Title:
System for stabilizing flexible bulk containers
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
A system is described for stabilizing an array of flexible bulk containers that contain a dry flowable material in powder, flake or granular form. An upper section of at least one container includes a releasable connector for detachably coupling the container to an upper section of an adjacent container in the array. The connector serves to keep sidewall portions of the containers in an upright configuration in order to reduce the risk that one or more containers may topple over.



Inventors:
Berke, Lanny R. (Plymouth, MN, US)
Application Number:
10/027262
Publication Date:
06/26/2003
Filing Date:
12/21/2001
Assignee:
BERKE LANNY R.
Primary Class:
International Classes:
B65D88/16; (IPC1-7): B65D19/00
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Primary Examiner:
LUONG, SHIAN TINH NHAN
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
James D. Christoff (Birchwood, MN, US)
Claims:
1. An assembly comprising a plurality of flexible containers for bulk materials arranged in a first, horizontal, side-by-side array, each container having sidewall portions and a bottom wall portion made of flexible sheet material, the sidewall portions and the bottom wall portion of each container arranged to present a chamber for receiving the bulk materials, wherein each container has an upper section, and wherein the upper section of at least one container of the array includes a releasable connector that is detachably coupled to an adjacent container of the array.

2. An assembly according to claim 1 wherein the assembly includes a number of additional flexible containers for bulk materials arranged in a second, horizontal, side-by-side array, wherein the second array is stacked atop the first array.

3. An assembly according to claim 1 wherein the assembly includes a number of pallets having openings for receiving tines of a forklift, wherein each pallet has an upper side of a certain area, wherein at least some of the containers are each received on the upper side of a respective one of the pallets, and wherein each container occupies an area in a horizontal reference plane that is approximately the same size as the area of the upper side of the underlying pallet.

4. An assembly according to claim 1 and including a vertical support adjacent the array, wherein the upper section of at least one container of the array includes a releasable connector that is detachably coupled to the vertical support.

5. An assembly according to claim 4 wherein the vertical support comprises a post of a building that extends over the array.

6. An assembly according to claim 4 wherein the vertical support comprises a wall of a building that extends next to the array.

7. An assembly according to claim 1 wherein the connector includes a first strap and a second strap, each of the first strap and the second strap having a first end section and a second end section, each of the first end sections being connected to the upper section of the container, and wherein the connector also includes a releasable coupling for connecting the second end section of the first strap and the second strap together.

8. An assembly according to claim 7 wherein at least one of the containers has a loop-shaped coupler for coupling to the first strap and the second strap.

9. A flexible container for bulk materials comprising: a body having sidewall portions and a bottom wall portion, the sidewall portions and the bottom wall portions made of flexible sheet material and being arranged to present a chamber for receiving bulk materials, the body also having an upper section; and at least one connector connected to the upper section, the connector having a generally loop-shaped configuration and a releasable coupling for opening and closing the loop of the loop-shaped configuration when desired.

10. A flexible container for bulk materials according to claim 9 wherein the connector comprises at least one strap.

11. A flexible container for bulk materials according to claim 10 wherein the connector comprises two straps.

12. A flexible container for bulk materials according to claim 11 wherein each strap has a first end and a second end remote from the first end, and wherein the coupling connects the second ends of the straps together.

13. A flexible container for bulk materials according to claim 12 wherein the coupling comprises a hook and loop fastener having a hook section connected to the second end of one of the straps and a loop section connected to the second end of the other strap.

14. A flexible container for bulk materials according to claim 13 wherein the first end of at least one strap is directly connected to the upper section.

15. A flexible container for bulk materials according to claim 14 and including a quantity of bulk material received in the chamber.

16. A method of arranging a number of flexible containers in an array comprising: placing a first container on a surface that extends in a generally horizontal plane, wherein the first container contains a quantity of bulk material; placing a second container on the surface next to the first container, wherein the second container contains a quantity of bulk material; and connecting at least one strap between an upper section of the first container and an upper section of the second container in order to stabilize the containers and help avoid shifting of the bulk materials.

17. A method of arranging a number of flexible containers in an array according to claim 16 wherein the act of connecting at least one strap between an upper section of the first container and an upper section of the second container includes the act of coupling a hook section of hook and loop fastener to a loop section of hook and loop fastener.

