Thursday, February 2, 2023

Bigger Means Better — ESS Expands

30 years!!! 

It’s the rare small business that survives thirty years, never mind experiencing explosive growth three decades in. ESS is celebrating this achievement; bigger means better!

Now a member of the Pacteon Group, ESS has cut the ribbon on our latest manufacturing expansion located at Cascade Industrial Park in Pembroke, Virginia. The original building was 10,000 square feet. The expansion adds 12,000 square feet, more than doubling the total engineering and manufacturing space to 22,000 square feet. Located thirty minutes from ESS headquarters in Blacksburg, Virginia, the expanded ESS facility brings increased capacity to ESS’s production capabilities and more skilled jobs to the local area. ESS is hiring excellent people for both locations. 

VP and GM Tim Cokeley and ESS Team Members Cut the Ribbon on the Pembroke Virginia Building Expansion (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Leader.)
ESS manufactures cartoners, case packers and robotic pallet cells for a range of products, including pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, medical devices, cosmetics and consumer packaged goods. Our TaskMate Robotic Systems® integrate with our end-of-line solutions to create a fully automated packaging line. System design capabilities range from compact cartoners to baseball infield-length full packaging lines that may be integrated with equipment manufactured by the Pacteon Group companies and other OEMs. The expansion to ESS’s manufacturing capacity allows ESS to meet our customer’s expectations for building their systems while maintaining flexibility to configure our shop floor space to maximize production.
A Very Compact Cartoner and a Very Large Cartoning and Case Packing Line
(Photos by ESS Technologies, Inc.)

The added space also allows ESS to expand its skilled engineering team. Innovation doesn’t sit still, and neither does ESS. Our engineers are dedicated to developing reliable, cost-effective, state-of-the-art technology to enhance our end-of-line packaging solutions. Bigger space means room for bigger ideas!
Integrated FANUC Robots are Featured in ESS Packaging Machines 
(Photo courtesy of the Virginia Leader.)

For example, ESS engineers designed a unique fixture to automate erecting a variety of cartons on a single system, including auto-bottom cartons, glue-bottom cartons, and tuck-bottom cartons. An Authorized System Integrator for FANUC America robots, ESS integrates FANUC’s SR-6iA robot to square the carton sides, move the carton across the bottom closing fixture, and place it on a conveyor for downstream loading and closing. ESS designed the robot tooling with quick-change connections for fast changeover.
ESS’s Carton Erecting Design for the VC30 Carton Erector, Loader and Closer Has Been Submitted for Patent Approval (Photo by ESS Technologies, Inc.)

ESS celebrated our expansion with a ceremony at the Pembroke, Virginia location. The event included county and state representatives, elected officials, local businesses, ESS leadership, and ESS personnel. Visitors toured the facility, learned about ESS end-of-line solutions, and viewed some of our automated packaging machines being built at the Pembroke, Virginia location. The Virginia Leader news article about this event can be viewed on page 2 of the January 25, 2023 edition available at
Visitors to the ESS Ribbon Cutting Ceremony Learn More About ESS’s Robotic Mini Pallet Cell
(Photo courtesy of the Virginia Leader.)

ESS is excited to see how much bigger we will grow in the next thirty years. With the strength of Pacteon Group, which currently includes ESS, Schneider Packaging Equipment (Brewerton, New York, USA) and Phoenix Stretch Wrappers (Laval, Quebec, Canada), ESS makes the Pacteon Promise: We make it right. Learn more about ESS at our website,

(This article is linked and excerpted with permission from the Virginia Leader. All ESS photos are copyright of ESS Technologies, Inc.)

Monday, November 28, 2022

Feed the Blister Packaging Machine — Part I

An automated packaging machine of any type can only operate as fast as it can be fed the products being packaged. Where filler-capper systems and cartoners typically come standard with automated product infeed systems, the same is not true for blister packaging machines. 

Blister packaging machines load pre-formed blisters into a die tray that holds multiple blisters. Multiple die trays on the machine’s indexing system may be placed in a straight line or on a rotary table that moves the die tray from blister placement to blister loading and finally to blister sealing. Each blister must be loaded precisely so overhanging product does not impede the machine’s automated sealing process. At the same time, each blister must be loaded quickly enough to allow the blister packaging machine to achieve the necessary production rate.

