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Title:
METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR PACKAGING OF PRODUCTS INTO BAGS
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2011/093729
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
A method of packaging a product into a bag, wherein the bag includes a mouth portion, the method including the step of inserting a product guide member into the mouth portion of the bag, wherein the product guide member is configured to orientate and / or maintain orientation of the product as it enters the bag, characterised by the step of adjusting the configuration of the product guide member to alter the shape and / or dimensions of the bag mouth to allow insertion of a product into the bag mouth. This invention also relates to an apparatus for packaging a product into a bag and a product guide member to be used within the apparatus.

Inventors:
HAYNES, Christopher, Charles (13 Riverview Lane, Te Aroha 3320, NZ)
SAYWELL, Stephen, Robert (Lot 6, Shady Grove RoadLittle Hampto, Adelaide South Australia 5250, AU)
Application Number:
NZ2011/000008
Publication Date:
August 04, 2011
Filing Date:
January 28, 2011
Export Citation:
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Assignee:
DISTINCT DESIGNS LIMITED (C/- Abacus Administration Limited, 53-61 Whitaker Street, Te Aroha 3320, NZ)
HAYNES, Christopher, Charles (13 Riverview Lane, Te Aroha 3320, NZ)
SAYWELL, Stephen, Robert (Lot 6, Shady Grove RoadLittle Hampto, Adelaide South Australia 5250, AU)
International Classes:
B65B5/04; B65B7/06; B65B25/06; B65B31/06; B65B35/22; B65B39/12; B65B43/30; B65B43/34; B65B43/46; B65B43/48; B65B43/50; B65B51/10
Foreign References:
EP1502853B1
US4248032A
US5228275A
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
MILLAR, Jared et al. (James & Wells Intellectual Property, Private Bag 3140, Hamilton 3240, NZ)
Download PDF:
Claims:
WHAT I CLAIM IS:

1 . A method of packaging a product into a bag, wherein the bag includes a mouth portion, the method including the step of inserting a product guide member into the mouth portion of the bag, wherein the product guide member is configured to orientate and / or maintain orientation of the product as it enters the bag, characterised by the step of adjusting the configuration of the product guide member to alter the shape and / or dimensions of the bag mouth to allow nsertion of a product into the bag mouth.

2. A method of packaging a product into a bag, wherein the bag includes a mouth portion, the method including the steps of: a) pushing a product to be packaged on to a product guide member, either before or after the product guide member is inserted into the bag mouth, wherein the product guide member has a leading edge and at least two peripheral side edges, and b) separating the product from the product guide member in the bag characterised by the further steps of c) moving the product guide member relative to the position of the bag such that the leading edge of the product guide member is positioned within the mouth portion of the bag, and d) moving at least one portion of at least two peripheral side edges of the product guide member in opposing outwards directions relative to one other to cause the mouth portion of the bag to substantially flatten.

3. The method as described in either claim 1 or 2 including any one or combination of the following steps: a) placing at least one bag on a tray of a bag opening station b) applying at least one upper suction cup on to a top portion of a bag, c) moving the upper suction cup in an orientation to retract the bag at least partially from the tray, d) suctioning at least one lower suction cup on to a bottom portion of the bag, e) opening at least one portion of the bag by separating the upper and lower suction cups, f) inserting two spaced apart spreaders into the opened portion of the bag in order to facilitate opening of the bag, g) moving the two spreaders in opposite directions to tension the bag and break the contact between the suction cups and the bag, h) transferring the bag from the bag opening station to a bag loading station in preparation for the loading of the product into the bag.

4. The method as claimed in claim 3, wherein steps b) and d) include using four upper suction cups and two lower suction cups.

5. The method as claimed in either claim 3 or 4, wherein step c) includes moving the upper suction cups to a position such that two inner upper suction cups align substantially with two lower suction cups.

6. The method as claimed in any of claims 3 to 5 wherein step f) includes inserting the spreaders into the bag mouth, peripheral to the position of the suction cups.

7. The method as claimed in any one of claims 3 to 6 wherein step h) includes using the spreaders to transfer the bag from the bag opening station to the bag loading station.

8. The method as claimed in any one of claims 3 to 7 wherein step h) includes maintaining the spreaders in the bag mouth during the bag loading process.

9. The method as claimed in any one of claims 3 to 8 wherein the method includes any one or combination of the following steps as part of a bag loading process: a) transferring a product to a conveyor system with a loading region and a unloading region b) preventing movement of product beyond the unloading region using a blocking portion of the product guide member c) moving the product guide member into the bag mouth d) pushing the product from the conveyer system into the bag and on to the product guide member located in the bag e) pushing the product off the product guide member f) moving at least one portion of peripheral side edges of the product guide member in opposing outward directions relative to one other and in an inclined direction to the movement in step b) to force the mouth portion of the bag to substantially flatten in preparation for closing of the mouth portion g) moving a support to under the flattened bag mouth h) retracting the product guide members fully from the bag i) sealing the bag along the flattened region of the bag mouth.

10. The method as claimed in claim 9 wherein step c) includes configuring and positioning the product guide member into the bag mouth to help manipulate the shape and/or dimensions of the bag mouth to allow insertion of the product.

1 1 . The method as claimed in either claim 9 or 10 wherein the product guide member is used in combination with the spreaders to configure the shape of the bag mouth for insertion of the product.

12. The method as claimed in any of one of claims 9 to 1 1 wherein step d) includes the use of a pusher.

13. The method as claimed in claim 12 wherein step e) includes pushing the product, using the pusher, off the product guide member towards the back of the bag.