18. A method of arranging a number of flexible containers in an array according to claim 16 wherein the act of connecting at least one strap between an upper section of the first container and an upper section of the second container includes the act of connecting at least one strap that is secured to the first container to a loop that is secured to the second container.

19. A method of arranging a number of flexible containers in an array according to claim 17 wherein the act of connecting at least one strap that is secured to the first container to a loop that is secured to the second container includes the act of coupling together two straps that are both secured to the first container.

20. A method of arranging a number of flexible containers in an array according to claim 16 and including the act of connecting an upper section of at least one container of the array to a stationary vertical support.

Description:

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

[0001] 1. Field of the Invention

[0002] This invention relates to a system for stabilizing an array of flexible containers that are used for storing and dispensing bulk material in powder, flake or granular form. The invention is particularly useful for helping to prevent an array of stacked containers from toppling when the contents of the containers shift.

[0003] 2. Description of the Related Art

[0004] Flexible containers such as bags and sacks are well-known in the art and have been used over the years for a variety of purposes. Containers of this type are popular due to their initial low cost and compact size when not needed for use.

[0005] Certain types of large, flexible containers are known as flexible intermediate bulk containers, or “FIBCs”. Containers of this type, also known as “big bags” and “bulk sacks”, are in widespread use for shipping and storing dry, flowable material that is in powder, flake or granular form. These containers are often made of high-strength fabrics such as polypropylene. The containers are relatively light in weight compared to the contained products and consequently add little additional expense to the cost of shipping the product.

[0006] Flexible intermediate bulk containers are used to ship and store a variety of bulk materials. Examples of such materials include agricultural materials such as seed, grain and beans, as well as foods such as sugar, salt, flour and starch. The containers can also be used for industrial products such as chemicals, plastic resin or pellets, polymers, and refractory materials such as clays, powdered metals and shot. Other materials are also possible, such as crushed stone, sand, minerals, cement and lime.

[0007] The bulk containers mentioned above are normally filled with the material through a top opening. The bulk material is then dispensed when needed through a bottom opening. The bottom opening may be in the form of an outlet spout that may optionally include a mechanical valve, or may simply be in the form of a hole that is cut in the fabric at a chosen location.

[0008] Flexible intermediate bulk containers typically range in size from smaller bags that can hold 5 cubic feet of bulk material to jumbo sacks that can hold more than 75 cubic feet of material. As can be appreciated, such containers are normally too heavy to be lifted and moved by hand once filled. Consequently, containers of this type are usually moved with machinery such as a forklift, crane or hoist.

[0009] A number of methods have been proposed in the past for lifting and moving flexible intermediate bulk containers. Some of the early containers were made with integrated lift slings that extended around the container. Other early containers were attached to a specially made pallet or a metal lifting device upon which the container rested. These handling devices enabled the container to be moved when desired. The lifting devices also allowed the container to be held upright and open in order to facilitate filling the container through its top and discharging the contents from its bottom.

[0010] Today, some flexible intermediate bulk containers have four spaced apart fabric loops attached to the top of the container for handling the container. The loops are located in positions suitable for receiving tines of a forklift in order to lift and move the container. For example, large square bags often have loops located at each of the four top comers. Other containers have two elongated fabric sleeves that are secured to upper wall sections of the container and the sleeves have a configuration adapted to receive the forklift tines.

[0011] Many filled flexible intermediate bulk containers have an overall size in a horizontal plane that is approximately the same size as the upper side of a pallet. An example of a common size for such filled containers is about 46 inches in diameter. Many individuals prefer to use pallets to ship and store such containers because the tines of a forklift can simply be maneuvered into place in the openings of the pallet when the container is to be moved. Such practice is considered somewhat easier than attempting to guide the tines into the flexible loops or sleeves located at the top of the container.

[0012] Unfortunately, conventional flexible intermediate bulk containers are somewhat unstable when filled, especially in instances when the height of the container is greater than its width. Often, the bulk material within the container will shift in a lateral direction and cause the container to assume a non-symmetrical, leaning configuration. The sidewalls of the container, being made of a flexible fabric, generally do not provide significant resistance to such a shift in configuration.