Rotary Blister Packaging Machine
Die Tray for 6-Up Blisters on a Sonoco Alloyd Aergo-8 Rotary-Style Blister Packaging Machine (Photo by ESS Technologies.)

A blister packaging line’s available space can also limit production rate. Large blister packaging machines include multiple loading stations on both sides of the machine. Operators pick and place product into the blisters as quickly and accurately as possible to avoid the machine indexing empty blisters or loading blisters with overhanging product, both of which waste materials and will cause machine downtime after consecutive faults. More operators can better maintain the required production speed, but the systems occupy significant floor space. Smaller blister packaging machines save on valuable factory floor space, but they offer fewer product loading stations, restricting the machine’s potential production rate. In either scenario, manual labor is required, putting human operators at risk for repetitive motion injuries. 

A Very Large and a Very Compact Straight Line Blister Packaging Machine, both Alloyd Aergo-SLs (Photos by ESS Technologies.)

By automating the blister loading process with a pick and place robotic cell, such as ESS’s TaskMate Robotic Systems® Blister Loader, manufacturers of blister-packaged products can achieve maximum production rates while minimizing downtime and conserving available space. This solution is ideal for blister packages that contain only one type of product. ESS’s compact, automated blister loading solution integrates a FANUC multi-axis robot with ESS-designed end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) to create a fast and reliable means of loading blisters. (ESS is an authorized system integrator for FANUC America robots.) Integrating such a system increases speed and efficiency and allows valuable human resources to be redeployed to more demanding parts of the packaging process. 

Advantages to Automated Blister Loading

Flexibility and Fast Changeover

Robotic EOAT offers both to manufacturers using blister packaging machines to package their products. A single robotic cell can handle a wide range of products, depending on the manufacturer’s requirements. Provided that each SKU uses a die tray configured for the same reach, fast-changeover EOAT can be designed to pick multiple products with each cycle. A spreading feature enables the EOAT to populate multiple blisters at a time. By incorporating quick release pneumatic connections and thumbscrews, a robotic end effector can be quickly removed and replaced with a new EOAT to handle a different product. This has significant advantages in packaging lines that use shorter runs for independent SKUs. Robotic blister loading systems integrate easily with new or existing blister packaging lines.
Spreading EOAT for Loading Multiple Blisters Per Cycle (Photos by ESS Technologies.)

Reduce Waste and Downtime

Misfeeds, incomplete loading, and empty blister feeding all represent sources of waste, especially in the production of pharmaceuticals and medical devices, which are, for the most part, still manually fed to horizontal form-fill-seal systems and blister packaging machines. Packaging machines are designed to cease operation after multiple faults, a cause of line downtime for all manufacturers. Integrated robotics equipped with line tracking and vision provide an ideal solution for careful blister loading to minimize machine faults. In addition to providing multiple picks per cycle, multi-axis robots with line tracking and integrated vision systems maintain continuity with the packaging machine and can verify product placement and product quality.

Line Tracking EOAT Picks Multiple Syringes on a Continuous Infeed Conveyor (Photo by ESS Technologies.)

Maximize Valuable Human Resources and Reduce Personal Injury to Workers

Automated blister loading allows manufacturers to better train and utilize personnel in areas of the production process unsuited to automation. By integrating robots to feed the blister packaging machine, packagers can increase productivity without increasing personnel, reducing labor costs. As labor shortages continue in many manufacturing sectors, robotic automation offers a means to meet production demands.

Even if finding workers is not a concern for manufacturers, the work of manually loading blisters might be. Repetitive motion can result in carpal tunnel syndrome, a long-term injury caused by the compression of the median nerve in the wrist. This compression results in numbness, pain, burning, and weakened grip strength. Robots cannot be injured by repetitive motion, and they suffer no loss of work due to illness, reducing injury to workers and line downtime.