14. The method as claimed in any one of claims 9 to 13 wherein step f) includes aligning the peripheral side portions of the product guide member with the vertical centre line of the bag.

15. The method as claimed in any one of claims 9 to 14 wherein step f) includes moving the peripheral side portions oppositely and outwardly to an extent that eliminates the slack in the bag mouth, and in doing so substantially flattens the bag mouth.

16. The method as claimed in any one of claims 9 to 15 wherein step n) is followed by flushing the bag with a gas.

17. An apparatus for packaging a product into a bag wherein the apparatus includes a bag loading station configured to position a bag for loading a product into the bag; and a product guide member; characterised in that the product guide member includes at least two peripheral side portions configured to move concurrently in a first orientation towards or away from the bag loading station, wherein at least one portion of the two peripheral side portions are also configured to move in a second orientation, inclined to the first orientation of movement and wherein at least one portion of the two peripheral side portions are able to move in substantially opposing outwards directions relative to one another.

18. The apparatus as claimed in claim 17 for use in the method as claimed in any one of claims 1 to 16.

19. The apparatus as claimed in either claim 17 or 18 wherein the apparatus includes a bag opening station.

20. The apparatus as claimed in claim 19 wherein the bag opening station includes a movable housing.

21 . The apparatus as claimed in claim 20 wherein the movable housing includes at least one lower and one upper suction cup, each configured to attach to the upper and lower side of a bag, respectively.

22. The apparatus as claimed in claim 20 wherein the movable housing includes four upper and two lower suction cups.

23. The apparatus as claimed in any one of claims 17 to 22 wherein the movable housing includes two spreaders configured to fit into the opened bag mouth.

24. The apparatus as claimed in claim 23 wherein the spreaders are vertically aligned plates configured to be movable in three orientations, namely in the horizontal plane (X and Y) and vertical plane (Z).

25. The apparatus as claimed in any one of claims 17 to 24 wherein the bag loading station includes an adjustable support configured to, in at least one position, support a flattened mouth portion of the bag.

26. The apparatus as claimed in any one of claims 17 to 25 wherein the apparatus includes a pusher.

27. The apparatus as claimed in claim 26 wherein the pusher is configured to be movable along on an elongate path leading to the bag loading station.

28. The apparatus as claimed in either claim 26 or 27 wherein the pusher is movable in a vertical orientation.

29. A product guide member for use in the packaging of a product into a bag, characterised in that the product guide member includes at least two peripheral side portions configured to move concurrently in a first orientation towards or away from a bag loading station and; wherein at least one portion of the two peripheral side portions are also configured to move in a second orientation, inclined to the first orientation of movement and; wherein the two peripheral side portions are able to move in substantially opposing outward directions relative to one another.

30. The product guide member as claimed in claim 29 wherein the product guide member is configured to move in a substantially vertical orientation (Z), a forward and/or reverse direction towards and/or away from the bag loading station (X), a sideways direction (Y) or in any diagonal plane.

31. The product guide member as claimed in either claim 29 or 30 wherein the product guide member includes two peripheral side portions.

32. The product guide member as claimed in either claim 31 wherein the two peripheral side portions are configured as two elongate legs.

33. The product guide member as claimed in claim 32 wherein the two elongate legs are substantially elongate horizontal flat planks aligned substantially parallel to one another.

34. The product guide member as claimed in any one of claims 31 to 33 wherein the peripheral side portions each include a vertical side wall positioned on the outer edge of peripheral side portion.

35. The product guide member as claimed in claim 34 wherein the vertical side wall extends partially along the peripheral side portions such that the leading edge of the peripheral side portions (and therefore product guide member) does not include such a side wall.

36. The product guide member as claimed in any one of claims 29 to 35 wherein the product guide member includes at least one gas flush nozzle and / or vacuum nozzle.

37. A method of packing a product into a bag substantially as herein described in the Best Modes section and illustrated according to Figures 1 - 13.

38. An apparatus for packing a product into a bag substantially as herein described in the Best Modes section and illustrated according to Figures 1 - 13.

39. A product guide member for use in the packaging of a product into a bag substantially as herein described in the Best Modes section and illustrated according to Figures 1 - 13.

Description:
METHOD AND APPARATUS FOR PACKAGING OF PRODUCTS INTO BAGS TECHNICAL FIELD

This invention relates to a method and apparatus for packaging of bags, in particular, "lay flat" bags.

BACKGROUND ART

The process of packaging products into containers (such as bags) represents a major commercial interest. The majority of consumable products, whether they are food products or other articles, are temporarily or permanently stored in a bag. The development and improvement of machinery and processes that efficiently automate the packaging process is clearly important worldwide. Indeed, a large packaging industry exists in New Zealand and overseas.

There are many reasons to move to automated packaging. For instance, it reduces the need for manual labour, risk of injury to workers, as well as reducing the potential for contamination of the article being packaged. Automation of the packaging process can improve the consistency and efficiency of the process.

Yet, there are many pitfalls and disadvantages in the field of automated packaging which still need to be addressed.

Many automated machines and processes are currently available for packaging goods, which is a reflection on the importance of this industry. However, there are considerable difficulties associated with, for instance, automating the apparatus required to open the bag and present it for filling, subsequently filling the bag with a product, and preparing the bag for downstream processing such as vacuum sealing. Often, attempts at automating the bag packaging process can result in an awkward and inefficient combination between machine and manual labour, which can increase the likelihood of injury to the workers and/or potential damage to the machine itself. Control of the machine may not be so adaptable to the movement and decision making of the workers, and therefore this combination leaves little room for error. As such, it can often be safer to have substantially fully automated processing, or fully manual processes in place.