[0013] Occasionally, the flexible container will lean to such a degree that the container tips over and spills its contents. In those instances, a considerable amount of manual labor is often incurred to pick up the spilled material and return it to the container. Moreover, it is sometimes necessary to discard material that has spilled from its container, such as in situations where the material is a food product that would otherwise be intended for human consumption. Obviously, spilled containers represent a significant nuisance in terms of both time and expense that is best avoided if at all possible.

[0014] In addition, flexible intermediate bulk containers are often placed in areas where space is limited. For example, the containers may be stored for a period of time in a warehouse or other enclosed structure. In those situations, the containers are sometimes stacked atop each other to save floor space. It is not uncommon for containers of this type to be stacked three high, even though the containers are relatively large in size.

[0015] Unfortunately, stacked arrays of bulk containers are often more unstable than arrays that are limited to the height of one container. Additionally, many of these containers, together with their contents weigh over 2000 pounds. As a consequence, stacked arrays that topple over can present a substantial risk of injury to any person in the immediate vicinity. Moreover, when a stack of large bulk containers falls over, the weight of the contents may be sufficient to force an adjacent building wall in a lateral direction and cause significant structural damage.

[0016] In view of the problems noted above, there is a need in the art for a system that provides stability for arrays of flexible intermediate bulk containers. Preferably, such a system would be inexpensive, easy to use and adaptable for use with a wide variety of storage arrangements.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

[0017] The present invention overcomes the disadvantages noted above by provision of a releasable connector that stabilizes the orientation and configuration of flexible containers. The connector is coupled to upper sections of adjacent containers so that the containers are secured together and tend to remain in an upright configuration. As a result, the containers are less likely to tip over, even when arranged in a stacked array.

[0018] In preferred embodiments of the invention, the connector includes at least one strap that extends between the upper sections of adjacent containers. Optionally, one container has a strap with a loop-shaped configuration that can be opened for connection to a loop-shaped strap of the neighboring container. At least one of the straps includes a coupler for opening and closing the loop of the loop-shaped configuration when desired.

[0019] Optionally, at least one container of the array is secured to a vertical support. Examples of suitable stationary vertical supports include walls, posts and other structural or non-structural components of a warehouse or other building that surrounds the array. Examples of non-stationary vertical supports include frames or rails that are mounted on truck beds or adjacent the tines of a forklift. As an additional option, a connector (such as one of the straps with a coupler as mentioned above) extends around the support to help retain the adjacent container as well as the remaining containers in a stable, upright configuration.

[0020] In more detail, the present invention in one aspect is directed to an assembly that comprises a plurality of flexible containers for bulk materials arranged in a first, horizontal, side-by-side array. Each container has sidewall portions and a bottom wall portion made of flexible sheet material, and the sidewall portions and the bottom wall portion of each container are arranged to present a chamber for receiving the bulk materials. Each container has an upper section, and the upper section of at least one container of the array includes a releasable connector that is detachably coupled to an adjacent container of the array.

[0021] Another aspect of the invention is directed to a flexible container for bulk materials. The container comprises a body having sidewall portions and a bottom wall portion. The sidewall portions and the bottom wall portion are made of flexible sheet material and are arranged to present a chamber for receiving the bulk materials. The body also has an upper section. The container also comprises at least one connector connected to the upper section. The connector has a generally loop-shaped configuration and a releasable coupling for opening and closing the loop of the loop-shaped configuration when desired.

[0022] An additional aspect of the invention is directed to a method of arranging a number of flexible containers in an array. The method includes the act of placing a first container on a surface that extends in a generally horizontal plane, wherein the first container contains a quantity of bulk material. The method also includes the act of placing a second container on the surface next to the first container, wherein the second container contains a quantity of bulk material. The method additionally includes the act of connecting at least one strap between an upper section of the first container and an upper section of the second container in order to stabilize the containers and help avoid shifting of the bulk materials.