An Automated Solution

ESS engineers designed the TaskMate Robotic Systems® Blister Loader to integrate easily with blister packaging machines. The compact system allows manufacturers to fully automate the blister loading process. Several FANUC robot models may be specified, depending on the requirements of the application, including the new CRX-10iA collaborative robot that FANUC America designed to work alongside humans without the need for safety guarding. 

At a recent industry trade show, ESS and OEM partner Sonoco Alloyd, a manufacturer of blister packaging machines and blister packaging materials, demonstrated a collaborative robotic loader integrated with Alloyd’s most recent sealing machinery, the Aergo SSL, a fully servo-driven straight-line packaging machine. The collaborative FANUC CRX-10iA robot stopped immediately if it contacted anything solid, eliminating the need for safety guarding. ESS designed the EOAT to pick and place two products (tissue packs) per cycle. The blister packaging machine sealed the tissue packages into paper blisters and discharged them two at a time for a rate of 24 blister packs per minute. Click here to see the Aergo-SSL and TaskMate Robotic Systems® Blister Loader in action. (YouTube link opens in new window).
Alloyd Compact Straight Line Blister Packaging Machine with Collaborative Robotic Loader (Photos by ESS Technologies.)

ESS and Alloyd have partnered in the past, integrating non-collaborative robot models such as the FANUC LR Mate 200iD. The LR Mate Series offers higher speeds than collaborative robots. The compact size allows the robotic cell to be integrated seamlessly at the blister loading station to keep required floor space to a minimum. Robotic blister loading systems may be integrated with new blister packaging machines or retrofitted with existing blister packaging lines to automate previously manual loading processes.
LR Mate 200iD Robotic Loader Integrated with New Blister Packaging Machine (Photo by ESS Technologies.)

Integrated robotic cells allow blister packaging machines to run at maximum production rates. Multi-axis robots easily keep up with die tray indexing to accurately load blisters one or more at a time. The increased blister loading speed achieved with robotics integration allows manufacturers to reduce the number of required loading stations, which reduces the machine footprint. 

Single-product blister loading is still the most common type of configuration. One product per blister, one robot, one infeed system. Simple. But what if the blister needed to contain more than one item? What if the blister package was actually an entire tray of components? Could a robotic solution handle that capacity? Find out in “Feed the Blister Packaging Machine — Part II,” coming soon.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

ESS Has Grown

Pacteon Group, a global leader in end-of-line packaging automation, is excited to announce the acquisition of ESS Technologies, Inc. (“ESS” or the “Company”). The addition of ESS brings state-of-the-art cartoning and packaging line integration capabilities into Pacteon’s portfolio and significantly strengthens its presence in the pharmaceutical and diagnostic markets.

 Founded in 1993, ESS provides complete packaging line design, equipment manufacturing, integration and automation solutions to the pharmaceutical, diagnostic and cosmetic end markets. The Company has extensive experience designing, manufacturing and integrating cartoners, case packers, robotic palletizers and filling and capping equipment. With a focus and expertise in the pharmaceutical end market, the Company also offers packaging machinery with integrated serialization systems to meet stringent pharmaceutical track and trace mandates.

 “ESS has a best-in-class offering and is a highly respected brand in the pharmaceutical, diagnostic and cosmetic end markets. We are excited about this partnership and for ESS to become part of the Pacteon family,” said Pacteon CEO, Bob Brotzki.

 “We are excited to be partnering with Pacteon for the next chapter of ESS’ growth story. Pacteon offers a unique set of resources and expertise that will help ESS continue to expand our presence in our core end markets,” said ESS Technologies President & Founder, Kevin Browne.

 For more information on ESS Technologies, please visit

 About Pacteon

Pacteon provides a one source touch for best-in-class automation companies focused around packaging line solutions, providing the highest level customer experience. Through a broad range of robotic and non-robotic equipment, ability to integrate solutions seamlessly across portfolio companies, and full sales and service coverage, Pacteon is uniquely positioned to design flexible and custom solutions for your automation needs.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Side By Side: A Case for Collaborative Robots

Side By Side: A Case for Collaborative Robots

When robots first entered the manufacturing work force in the mid-twentieth century, they were installed to perform heavy or dangerous (or both) tasks, over and over again alongside other robots. Where it was impractical to put the robots in rooms of their own, expensive and space-consuming safety guarding was required to protect humans from colliding with the machines that could neither sense their presence nor account for the fragility of the human skeleton. As robot technology advanced, the machines became smaller, lighter, nimbler, and more useful in manufacturing processes.