A problem can arise in the automated steps taken to open the bag. Bags are usually in a flattened state, prior to filling. This can present difficulties when manipulating the bag using automated procedures in order to open it ready for filling. Often this opening process requires a multitude of components and steps.

The difficulty in this process can lead to inconsistent opening of the bag, which ultimately can lead to errors in the packaging of the product. Excess components or steps can also increase costs, the need for added maintenance, human supervision and potential intervention. There is a need to reduce the components or steps for this process and/or maintaining or improving efficiency and consistency in the bag opening procedure.

Further, significant problems can arise during the bag packaging step. For example, problems can surface in orientating and guiding the product into the bag, delivering the product efficiently and safely into the bag, maintaining the bag mouth open when the product is being inserted, separating the product from the delivery means after delivery into the bag, and preparing the bag for downstream processing after the bag has been filled (e.g. sealing).

One example of an automated bagging machine is described in New Zealand Patent No. 552939. NZ 552939 discloses a machine and method of use for packaging products. The machine uses an elongate conveyor with a downstream product tray. The product tray is configured to move at the same speed as the conveyor such that when the product drops off the end of the conveyor, it can land on the product tray - hopefully in the same orientation for delivery into a bag.

The system described in NZ 552939 could have a number of problems.

Firstly, the product tray is not adjustable to compensate for differently sized objects.

It is also not suitable for use with all products, as certain types of product can be damaged as they are dropped from the conveyor to the product tray.

Furthermore, during the transition from conveyor to tray, the orientation of the product (pre-aligned on the conveyor), can change orientation to an extent that insertion and/or placement of the product in the bag can be hindered.

New Zealand Patent No. 534763 describes an automated packaging machine that focuses on the automated opening of containers to prepare them for product filling.

The disclosed machine in NZ 534763 relies on its ability to grasp one side of a box with suction cups, which rotate the box to a subsequent position such that the opposing side of the box may be presented to additional suction cups. This can allow the box to be opened. Such a process can require significant area to allow rotation of the box to present the opposing side of the box to a different set of suction cups. Furthermore, the rotational movement of the apparatus to achieve the above requires highly technical equipment and software to ensure the process is achieved with accuracy and consistency.

This can add to the overall cost, set up and maintenance of the machine. Furthermore, during rotational movement, the box is at risk of losing contact with the suction cup and falling, for example due to its weight or any other unwanted force applied to the box during movement.

Further problems can result from automated processing due to the substantial footprint of the machinery required to fulfil the requirements of packaging.

There is a need to limit the space requirement of the machinery for obvious reasons. Part of addressing this issue is the difficulty of devising components that may be able to perform numerous functions and/or interwork with each other synergistically to reduce the overall space required of the machine.

All references, including any patents or patent applications cited in this specification are hereby incorporated by reference. No admission is made that any reference constitutes prior art. The discussion of the references states what their authors assert, and the applicants reserve the right to challenge the accuracy and pertinency of the cited documents. It will be clearly understood that, although a number of prior art publications are referred to herein, this reference does not constitute an admission that any of these documents form part of the common general knowledge in the art, in New Zealand or in any other country. Throughout this specification, the word "comprise", or variations thereof such as "comprises" or "comprising", will be understood to imply the inclusion of a stated element, integer or step, or group of elements integers or steps, but not the exclusion of any other element, integer or step, or group of elements, integers or steps. It is an object of the present invention to address the foregoing problems or at least to provide the public with a useful choice.

Further aspects and advantages of the present invention will become apparent from the ensuing description which is given by way of example only. DISCLOSURE OF INVENTION

According to one embodiment of the present invention, there is provided a method of packaging a product into a bag, wherein the bag includes a mouth portion, the method including the step of a) inserting a product guide member into the mouth portion of the bag, wherein the product guide member is configured to orientate and / or maintain orientation of the product as it enters the bag, characterised by the step of b) adjusting the position of the product guide member to alter the shape and / or dimensions of the bag mouth to allow insertion of a product into the bag mouth.

According to another embodiment of the present invention there is provided a method of packaging a product into a bag, wherein the bag includes a mouth portion, the method including the steps of: a) pushing a product to be packaged on to a product guide member, either before or after the product guide member is inserted into the bag mouth, wherein the product guide member has a leading edge and at least two peripheral side edges, and b) separating the product from the product guide member in the bag characterised by the further steps of c) moving the product guide member relative to the position of the bag such that the leading edge of the product guide member is positioned within the mouth portion of the bag, and d) moving at least one portion of at least two peripheral side edges of the product guide member in opposing outwards directions relative to one other to cause the mouth portion of the bag to substantially flatten.

As will be discussed throughout the remainder of this specification, the product guide member is able to act synergistically with other components of the apparatus or the bag itself to provide significant advantages.

The product guide member effectively performs operation(s) which have hindered the automated packing industry for many years.

For instance, as outlined above, the product guide member is not only able to act as a guide to orientate or maintain orientation of the product, but is also configured to manipulate the shape / configuration of the bag mouth to allow effective insertion of the product into the bag. As another example, and as outlined above, the product guide member is configured to prepare the bag mouth for sealing after the product has been inserted into the bag. The product guide member is able to perform a multitude of operations which previously have typically been performed by separate componentry. Simplification of the components in an automated packing machine has very important advantages including: - lower cost in parts, maintenance, replacement;

- less chance for breakdown and therefore down-time in operation hours;

- less need for manual intervention;

- easier maintenance;

- easier transport (generally lighter); and - smaller footprint due to less componentry.