[0023] These and other aspects of the invention are described in more detail below and are illustrated in the accompanying drawings.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

[0024] FIG. 1 is a front, top and side perspective view of an array of flexible intermediate bulk containers according to certain embodiments of the invention, wherein the array in this instance comprises twelve bulk containers arranged in two layers;

[0025] FIG. 2 is an enlarged, fragmentary front, top and side perspective view of one of the containers illustrated in FIG. 1, showing a connector of the container;

[0026] FIG. 3 is a view somewhat similar to FIG. 2 except that a second, adjacent container is also shown, and wherein the connector of the container illustrated in FIG. 2 has been moved to a closed loop-shaped configuration in order to connect to a coupler of the other container; and

[0027] FIG. 4 is a side elevational view showing two containers that are similar to the containers depicted in FIG. 1, except that the containers illustrated in FIG. 4 have been coupled to a stationary, vertical post and are both mounted on a pallet of a type adapted for use with a forklift.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS

[0028] A system for stabilizing flexible bulk containers according to one embodiment of the invention is illustrated in FIGS. 1-3. The system includes an assembly 10 of flexible bulk containers 12 arranged in an array. In the exemplary embodiment that is shown in FIGS. 1-3, the assembly includes twelve flexible containers 12. In practice, however, the array may include any number of bulk containers 12.

[0029] Each of the flexible bulk containers 12 includes a body having a bottom wall portion (not shown) and sidewall portions 14. The flexible bulk containers 12 shown in FIGS. 1-3 have a generally rectangular configuration in plan view when filled with bulk material, although other constructions are also possible. For example, the bulk containers 12 may have a generally circular, hexagonal or octagonal configuration in plan view when filled.

[0030] Preferably, the containers 12 are jumbo sacks or bags that are otherwise known as flexible intermediate bulk containers, or FIBCs. Examples of suitable FIBCs include “SUPER SACK” brand containers from B.A.G. Corporation of Dallas, Tex. and “CUBEPAK” Baffle Containers from Bulk-Pak, Inc. of Monroe, La. Preferably, such containers have an inner chamber with a capacity of at least 5 cubic feet and more preferably a capacity of at least 20 cubic feet.

[0031] The containers 12 are made of high strength flexible material that is preferably light in weight. Suitable materials for the flexible material include, for example, polypropylene, nylon (including nylon coated with polyvinyl chloride) and polyester. However, other coated and uncoated sheet materials are also possible.

[0032] An upper section of one of the containers 12 is shown in enlarged view in FIG. 2. As illustrated, the upper section includes a releasable connector 16 that is near a corner of the upper section. However, the connector 16 may be located near other areas of the container 12 as well.

[0033] The connector 16 in this embodiment comprises a first elongated, flexible strap 18 and a second elongated, flexible strap 20. Preferably, each of the straps 18, 20 is made of a strong plastic fabric material. The straps 18, 20 can have a rectangular, round or other cross-sectional configuration. Each strap 18, 20 has a first end section that is directly fixed by stitching, adhesive, rivets or other means to one of the sidewall portions 14 or to a top portion of the container 12. Optionally, each first end section of the straps 18, 20 is fixed to a seam that also reinforces a joint between the sidewall portions 14 and the top portion.

[0034] Each of the straps 18, 20 also has a free second end section that is remote from its first end section. The connector 16 includes a releasable coupling 22 for connecting the second end sections of the first strap 18 and the second strap 20 together. When the second end sections of the straps 18, 20 are connected to each other, the straps 18, 20 together assume a somewhat loop-shaped configuration.

[0035] A variety of couplings 22 are possible. In the embodiment shown in the drawings, the coupling 22 comprises a hook and loop fastener. A loop section 24 of the hook and loop fastener is secured to the second end section of the first strap 18 and a hook section 26 of the hook and loop fastener is secured to the second end section of the second strap 20. The loop section 24 and the hook section 26 can be readily coupled together and uncoupled from each other by hand when desired. In FIG. 2, the coupling 22 is shown in its open or released condition, where the loop section 24 and the hook section 26 are uncoupled from each other.

[0036] Other types of couplings 22 are also possible. For example, the coupling may comprise a buckle (similar to a belt buckle), a pin or bolt that extends through openings or passages of the straps 18, 20, or a clamp that keeps the second end sections together by pressing the second end sections against each other. A releasable latch is also possible. Furthermore, the coupling could comprise a knot that ties the second end sections of the straps 18, 20 together.

[0037] The connector 16 is adapted to be coupled to an adjacent container 12 of the array. In FIG. 3, the connector 16 is coupled to a coupler 28 that comprises a loop made of a flexible strap. The coupler 28 shown in the drawings is a single strap with opposite end sections secured to the adjacent container. Alternatively, the coupler 28 may comprise an assembly of two straps (similar to the straps 18, 20) along with a coupler for connecting the free ends of the straps together to form a loop when desired.