No longer confined to spot welding and painting, robots are now deployed throughout the factory floor. Today, robotic systems can be found in modern manufacturing plants loading bulk materials into feeders, and assembling a wide range of consumer goods and medical devices. Very small robots with high-speed picking capabilities have been developed that can quickly sort or collate parts, assemble kits, and inspect finished goods. Mid-sized multi-axis robotic units are used for packing those goods into cartons, bags, and blisters, and then inspecting the packaged goods. Larger robots with payloads up to hundreds of pounds also handle end-of-line processes such as case packing and palletizing.

Dual Pallet Cell with Collaborative CR-35iA Robot. (Photo copyright ESS Technologies.)

By automating manual processes, especially case packing and palletizing, manufactures can reduce workplace injuries caused by lifting heavy cases or performing repetitive motions. The cost for factory floor space is not insignificant, however, and while the uses for robots in manufacturing evolved, the safety guarding systems, for the most part, did not. Requiring additional factory floor space, PLe-rated safety guarding systems, the standard for robotic cells, include a combination of wire fences, polycarbonate walls, and sensors that, when tripped, cause the robot to stop all activity within the cell. Opening a guard door or tripping a light curtain or area sensor generates a fault in the robotic PLC that must be addressed by the operator before automatic operation can resume.

The development of collaborative robots, such as FANUC America’s CR-35iA robot, marks a new generation of robotic technology. The CR-35iA offers a payload of up to 35kg and a reach of 1,813mm, making it ideal for automating manual palletizing processes. In addition to eliminating heavy lifting for employees, the collaborative robot further increases workplace safety, because the robot itself is designed to operate in close proximity to humans in a shared workspace without the need for safety fences. The green robot cover is padded to reduce impact forces and pinch points by providing a soft barrier between a human operator and a robot arm. The stopped robot arm can be gently pushed away from people or objects by the operator if needed.

The CR-35iA Collaborative Robot features twenty-four (24) precision sensors that cause it to stop all motion when it comes in contact with an object or person. This eliminates the need for safety guarding and greatly reduces the footprint of the robotic cell. Without guarding, the CR-35iA will operate up to two (2) cycles per second. Greater speeds can be achieved (5-6 cycles per minute) with the use of area sensors to detect motion within the robotic cell. Well-designed robot end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) allows the robot to pick more than one case, depending on the case size and weight, further reducing the time needed to form a full pallet load. In applications requiring placement of a deck sheet or tier sheet, the same robot and tooling performs these functions. When integrated with serialization track-and-trace systems, the robot may also be programmed to hold case labels over cameras or barcode scanners to verify the pallet load or provide automatic reject of incorrectly labeled cases.

FANUC America has recently expanded its line of collaborative robots to include compact versions, the CR-4iA with a 4kg payload and the CR-7iA/L with a 7kg payload, that can be integrated to perform a wide range of manufacturing and packing processes.  Like their larger counterpart, the smaller collaborative robots also include sensors to allow the robot to detect a collision and automatically cease operation. As collaborative technology evolves, expect to see robots working side-by-side with humans in all manner of manufacturing processes.
FANUC America Collaborative Robots (Photo copyright FANUC America. ESS Technologies is an authorized FANUC system integrator.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Robotic Palletizers for Track and Trace Serialziation

(This is part threein a three-part series on integrating packaging machinery with track and trace serialization systems to meet the 2017 pharmaceutical mandates. Part one is here. Part two is here.)