According to a further embodiment of the present invention there is provided an apparatus for packaging a product into a bag wherein the apparatus includes a) a bag loading station configured to position a bag for .loading a product into the bag; and b) a movable product guide member; characterised in that the product guide member includes at least two peripheral side portions configured to move concurrently in a first orientation towards or away from the bag loading station, wherein at least one portion of the two peripheral side portions are also configured to move in a second orientation, inclined to the first orientation of movement and wherein at least one portion of the two peripheral side portions are able to move in substantially opposing outward directions relative to one another.

According to a further embodiment of the present invention there is provided a product guide member for use in the packaging of a product into a bag, characterised in that the product guide member includes at least two peripheral side portions configured to move concurrently in a first orientation towards or away from a bag loading station and wherein at least one portion of the two peripheral side portions are also configured to move in a second orientation, inclined to the first orientation of movement and wherein the two peripheral side portions are able to move in substantially opposing outwards directions relative to one another.

PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS OF THE BAG OPENING PROCESS

In a particularly preferred embodiment, the methods as described above include any one of or combination of the following steps (not in any particular order): a) placing at least one bag on a tray of a bag opening station b) applying at least one upper suction cup on to a top portion of a bag, c) moving the upper suction cup in an orientation to retract the bag at least partially from the tray, d) suctioning at least one lower suction cup on to a bottom portion of the bag e) opening at least one portion of the bag by separating the upper and lower suction cups f) inserting two spaced apart spreaders into the opened portion of the bag in order to facilitate opening of the bag g) moving the two spreaders in opposite directions to tension the bag and break the contact between the suction cups and the bag h) transferring the bag from the bag opening station to the bag loading station in preparation for the loading of a product into the bag.

Persons skilled in the art will appreciate that strict compliance with these steps is not required, and that there may be variations in the steps depending on the nature of the packaging material and the article to be packaged. Preferably, step b) and d) above includes using four upper suction cups and two lower suction cups. However, it may be useful in some circumstances to include more than four upper suction cups. This should not be considered outside the scope of the present invention.

The inventors envisage that these suction cups will be configured to align with the front edge of a bag to be opened (bag mouth). Preferably, two of the four upper suction cups are positioned at the outermost edge of the bag to prevent the bag from sagging. The remaining four suction cups (two upper and two lower) are preferably aligned relative to one another on opposite sides of the bag mouth.

However, this suction cup configuration should not be seen as limiting, and persons skilled in the art will appreciate that the number of suction cups and their respective orientations, may vary depending on the requirements of the user.

Step c) allows the bag to be partially withdrawn from the tray, which may for example, hold a stack of bags. Preferably, step c) includes moving the upper suction cups to a position such that two inner upper suction cups align substantially with two stationary lower suction cups.

Once the upper and lower suction cups are substantially aligned with a bag in between, the vacuum created by the suction cups may hold the upper and lower portions of the bag mouth as described in steps d) and e).

Preferably, step f) includes inserting the spreaders into the bag mouth, outside the position of the four suction cups (two upper and two lower as described above).

When the spreaders are moved sideways, and in opposite directions to contact the sides of the bag, this may cause the bag mouth to tighten. The increased tension on the bag walls may preferably results in the breakage of the vacuum connection between the suction cups and the bag.

The interworking relationship between the spreaders and suction cups may allow the bag mouth to be opened, be kept open during transfer between the suction cups and spreaders, and held in place in an efficient, accurate manner.

Preferably, step h) includes using the spreaders to transfer the bag from the bag opening station to the bag loading station.

Preferably, step h) includes maintaining the spreaders in the bag mouth during the bag loading process. PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS OF A BAG LOADING PROCESS

In a particularly preferred embodiment, the above methods include any one of or combination of the following steps as part of a bag loading process (not in any particular order): a) transferring a product to a conveyor system with a loading region and a unloading region b) preventing movement of product past the unloading region using a blocking portion of the product guide member c) moving the product guide member into the bag mouth d) pushing the product from the rollers into the bag and on to the product guide member located in the bag e) pushing the product off the product guide member f) moving at least one portion of peripheral side edges of the product guide member in opposing outward directions relative to one other and in an inclined direction to the movement in step b) to force the mouth portion of the bag to substantially flatten in preparation for closing of the mouth portion g) moving a support to the underside of the flattened bag mouth h) retracting the product guide members fully from the bag i) sealing the bag along the flattened region of the bag mouth

Step i) onwards describes preferred steps which may be taken during, before or after any of the above preferred steps.

Persons skilled in the art will appreciate that strict compliance with these steps is not required, and that there may be variations in the steps depending on the nature of the packaging material and the article to be packaged. The conveyor system includes a feeding conveyor and a set of rollers aligned longitudinally such that a product is transferred from one to the other in a linear fashion. The forward momentum of the product may allow the product to continue to move upon the set of rollers. However, this preferred conveyor system or its orientation are not meant to be limiting. One skilled in the art would appreciate a whole variety of conveyor systems could be used with the present invention. .

In step b), it is preferred that the product is prevented from moving past the end of the rollers to avoid the product falling off the rollers. In this regard, the product guide member preferably includes a backing portion (discussed later in this specification) and is able, in at least one position, to abut the end of the rollers to help prevent movement of the product past the rollers.

Preferably, step c) includes configuring and positioning the product guide member into the bag mouth to help alter the shape and / or dimension of the bag mouth to allow insertion of the product. Most preferable, the product guide member is used in combination with the spreaders to configure the shape of the bag mouth as desired. For example, the bag mouth may be shaped to form a substantially square (or rectangular) opening.