[0038] Optionally, the coupler 28 may also function as a lifting loop for the container 12. Lifting loops for flexible intermediate bulk containers are well-known in the art and are adapted to receive the forks or tines of a forklift. The lifting loops are used to transport the container 12 and to maneuver the container 12 in place in the array as may be needed. Generally, it is preferable to have four couplers 28 located at the four top comers of the container 12 to facilitate lifting. Furthermore, it is preferable to have a connector (such as connector 16) located next to each coupler 28 in order to facilitate connecting the containers 12 to each other.

[0039] In the array shown in FIG. 1, each container 12 is preferably connected to a horizontally adjacent container 12 by a connector such as connector 16. More preferably, each container 12 is connected to at least two horizontally adjacent containers. Most preferably, each container 12 is connected by a connector such as connector 16 to each of the neighboring containers in a horizontal direction. For example, at the location marked “A” in FIG. 1, the four adjacent containers are preferably all coupled to each other.

[0040] The connectors 16 function to tie the upper sections of the containers 12 together. As a result, the containers 12 are less likely to shift in a lateral direction, even in instances where the contents of the containers 12 might otherwise tend to move the wall portions 14 of the containers 12 toward a tilted orientation. Advantageously, leaning and/or toppling of the containers 12 of the array is substantially prevented.

[0041] The connectors 16 are inexpensive and easy to use. Moreover, a single container 12 can be readily removed from the array by opening the coupling 22 and releasing the straps 18, 20 from the coupler 28. Such construction is a significant advantage over past systems that incorporated a rope, strap or shrink-wrap extending around the periphery of an array to hold the array together, because in those systems some of the containers could become unstable and tip over once the rope, strap or shrink-wrap was disconnected.

[0042] Advantageously, the connectors 16 can be used in other arrangements as well. For example, the connectors 16 can be temporarily coupled to upright rails of a forklift or truck as the container 12 is moved from one location to another. The connectors 16 can also be used to support the container 12 during a dispensing operation.

[0043] FIG. 4 is an illustration of an alternative embodiment of the invention. In FIG. 4, each container 12a has an upper section with a connector 16a. Each connector 16a is preferably similar to the connector 16 as described above in that it comprises two straps and a coupler for coupling free end sections of the straps together.

[0044] The connectors 16a extend around a vertical support 30a. In the drawings, the support 30a comprises a stationary pipe that is secured to a floor 32a and a wall 34a of a surrounding storage building 36a. The support 30a serves to stabilize the containers 12a and maintain the containers 12a in an upright orientation.

[0045] Preferably, the containers 12a are part of an array with a number of other similar containers. Each container of the array is coupled to an adjacent connector by a connector such as the connector 16a described above. Optionally, more than one support 30a is located adjacent the array for receiving the straps of connectors 16a of the containers 12a.

[0046] Alternative types of supports are also possible. For example, the support may be a structural post or supporting column for a building that surrounds the array. As another example, the support may be a vertical wall of a building. The support may also be an upright freestanding post located outdoors.

[0047] The containers 12a as depicted in FIG. 4 are received on a pallet 36a having openings adapted to receive the tines of a forklift. The containers 12a may be secured to the underlying pallet 36a or simply resting on the same. As illustrated, the horizontal area or “footprint” of the containers 12a is approximately the same size as the horizontal area of an upper side of the pallet 36a. Consequently, each pallet 36a receives a single container 12a.

[0048] The containers 12, 12a may include other features as well. For example, the containers 12, 12a may include a bottom spout for discharging the bulk material when desired. Optionally, the spout may include a valve for controlling the discharge of bulk material. The containers 12, 12a may also include a top portion to cover the chamber. The top portion may have a funnel, spout or other structure for facilitating loading the bulk material into the chamber.

[0049] The bulk material may be any of the dry, flowable materials mentioned above. The materials may be in powder, flake or granular form.

[0050] The description set out above represents currently preferred embodiments of my invention. However, those skilled in the art will recognize that a number of alternatives, variations and additions to those embodiments are possible. Accordingly, the invention should not be deemed limited to the specific constructions and methods that are described above in detail, but instead only by a fair scope of the claims that follow along with their equivalents.