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Sparck - Using air to remove air from boxes

Drachten-based Sparck Technologies builds automated packaging machines that make customised boxes for online retailers. The company focuses on energy-intensive pneumatics at a number of points for its innovative, high-speed machines.

This ensures maximum benefit for customers: less air in the box, less cardboard consumption, higher packaging capacity and less dependence on manpower. itsme supplies the Festo standard components for this and also ensures that Sparck-specific pneumatics products are made.

Ten years ago, Sparck Technologies was a forerunner with its concept of volume reduction and automation. “Our machines allow companies to pack online orders as quickly, efficiently and sustainably as possible,” says Hedde Biesma, marketing director Europe.

“Our mission is to make sustainable packaging in e-commerce as standard as possible.” The company now builds two types of packaging lines, capable of making 500 and 1,100 boxes per hour respectively, for customers in 14 countries in Europe and North America.

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On customisation and end-of-life

Among other things, Sparck’s machines use pneumatics for the packaging process, explains Sjoerd van Netten, multidisciplinary department head and project leader. “We use a lot of pneumatic actuators, for example, suction cups for holding the cardboard during folding and transport. The required vacuum is created with compressed air, as it is much more complex with a vacuum pump. For transport and actuation, you can also choose electromechanical components, but in some applications, pneumatics is the best solution. Moreover, in our compact machines, some functions cannot be achieved other than with pneumatic components.”

“Because of limited installation space, we sometimes need smart custom solutions”

Sparck works with pneumatics components from Festo and has been supplied by itsme for a very long time. “Festo is a leading brand, especially in Europe,” said Van Netten. On top of that, Festo gives the option to supply components to customer specifications. “Because of limited installation space, we sometimes need smart custom solutions.” “So itsme ensures that certain Festo components are made specifically for Sparck’s application,” says Cees Rademaker, technical advisor for linear motion products at itsme. “Then we consult with them about what they want to access quickly, and we keep those components in stock for them as well. When they order them, we ship them the same day, directly to their customer if they wish.” “That is part of the total service provided by Sparck,” Biesma explains. “Customers buy machines, maintenance and also service from us, which includes supply of spare parts.” “Even for components reaching end-of-life, itsme’s commitment is indispensable,” Van Netten illustrates. “We just ran into that with a vacuum generator. Unfortunately, the replacement has a different electrical connection.” Rademaker: “You see component manufacturers sometimes make innovations that are difficult to fit into existing installations. With an installed base like Sparck’s, of course, replacement components have to work. For the vacuum generator, we found a solution in consultation with Festo. We are now in talks on how exactly to work that out.”

Training and communication

Van Netten is very satisfied with the cooperation and praises the training courses offered by itsme. “Many technicians did have basic pneumatics training in their education. However, that is insufficient to provide a fundamental rationale for what components do and properly fill in what you can do with them and how to use them. That is why two years ago we worked together with itsme to put together a great programme with modules for pneumatics and also drives in a broad sense. Many of our mechanics took the programme through itsme’s training portal. It has taken us to a higher level, allowing us to select our components together with itsme with a sound rationale.” “After the training, participants had two further days of practice,” Rademaker adds. “It is always good to be able to physically hold products and turn them into working systems.”

“In case of questions, our staff get quick and satisfactory answers”

“The communication is also fine,” Van Netten continues. “I hear from my staff that when they have questions, they get quick and satisfactory answers.” Rademaker wants to return the compliment: “If I have something new and ask if it’s what they want, I immediately get good feedback on it and always a specific answer. That is the interesting thing about working for Sparck: here I am close to the development of new machines and consider myself as a mechanic in a playground.” He therefore likes to keep the relationship going. “As Sparck continues to grow, we will grow with them and remain at the forefront of new developments, keeping an open ear to their questions.” Biesma: “Indeed, we continue to innovate by listening to the customer to hear where improvements can still be made.” Van Netten can totally concur: “The relationship between Sparck and itsme remains mutually beneficial and enduring.” 

Service life

Speaking of durable, Van Netten does have one wish. “With the components we use, we want to know the service life even better in advance. The technical service life of our machines runs in millions of boxes. So the average component should also be able to withstand millions of cycles or be very simple to replace. For ball bearings, there are nice mathematical models, but for many pneumatic actuators, it’s still a matter of building a service life set-up to determine this experimentally.” Rademaker understands Van Netten’s need for more service life information. “Some suppliers list these on their datasheets, for example how many cycles a component can perform, but that is theoretical. With electrical components you always have more or less the same 50 Hz, with pneumatics there can be quite a difference in the air. That depends on how clean it comes out of the compressor and if there is a filter, how clean that is in turn. Then the task might be 100,000 switching moments, but if the air is dirty, that pneumatic component might only make it to half.” If a component has to be replaced, sooner than expected or not, there is always the question of whether it is still available. “itsme is alert to that,” says Rademaker. “We monitor suppliers’ products. If there are items that enter a run-out phase, our approach is to inform customers early on about the alternatives. Then their engineers can modify the drawing with an alternative. This is how we ensure that Sparck and our other customers have the right data and information on time.”


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