Essentially, step c) may be particularly advantageous for opening the bag mouth to an extent capable of accepting the dimensions of the product to be inserted into the bag. This is one reason why it may be preferable to insert the product guide members prior to delivery of the product itself.

Preferably, step d) includes the use of a pusher.

The pusher may allow the product to be pushed from the rollers on to the product guide members (either before or after the product guide members are inserted into the bag).

Preferably, step e) includes pushing the product, using the pusher, completely off the product guide members towards the back of the bag. A further purpose of the product guide members may be to help guide the product as the pusher moves the product into the bag.

After the product is in the bag, the spreaders (if used to help maintain the bag mouth to be open or partially opened) may be fully removed, which may allow the bag mouth to slacken somewhat. Alternatively, if further products are to be inserted into the same bag, the spreaders may be kept in the same position to help maintain the open mouth of the bag.

Preferably, step f) includes aligning the peripheral side portions of the product guide member with the vertical centre line of the bag.

Preferably, step f) includes moving the peripheral side portions oppositely and outwardly to an extent that eliminates the slack in the bag mouth, and in doing so substantially flattens the bag mouth. This is an important and advantageous feature of the present invention.

The product guide member is not only able to deliver/guide the product into the bag, but also may serve to prepare the bag mouth for downstream processing. This is because the bag mouth may need to be sealed, fastened or otherwise closed.

Flattening the bag mouth allows for the implementation of automated downstream steps, for example sealing of the bag, with little or no human intervention prior to sealing. Without pre-flattening of the bag mouth, there is the possibility that automated sealing may not be effective.

Flattening the bag mouth after product insertion also helps prevents contaminants from entering the bag when the bag mouth is not required to be kept open.

Preferably, step f) is followed by flushing the bag with a gas. This may utilise the gas flush nozzle as discussed further below.

Preferably, step o) includes the use of pneumatic cylinders to control the movement of the support.

Once the support is in place (preferred step o), the product guide member may be fully retracted from the bag mouth (preferred step p). This allows the product guide members to return to a previous position -(abutting the ' rollers) to repeat the cycle.

PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS OF THE APPARATUS

According to preferred embodiments, the apparatus and product guide member of the present invention are now described in more detail. It should be appreciated that the apparatus and product guide member described herein should not be limited to the methods of use described within the specification.

The apparatus may include numerous stations, as outlined below.

BAG OPENING STATION

Preferably, the apparatus includes a bag opening station. The bag opening station may include a tray to support a bag or bags (e.g. a magazine). Typically, this tray may be used for lay flat bags, but other forms of packaging may also be placed on an appropriately configured tray or other presentation device.

Preferably, the bag opening station includes a movable housing positioned on a track located above the magazine.

Preferably, the movable housing includes at least one lower and one upper suction cup, each configured to attach to the upper and lower sides of a bag, respectively.

Preferably, the movable housing includes four upper and two lower suction cups.

For example, the upper suction cups may be located on a movable housing positioned on a track above the magazine. When a bag is to be opened, the movable housing may allow the four upper suction cups to suction on to a front portion of a bag (on the top of the stack).

Vertical and horizontal movement of the housing then allows the suction cups to retract the top bag from a stack of bags, and present the bottom side of the bag to lower suction cups, which may be located at a fixed location. Attachment of the lower suction cups to the bottom side of the bag allows the bag mouth to be effectively opened by moving the upper and lower suction cups apart.

Preferably, the movable housing includes two spreaders configured to fit into the opened bag mouth.

Preferably, the spreaders are vertically aligned plates movable in three orientations, namely in the horizontal plane (X and Y) and vertical plane (Z). Furthermore, the inventors consider that diagonal movement may be advantageous as it may provide additional manoeuvrability.

This allows the spreaders to be inserted into the open bag mouth, move in opposing directions sideways to stretch open the bag mouth and in doing so, releasing the suction grip between the suction cups and bag in a single movement.

This interworking relationship dramatically improves the efficiency of a rather technical and difficult task, namely the opening of the mouth portion of a bag. BAG LOADING STATION

The apparatus includes a bag loading station configured to locate and position a bag to be filled with the desired product. The bag loading station of the apparatus may be located at one end of a conveyer system. The conveyer system may include the feeding conveyor and aligned set of rollers, which may be configured to provide a linear pathway towards the bag loading station.

The bag loading station may be a platform with rollers. This may allow for relatively easy removal of the bag from the bag loading station, via the rollers, after the bag has been filled with a product.

The bag loading station may be configured to be rotatable in the horizontal plane. The above features of the bag loading station may be very useful for the post-filling steps of the packaging method. For example, for the sealing of a bag, once filled, the bag loading station may be rotated by a given amount to allow the bag mouth to be presented to a sealing bar.

Preferably, the bag loading station includes an adjustable support configured to, in one position, support a flattened mouth portion of the bag.

This feature is advantageous as the support helps to maintain the flattened segment at the front of the bag after the product guide members have been removed from the bag. Preferably, the adjustable support includes extendable tongues which are configured to support peripheral regions of the flattened bag mouth .

PRODUCT GUIDE MEMBER

The product guide member may be of substantially any desired dimension depending on the size of the product to be delivered to the bag.

It should be appreciated that the product guide member includes a leading edge. This should be understood to mean the edge of the product guide member which faces the mouth portion of the bag, and is the first portion of the product guide member to enter the bag. The peripheral side edges of the product guide member should be understood to mean the edges of the product guide member which are substantially perpendicular to the leading edge.

Preferably, the product guide member is configured to move in a substantially vertical orientation (Z), forward/reverse direction towards and away from the bag loading station (X), a sideways direction (Y) or in any diagonal plane.

