lower it into position. A Spout-Lock clamp ring atop a pneumatically actuated Tele-Tube telescoping tube connects the bag spout securely, after which the telescoping tube exerts continuous downward tension on the clamp ring and bag spout as the bag empties and elongates, promoting flow and evacuation.

Although the graphite and talc powder flow freely, they tend to pack and bridge during storage. Each discharger includes three mechanisms to promote flow: Flow-Flexer bag activators that raise and lower opposite bottom edges of the bag into a V shape, a vibrator mounted on the exterior wall of the hopper beneath the discharger, and an in-hopper agitator. All start and stop automatically in sync with the operation of the dischargers and conveyors.

Hands-off discharging and conveying 

The unloader dedicated to feeding a graphite filling line discharges into a 566 L hopper that charges a 4.5 m long, 115 mm diameter flexible screw conveyor, which is routed to the packaging line’s feed hopper at a 45-degree incline.

The screw is the only moving part contacting material and is driven by an electric motor above the discharge point, preventing material contact with seals.

A high-level sensor on the hopper triggers an audible alarm indicating when to replace the bag, while a low-level sensor prevents the conveyor from operating in a ‘starved’ condition.

The two dischargers dedicated to the talc and talc-graphite products share the same features as the graphite-only discharger, but they utilise 7.6 m long, 210 mm diameter flexible screw conveyors, also inclined at 45-degrees, that discharge into a blender mounted on load cells. The dischargers and conveyors operate alternately to attain the desired talc or talc-graphite ratio and target weight, typically 340 kg. 

“We can pick whatever batch size and blend ratio we want, and the control system dispenses automatically,” Hubers said. The high-throughput of the large-diameter conveyors shortens batch cycle times. 

Under gain-in-weight control, the load cells supporting the blender interface with the discharger’s programmable logic controller (PLC) to run and stop the conveyor. Once the weight gain of talc or graphite-talc mixture approaches 23 kg of the target weight, the conveyor slows to dribble speed, stopping immediately prior to reaching the target weight to account for material still in-flight, which results in accurate and repeatable batches.

At the end of the blending cycle, the talc or talc-graphite mixture gravity feeds into a 2265 L surge hopper equipped with a bin activator that promotes flow into two 4.5 m long, 114 mm diameter flexible screw conveyors. Oriented opposite one another, they transfer the powder to the packaging lines for 3.5 kg jugs and nine and 18 kg boxes. Because the weigh-batching and blending cycles repeat back-to-back, the surge hopper is never empty, and operation is continuous. 

Talc and graphite are both highly aeratable and prone to dusting, so each discharger is vented to an optional Bag-Vac dust collector to contain airborne dust displaced from the hopper during discharge. It also collapses empty bags prior to tie off and removal, eliminating dust generated when empty bags are flattened manually. 

Jason Vore, manager of process engineering, said as soon as the system is done filling one batch, it gets the next batch ready.

“We fire up the vacuum system, suck everything out of the bulk bag, collapse it, tie it off, swap out bags, and hit ‘go’ again. Running full out, we might change a bag every 25 or 30 minutes,” Vore said.

Overall system throughput is three to four times higher than it was at the old facility. 

“We can produce as many 1 lb containers in a day as we used to in a 40-hour work week,” he said, “Our output per worker-hour has about tripled.”

Only two or three people run the packaging operation now, and the heaviest thing they lift is a 14.5 kg carton of finished product. 

“The level of comfort, the amount of physical labour, and the cleanliness in the new facility is so much better,” Hubers said. “It’s not even comparable to what we had.” 

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