Track & Trace Pallet Cells

Robotic palletizers also integrate easily with track and trace systems. Prior to palletizing, labeled cases are verified at the case infeed conveyor. The system either presents the label to the barcode reader or a barcode reader positioned on the conveyor can read the label before the case is picked. In either scenario, incorrect cases can be rejected for rework. Robots can also be programmed to position the case label so that it can be seen and scanned at pallet’s final location.
Barcode Scanners on a Robotic Palletizer Case Infeed
Barcode Scanners at a Palletizer Infeed

Robotic palletizers can be integrated directly with track and trace case packers to create a complete end-to-end system. High speed case packers integrated with stand-alone robotic pallet cells can handle up to 20-25 cases per minute using two robots, one to case pack and one to palletize. Track and trace packaging lines requiring lower speeds, between 5-6 cases per minute, can incorporate case packing and palletizing with a single robot to create a very compact track and trace packaging solution.  Labelers and scanners are also integrated with robotic palletizers. Fully loaded pallets are also labeled using RFID tags, bar codes or readable codes to fully verify the contents of the pallet.
Robotic palletizer verifies case serialization labels before palletizing the cases.
Single Cell Robotic Palletizer with Integrated Serialization System

By integrating OEM serialization systems with packaging machinery, pharmaceutical manufacturers can secure their supply line from counterfeiting and meet current and future pedigree requirements. The investment in integrated equipment provides a streamlined process that can be easily reconfigured for future applications.
Dual cell palletizer with track and trace allows robot to continue palletizing while full pallet is removed.
Dual Cell Robotic Palletizer with Integrated Serialization System

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Cartoners and Case Packers for Track and Trace Serialization

(This is part two in a three-part series on integrating packaging machinery with track and trace serialization systems to meet the 2017 pharmaceutical mandates. Part one is here.)

Robotic Track & Trace Inspection Systems

The simplest application for track and trace systems is the pick-and-place inspection of products. Whether the product is an aggregation or an individual carton or bottle, a properly programmed robotic cell with well-designed end-of-arm tool (EOAT) can pick the object, pass it in front of a vision inspection system or a barcode scanner and place it in a bin or on a conveyor, depending on whether the product is rejected or passed downstream for further packaging.
Camera for inspecting serialization codes on bottles.
Robot Will Hold Bottles Over Inspection Camera Prior to Case Packing
Robotic inspection works well in applications that require an aggregation to be verified after individual products have been bundled, and aggregation scanning equipment cannot be integrated into an existing machine. The stand-alone robotic system can pick the bundle and move it under or over a scanning device. The system allows for rescanning the bundle in the event of a read error. The scanning device can also verify the count, the bottle or carton status and create a list of each item in the bundle. The robot places rejected bundles in a reject bin to be reworked or discarded.

Track & Trace Cartoners

Pick and place inspections systems are not the only robotic application for track and trace packaging machinery. Robotic systems can be used in an end-to-end packaging line to help track the first product in all the way to the finished pallet, ensuring the integrity of every product, every, carton, every case, and every pallet throughout the production process. For example, a packaging line for pharmaceutical bottles begins as each filled and closed bottle is marked with a unique serial number, which may be printed on the label, on the bottle or on an RFID. Sensors verify the code as each bottle enters a robotic case packing cell. The code is read as each bottle is collated into the correct pack pattern to account for the contents that will be placed in the case (the aggregation process). The serialization information is stored by the system microprocessor to be accessed by carton labelers and used in downstream packaging processes.
Serialization camera module integrated on a robotic case packer from ESS Technologies.
Bottles Enter a 4-Camera Serialization Module Where Unique Product codes are Recorded

Track & Trace Case Packers

Automatic case packers with integrated serialization systems allow manufacturers to easily form aggregates and record the contents of each case as they are loaded. As products labeled with unique identifying codes enter the infeed and collation zone, cameras on all four sides of the product capture the code and store it in the system microprocessor. The products are then collated and loaded into the erected case. Robotic case packers for track and trace applications incorporate EOAT that uses a unique suction cup with integrated vacuum sensor for each bottle in the pack pattern. This allows the EOAT to verify that it has picked all of the bottles in the pack pattern via the vacuum sensor. Camera inspection systems can also take a picture of the loaded case and compare it to a picture of a correctly loaded pattern to verify that all bottles have made it into the case.
Aggregated Pack Pattern of Bottles with Serialization Labels