Furthermore, the peripheral side portions of the product guide member are able to move sideways in opposing directions relative to one another. This range of movement and adjustment of the product guide member may provide a range of different functions in the bag packaging process, providing numerous advantages, as discussed below.

By moving the product guide member in the Z orientation, it may expose a backing portion of the product guide member. If the backing portion is abutted up against the end of the rollers (using movement in the X orientation), this may help prevent the product from travelling past the end of the rollers after delivery from a feeding conveyor, for example.

Furthermore, when the product guide member is inserted into the bag mouth, the range of movements described above may allow the dimensions of the bag mouth to be altered to the appropriate dimensions prior to or during insertion of the product.

As discussed previously, it is preferably that the spreaders are also used in combination with the product guide member to manipulate the dimensions or shape of the bag mouth. Preferably, the product guide member includes two elongate legs.

Most preferably, the two elongate legs are substantially elongate horizontal flat planks that are positioned parallel to one another.

The legs may be any length, but the applicant acknowledges that they are preferably shorter than the length of the bag to be filled. This may be advantageous, as it allows for space at the rear of the bag for the product to be pushed into (e.g. using a pusher).

In an alternative embodiment, the product guide member includes a main tray, and two peripheral side portions that are positioned onto and attached to the main tray. It should be appreciated that these side portions form the peripheral side edges of the product guide member.

As the product guide member includes two peripheral side portions that are movable in opposing directions relative to each other, this may allow the product guide member to accommodate differently sized products to be delivered into a bag. Essentially, the width of the product guide member may be adjusted to accommodate different sizes of the product to be packaged.

Preferably, the peripheral side portions each include a vertical side wall positioned on the outer edge of the leg. Most preferably, the vertical side wall extends only partially along the legs such that the leading edge of the legs (and therefore product guide member) does not include such a side wall.

For example, the side wall may be angled along its top edge such that the top edge of the side wall meets the horizontal leg approximately half way along the elongate leg.

Persons skilled in the art will appreciate that the vertical side walls are advantageous for helping guide the product into the bag.

The preferred range of movement of the product guide member may also allow it to be used for a further important function, that being the preparation of the fold of the bag mouth, as discussed below.

Once the product has been inserted into the bag and the product has been released from the product guide member, the peripheral side portions may be aligned with a horizontal centre line of the bag mouth, and then moved in opposing directions to stretch the bag mouth. As the leading edge of the peripheral side portions are preferably thin, this may help to provide a thin flattened mouth portion when the above actions are taken.

Preferably, the product guide member includes at least one gas flush nozzle and / or vacuum nozzle. This feature may be used to gas flush or vacuum the bag before sealing (typically after the fold at the bag mouth is made).

The inventors foresee the gas flush nozzle or vacuum nozzle may be positioned at the leading edge of the product guide member such as the two elongate feet. In summary, the use of the product guide member provides a number of advantages. The preferred ability of the product guide member to move in X, Y and Z planes means that the product guide member may carry out numerous functions as outlined below:

• abuts the end portion of the rollers to prevent product from passing the end of the rollers unless specifically desired; and

• enters the bag mouth to assist in the opening of the bag mouth to accommodate the dimensions of the product intended to be packaged (preferably, this step also utilises the spreaders); and

• orientately and / or maintains orientation of the product when pushed into the bag by the pusher; and

• alternatively, delivers the product into the bag in a correct orientation; and

• aids in the folding of the bag mouth after the product has been inserted into the bag; and

• is adjustable to accommodate differently sized products needing to be packaged; and

• able to synergistically perform multiple functions, which reduces space requirements, processing time (including manual work), mechanical components, costs, maintenance, complexity of operation, etc; and

• improves consistency as there is less human interaction required, which means in turn a reduction in the potential for injury, product contamination, and so on. PUSHER

Preferably, the apparatus includes a pusher.

Preferably, the pusher is movable along on elongate path leading to the bag loading station.

Preferably, the pusher is also movable in a vertical orientation. In one embodiment, the pusher is configured to have an "L" shaped cross-section.

The above preferred embodiments of the pusher may allow the pusher to effectively rise up behind the product located on the rollers, with one end of the "L" shaped member to push it towards the bag loading station, where the bag may be positioned. Alternatively, the pusher may be configured to lower down from an overhead position to perform the pushing operation. This embodiment was found by the inventors to help avoid collision of different components and simplify the guiding process.

The pusher may be configured to be movable into the bag and over the top of the product guide member, preferably already in the bag, where the product guide member may be temporarily acting as a means to retain the bag mouth open in a desired configuration (preferably together with the spreaders). The pusher may also be configured to push the product on to the product guide member before it is in the bag. In this embodiment, the product guide member may then enter the bag carrying the product.

The use of the present method and apparatus provides a number of advantages over the prior art:

• The overall process can saves time (typical cycle time is under 17 seconds per bagging), opposed to previous methods where 2 or 3 people are involved in the bagging process, delaying typical cycle time to 30 to 40 seconds per bagging. · The overall process may be able to carry out a multitude of functions that normally would require significant human interaction and time.

• The different components and stations are retained in a surprisingly small area, allowing for easier transport and use of the apparatus.

• The apparatus may be adjusted to accommodate different types of bags or differently sized products, increasing the versatility of the inventive packaging apparatus.

• The pusher of the present invention may be used to both transport the product on to the product guide member, and to also push the product off the product guide member. This allows the product guide member to then perform additional functions when the product is in the bag.

• The bag opening station has the ability to effectively open bags in a time efficient, accurate and reproducible manner, something which is often overlooked as an easy accomplishment in this field. The configuration and application of the suction cups and hands interwork together to reduce the number of steps and components required for bag opening and subsequent delivery to the bag loading station.

