Most people probably don’t give much thought to how prepackaged food products arrive on grocery store shelves fresh and undamaged. Employees at Freeman Company, however, have a better idea about what goes on behind the scenes to ensure the rest of us can enjoy this modern convenience. Plastic food packaging comes in a variety of shapes, each of which requires specialized metal tooling to form. Producing this tooling is Freeman’s specialty.
In addition to the complexity of many of these tools, the Freeman team must contend with tight production schedules. In fact, they are often required to take complete turnkey packages from design concept to final product in as little as 8 to 10 weeks. To meet these demands, the company relies heavily on an automated, two-machine cell driven by a controller from Erowa (Arlington Heights, Illinois). Since installing the cell, the company has significantly improved job scheduling flexibility and increased both unattended production hours and spindle utilization rates, says Larry Mears, president at Freeman Company.
The tooling produced at Freeman’s manufacturing facility in Fremont, Ohio is used in a process called thermoforming. Each tool features cavities that match the desired shape of the product—in Freeman’s case, this might be a mold of a takeout food container, a foam plate or a sandwich package. A continuous sheet of plastic is then fed or extruded over the mold cavities, typically from a roll that is slightly wider than the tool itself. The plastic is heated until pliable and then blown into the mold cavities with pressurized air. A vacuum system removes any trapped air and sucks the plastic sheet tightly against the mold’s contours. Finally, the formed sheet is cooled, removed from the mold and sent to a trim press that separates the finished product.