Cases with complete patterns are tagged as “good.” Incomplete cases are not tagged, causing them to be automatically rejected at the case packer discharge. Automatic leaflet feeders with track and trace inspection verification may be added to the case packer to automate the full case load. An overhead camera is used to verify the load in the case. Good cases are then labeled with track and trace information about the contents of the case. The label may include a barcode or human-readable code, a writable RFID tag, which is encoded after the case is packed, or a combination of all three. By tracking each serial number in the pack pattern and applying that information to a unique case, the manufacturer can know at all times exactly where each bottle is in the packaging process. This process would be the same if the product being case packed was a carton, bag, blister pack, or bundle.
Robotic case erector and loader from ESS Technologies with integrated track and trace system.
ESS Technologies Model CEL 5 Robotic Case Erector / Loader with Integrated Serialization System

Next Post: Palletizers for Track and Trace Serialization

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Packaging Machinery for Track and Trace Serialization

(This is part one in a three-part series on integrating packaging machinery with track and trace serialization systems to meet the 2017 pharmaceutical mandates.)


Pharmaceutical manufacturers have many good reasons to implement track and trace technology within manufacturing and packaging processes. Serialization allows manufacturers to ensure the integrity of their product and compliance with emerging pedigree laws. Designed primarily as a response to the increase of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, pedigree and e-pedigree laws (for electronic documentation) require manufacturers to show the complete life cycle of the drugs they distribute, from the manufacturing process through the end-of-line packaging.
2D and Serialization Codes Used in Track & Trace Packaging Lines
Unit level tracking methods have been in place for years.  Lot/Expiration codes are ubiquitous on a wide variety of products. But recent changes to the law have shifted the focus to implementing track and trace systems with case packers and palletizers. This can present a number of challenges to pharmaceutical manufacturers, so selecting a qualified packaging machinery supplier to work with the track and trace system supplier is vital. Pharmaceutical companies already invest heavily in capital equipment for manufacturing and packaging. By integrating track and trace serialization technology with automated end-of-line packaging machinery, pharmaceutical manufacturers can meet pedigree requirements and maintain their levels of productivity in a single robust solution.

Packaging Machinery for Track & Trace Lines

Serialization systems track the product from the time it is placed in its primary package (bottle, vial, tube, jar, pouch, etc.) to its final placement on a pallet at the end of the packaging line. This requires integrating inspection and tracking equipment from a track and trace system supplier with the packaging machinery at each step in the packaging process. It’s important to select an equipment provider who understands the requirements being faced by pharmaceutical manufacturers. Ideally, the packaging machinery supplier is also an integrator who can work with other OEMs to successfully implement a track and trace packaging line.

Cameras for Scanning Product Codes (Top) and the Stored Code Information (Bottom)
The track and trace systems incorporate several types of equipment. First labeling or other types of coding equipment place a unique ID code on the item being packaged, e.g. bottles, cartons, blister packs, bundles, etc. Next cameras and other sensors that are capable of reading the ID are integrated with the packaging machinery at various stages in the packaging process such as cartoning or case packing. Print and apply labelers are integrated to label the case with information about its contents, and these labels are also inspected for accuracy. Reject systems are integrated to allow improper product to be removed from the production stream.

The packaging equipment to be integrated with the serialization system should also be considered carefully. Automated packaging machinery is better able to handle production speeds needed to factor in the time it takes to record the serialization information without diminishing overall production rates. The process typically begins with the primary packaging equipment. Individual products, be it bottles, cartons, trays, or bundles, are labeled with a unique identifying code during the primary packaging of the product. It is this code that the track and trace system uses to create information about the contents of each carton, case and pallet.

Storing Serialization Data

Track and trace serialization systems incorporate a means for recording and storing the serialization data for each production run. This is usually accomplished through a dedicated PC integrated with the printers, cameras, and sensors. The centralized data point allows the system to distribute serial number information to each packaging level at each tracking point such as when the product is cartoned, when the carton is case packed and when the case is palletized. These systems interface with the packaging machinery controls to allow the exchange of information.
PC Interface for Recording Serialization Information
Next Post: Cartoners and Case Packers for Track and Trace Serialization