• The ability of the bag loading station to rotate may allow the filled bag to be efficiently and accurately orientated to be sealed, if required.

• The rollers on the bag loading station may allow the bag to be transferred to a different station (e.g. a tray or conveyor) for further bag processing.

• The adjustable support on the bag loading station may also allow the fold at the bag mouth to be effectively maintained and supported when the product guide member is released fully from the bag, prior to the bag being presented to downstream processing steps (e.g. sealing).

• At the very least, the present invention provides the public with a useful choice.

DEFINITIONS Throughout the specification the term "product" should be taken as meaning any object which is capable of, or may be packaged into a bag, either permanently or temporarily. For example, the applicant envisions using the invention for packaging cheese, although a person skilled in the art will appreciate that substantially any product or article may be used in the present invention. Throughout this specification the term "bag" should be taken as meaning any bag or container, either flexible or substantially rigid, used for storing or transporting a product or product, either temporarily or permanently.

The applicant considers the invention described herein may be particularly useful for lay flat bags; however, the method may also be used for filling gusseted bags or substantially any other type of bag.

Throughout the specification the term "lay flat bag" should be taken as meaning a deformable bag which, when empty, is configured to lay substantially flat with no gusseted sides.

Throughout this specification the term "mouth portion" should be taken as meaning a region of a bag which may be opened in order to fill the bag with the product contents. It is possible that in some instances a bag may have more than one mouth region. Throughout this specification the term "product guide member" should be taken as meaning any device or apparatus configured to help guide a product into a bag to be packaged.

Throughout this specification the term "leading edge" should be taken as meaning the front portion of the product guide member. Throughout this specification the term "peripheral side edges" should be taken as meaning at least two opposing sides of the product guide member. Preferably, the peripheral side edges extend to the leading edge of the product guide member, although persons skilled in the art will appreciate that this is not meant to be limiting. Throughout this specification the term "conveyor system" should be taken as meaning any piece of mechanical handling equipment that moves materials from one location to another.

Throughout this specification, the phrase "opposing direction" should be taken to mean in substantially opposite directions, such as right and left, or up and down direction.

Throughout this specification, the term "inclined direction" should be taken as meaning a different directional movement to the first direction of movement (i.e. forward or reverse towards the bag loading station). Preferably, this direction is transverse (i.e. at right angles) to the first direction of movement (towards or away from the bag). However, this should not be seen as limiting, as the inclined direction may be at more (or less) than at right angles to the first direction of movement. Throughout this specification the term "spreaders" should be taken as meaning members which are configured to be inserted into the bag such that they may hold the bag or bag mouth fully or partially open. The spreaders may be in the form of rods or the like, although persons skilled in the art will appreciate that other configurations may be used. Throughout this specification the term "pusher" should be taken as meaning a member which bears against the product being packaged such that it moves the product along the rollers and/or conveyor.

Throughout the specification, the term "apparatus" should be taken as meaning any machine, device or assembly configured to allow a bag to be filled with a product of choice.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF DRAWINGS

Further aspects of the present invention will become apparent from the following description which is given by way of example only and with reference to the accompanying drawings in which: shows a representation of the apparatus according to one embodiment of the present invention shows steps 1-7 of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention shows a further step of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention shows a further step of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention shows a further step of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention shows a further step of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention shows a further step- of, a method according to one embodiment of the present invention shows a further step of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention shows a further step of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention shows a further step of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention shows a further step of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention Figure 12 shows a further step of a method according to one embodiment of the present invention

Figure 13 shows a representation of the product guide member flattening the bag mouth according to one embodiment of the present invention Figure 14 shows a stepwise depiction of the spreaders (9) and product guide member leading edges (16) working to perform multiple operations (viewed from conveyor system)

BEST MODES FOR CARRYING OUT THE INVENTION

Example 1 : Method of packaging a bag As shown generally in Figure 1 , the apparatus is configured to be a machine (1 ) for opening and packaging lay flat bags, shown as (1 ) generally in Figure 1.

The machine includes a bag opening station (2), a bag loading station (3), a feeding conveyor (21 ), rollers (4, not shown in Figure 1 ), and a product guide member (5). The feeding conveyor and rollers (4) are longitudinally aligned to provide a conveyer system for the product to be moved in the direction towards the bag loading station (3), located downstream of the rollers (4).

The bag opening station (2) is located in the vicinity above the bag loading station (3), such that after a bag (6) is opened partially, it is lowered down on to the bag loading station (3) to be filled with a product (13).

The bag opening station (2) includes a movable housing (7) configured to house four upper suction cups (8) and two spreaders (9). As shown in Figure 2a, the upper suction cups are able to contact the front edge region of a bag on a magazine in the station, pull up the front of the bag and retract partially from the tray 23 such that the bottom side of the lay flat bag is presented to two lower suction cups (10) (positioned to align with two inner upper suction cups).

Separation of the upper and lower suction cups, using movement of the movable housing, allows the bag mouth (1 1 ) to open, as shown in Figure 2b (step 4).

As shown in Figure 2b (step 5), the spreaders (9) are inserted at the inner edges of the bag, peripheral to the position of the suction cups. As the spreaders are spread outwards towards the sides (12) of the bag, this helps to stretch and open the bag mouth , and in doing so removes the contact between the bag and the suction cups, as shown in Figure 2c (step 6).

Figure 3 shows the partially opened bag being lowered down on to the bag loading station (3) using the spreaders (9), ready to be packed with a product (13), such as a block of cheese

In the meantime, the product (13) is transferred from the feeding conveyor on to the rollers (4) as illustrated in Figure 4. At this time, the product guide member (5) is in a raised position and abuts the end of the rollers (4), such that the blocking portion 24 of the product guide member (5) blocks movement of the product (13) past the end of the rollers (4).

As illustrated particularly in Figure 13, the product guide member (5) includes two separate elongate legs (14) which are configured as horizontal flat planks. The legs (14) are shorter than the length of the bag (6) to be filled. The legs (14) of the product guide member (5) each include a side wall (15) positioned on the outer edge of the leg (shown as thicker lines in Figure 7). The side wall (15) only extends partially along the length of the legs (14) such that the leading edge (16) of the legs does not include a side wall.

As shown in Figure 4, the product guide member (5) is configured to travel forward into a bag (6) located on the bag loading station (3), where the bag mouth (1 1 ) is held partially open using the spreaders (9). As the bag mouth (1 1 ) is partially relaxed by bringing the spreaders (9) closer together, the product guide member (5) enters the bag mouth (1 1 ) and positions itself such that, in combination with the spreaders (9), prepares an opening in the bag mouth (1 1 , see Figure 5) larger than the product (13) to be packaged, although with similar dimensions.

For instance, the spreaders (9) can hold the bag (6) open at the upper two corners of the bag mouth (1 1 ), and the product guide tray can hold the bag (6) open at the lower two corners. This forms a rectangular shaped opening, for instance suitably fitted to a rectangular shaped block of cheese. Positioning of the product guide member (5) and spreaders (9) utilises the ability of these components to move in a multitude of orientations (x, y, z) and also the ability of the legs (14) to be able to move independently in opposing directions.

The pusher (21 ) is configured to be an "L" shaped member. It is movable along the elongate path leading into the bag loading station (3). It is also movable in a vertical orientation.

As shown in Figure 6 the pusher (21 ) then pushes the product (13) from its position on the rollers (4) into the bag mouth (1 1 ). This is achieved by moving the pusher (21 ) behind the product (13) and raising the pusher (21 ) up such that it can push the product (13) towards and into the bag (6). As it pushes the product into the bag (3), the product (13) slides over the product guide member (5) already positioned at the bag mouth (1 1 ).

As shown in Figure 7, the pusher (21 ) continues to push the product (13) past and fully over the product guide member (5) to the back portion (17) of the bag, causing the bag (6) to retract partially from the product guide member (5) due to force from the product (13) being applied to the back portion of the bag (6).

The pusher (21 ) then retracts from the bag (6) and the spreaders (9) are released from the bag mouth (1 1 ) as shown in Figure 8.

As shown in Figure 9, the leading edges (16) of the legs (14) located on the product guide member (5) then moves in to position at the bag opening's vertical centreline. The peripheral side portions (14), configured as elongate legs, move in opposite outwards directions causing the bag mouth (1 1 ) to tighten and narrow to a substantially closed position.

As shown in Figure 10, the leading edges of the peripheral side portions (14) are thin, such that it can provide a clean fold (18) in the bag mouth when the bag mouth (1 1 ) is stretched in opposing directions.

As shown in Figure 1 1 , once the bag mouth (1 1 ) is flattened, two adjustable supports (19) on the bag loading station (3) move to support the fold (18), and a tongue (20) at either end of the support extends out to support the peripheral edges of the fold (18) as the product guide member (5) is retracted fully from the bag (6), as shown in Figure 12.

However before the product guide member (5) is retracted, a gas flash nozzle or vacuum nozzle located at the leading edge of the product guide member (5) is used to flush the bag of gas or vacuum in the bag prior to sealing. Additionally, a sealing bar (22) is lowered onto the flattened bag mouth just after the product guide member (5) is retracted fully from the bag (6), as shown in Figure 12.

The bag loading station (3) then rotates in order to present the flattened bag mouth to a sealing bar (not shown).

The pusher (21 ), product guide member (5) and spreaders (9) are retracted back to their starting position in order to repeat the process for the next product to be packaged in the same or new bag.

Figure 13 provides an alternative view of the product guide member (5) illustrating the opposing movement of the peripheral side portions to cause a flattening of the bag mouth.

Figure 14 (viewed from the perspective of looking into bag (6) from the rollers (4) on the conveyor system) depicts actions taken by the spreaders (9) and the leading edges (16) of the product guide member (5). In step A, the spreaders (9) are inserted into the opened bag (6).

In step B, the spreaders (9) are spread apart to grip the bag (6) for withdrawal from the tray (23).

In step C, the bag (6) is drawn over the elongate legs (14) on the product guide member (5) to prepare the bag mouth (11 ) for opening. In step D, the spreaders (9) are raised, and the leading edges (16) are positioned to open bag mouth (11 ) ready for product (13) to be inserted.

In step E, the pusher (21 ) pushes the product (13) into the bag mouth (11 ), guided and supported by the spreaders (9) and product guide member (5).

In step F, the spreaders (9) are removed when entire bag is pushed to a secondary position (ready for folding of the bag mouth (1 1 ).

In step G, the product guide member (5) is centred and spread apart to form a fold in the bag mouth (1 1 ).

In step H, the adjustable supports (19) move to support the fold in the bag mouth

(1 1 ).

In step I, the gas flush / vacuum nozzle is applied, and then the product guide member (5) is withdrawn from the bag mouth (1 1 ). In step J, the bag mouth is heat sealed before releasing the adjustable supports

(19).

Aspects of the present invention have been described by way of example only and if should be appreciated that modifications and additions may be made thereto without departing from the scope thereof.