Title:
Lid dispensing system with stock cartridges
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
The present invention is directed to a lid dispensing assembly for supplying container lids in a container packaging process, wherein stacks of container lids are disposed in cartridges. The dispensing assembly may include a magazine having a plurality of openings extending between a top surface and a bottom surface of the magazine and shaped to correspond to the shape of the container lids being dispensed from the lid dispensing assembly, and a plurality of rods extending upwardly from the top surface of the magazine proximate each of the openings, with the rods proximate each opening defining a holding area above the opening configured to receive a cartridge containing a stack of the container lids and to align the cartridge and the stack of container lids with the opening. Either the opening or the rods defining the holding area above the opening are configured to engage the cartridge to prevent the cartridge from passing through the opening and to allow the stack of container lids to pass through the opening.



Inventors:
Gorzynski, Michael R. (Salem, WI, US)
Application Number:
11/412331
Publication Date:
11/02/2006
Filing Date:
04/27/2006
Assignee:
LABEL MAKERS, INC. (Pleasant Prairie, WI, US)
Primary Class:
International Classes:
B65B7/28
View Patent Images:
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Primary Examiner:
KUMAR, RAKESH
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
MARSHALL, GERSTEIN & BORUN LLP (CHICAGO, IL, US)
Claims:
What is claimed is:

1. A lid dispensing assembly for supplying container lids in a container packaging process, the lid dispensing assembly comprising: a magazine having a plurality of openings extending between a top surface and a bottom surface of the magazine and shaped to correspond to the shape of the container lids being dispensed from the lid dispensing assembly; a plurality of rods extending upwardly from the top surface of the magazine proximate each of the openings, wherein the rods proximate each opening define a holding area above the opening configured to receive a stack of the container lids and align the stack of container lids with the opening; and adjustable retention mechanisms connected to the bottom surface of the magazine and disposed proximate the openings of the magazine with at least a portion of the retention mechanisms disposed inwardly of the edges of the openings to engage bottommost container lids of the stacks of container lids disposed in the holding areas and passing through the openings, wherein the retention mechanisms are moveable between at least a first position in which the retention mechanisms are disposed a first distance inwardly from the edges of the openings and a second position wherein the mechanisms are disposed a second distance inwardly from the edges of the openings that is greater then the first distance.

2. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 1, wherein the adjustable retention mechanisms comprise guide bars and a plurality of brackets connecting each guide bar to the bottom surface of the magazine so that the guide bar extends across a plurality of the openings of the magazine, wherein the brackets are configured to facilitate movement of the corresponding guide bar between the first position and the second position.

3. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 2, wherein each bracket receives the corresponding guide bar and comprises an outwardly extending flange having an elongated slot, the retention mechanisms further comprising set screws slidably disposed within corresponding slots of the brackets and received in corresponding throughbores in the bottom surface of the magazine, wherein the guide bars are moved between the first and second positions by loosening the set screws, repositioning the brackets and guide bars by sliding the brackets relative to the set screws, and retightening the set screws.

4. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 2, wherein each bracket comprises a plurality of receiving portions each configured to receive the corresponding guide bar when the bracket is attached to the bottom surface of the magazine, wherein the guide bars are disposed in the first position when they are disposed in first receiving portions of the corresponding brackets, and the guide bars are disposed in the second position when they are disposed in second receiving portions of the corresponding brackets.

5. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 1, wherein the adjustable retention mechanisms comprise guide bars, a plurality of brackets receiving each guide bar, eccentric holders disposed and rotatable within the bottom surface of the magazine, wherein each bracket is connected to a corresponding one of the eccentric holders at a point eccentric to the rotational axis of the eccentric holder, and wherein the guide bars are moved between the first and second positions by rotating the corresponding eccentric holders.

6. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 1, wherein the adjustable retention mechanisms comprise eccentric washers connected to the bottom surface of the magazine by corresponding set screws, wherein the eccentric washers are moved between the first and second positions by loosening the corresponding set screws and rotating the eccentric washers such that the distance between the outer edge of the eccentric washers and the edges of the corresponding opening changes from the first distance to the second distance.

7. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 1, wherein the adjustable retention mechanisms are moveable to a third position wherein the retention mechanisms do not extend past the edges of the openings and do not engage the bottommost container lids of the stacks of container lids passing through the openings.

8. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 1, wherein the stacks of container lids are disposed in cartridges, and wherein the holding areas defined by the rods are configured to receive the cartridges containing the stacks of container lids.

9. A lid dispensing assembly for supplying container lids in a container packaging process, wherein stacks of container lids are disposed in cartridges, the dispensing assembly comprising: a magazine having a plurality of openings extending between a top surface and a bottom surface of the magazine and shaped to correspond to the shape of the container lids being dispensed from the lid dispensing assembly; and a plurality of rods extending upwardly from the top surface of the magazine proximate each of the openings, wherein the rods proximate each opening define a holding area above the opening configured to receive a cartridge containing a stack of the container lids and to align the cartridge and the stack of container lids with the opening, wherein one of the opening and the rods defining the holding area above the opening are configured to engage the cartridge to prevent the cartridge from passing through the opening and to allow the stack of container lids to pass through the opening.

10. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 9, wherein an inner surface of the magazine defining an opening defines an inwardly extending shoulder within the opening between the top and bottom surfaces of the magazine configured to engage an open end of the cartridge disposed within the holding area, wherein the portion of the opening above the shoulder is large enough to receive the open end of the cartridge, and wherein the portion of the opening below the shoulder is large enough to allow the stack of container lids from the cartridge to pass out of the cartridge and through the opening.

11. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 10, wherein the inner surface of the magazine defining an opening defines an inwardly extending annular flange disposed below the shoulder and proximate the bottom surface of the magazine, wherein the annular flange is configured to engage the outer edges of the bottommost container lid of the container lid stack.

12. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 10, wherein the magazine includes a plurality of surfaces each defining a relief cut extending inwardly from an outer edge of the magazine to a corresponding one of the openings and downwardly from the top surface of the magazine to a position below the shoulder of the opening such that the portion of the opening below the shoulder is accessible through the relief cut when a cartridge disposed within the corresponding holding area is engaged by the shoulder.

13. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 10, wherein the cartridges include ribs extending outwardly from the outer surface of the cartridge, and wherein the outer surfaces of the rods are aligned with the inner surface defining the portion of the corresponding opening below the shoulder, and wherein the shoulder is configured to engage the ribs of a cartridge disposed within the holding area to prevent the cartridge from passing through the opening.

14. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 9, wherein the openings are configured to allow the container lids to pass through the openings and to not allow the cartridges to pass through the openings, and wherein the rods are configured with the outer surfaces of the rods disposed outwardly from the openings to receive the cartridges with the open ends of the cartridges engaging the top surface of the magazine surrounding the openings.

15. A lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 9, comprising adjustable retention mechanisms connected to the bottom surface of the magazine and disposed proximate the openings of the magazine with at least a portion of the retention mechanisms disposed inwardly of the edges of the openings to engage bottommost container lids of stacks of container lids disposed in the holding areas and passing through the openings, wherein the retention mechanisms are moveable between at least a first position in which the retention mechanisms are disposed a first distance inwardly from the edges of the openings and a second position wherein the mechanisms are disposed a second distance inwardly from the edges of the openings that is greater then the first distance.

16. A cartridge for a lid dispensing assembly for supplying container lids in a container packaging process, comprising: an outer wall defining an elongated cavity having a cross-section corresponding to the shape of the container lids being dispensed from the lid dispensing assembly and having a length dimensioned to allow the cartridge to receive a stack of container lids within the elongated cavity; and an open end configured to receive a stack of the container lids being inserted into the elongated cavity.

17. A cartridge for a lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 16, further comprising a second end disposed opposite the open end and having an inwardly extending lip configured to engage the lateral edges of the endmost container lid of the stack of container lids received through the open end of the cartridge to prevent the container lids from passing through the second end of the cartridge, and configured to provide an opening for engagement of a portion of the surface of the endmost container lid from the exterior of the cartridge.

18. A cartridge for a lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 16, further comprising an opening through the outer wall of the cartridge such that a stack of container lids disposed within the cartridge is visible through the opening.

19. A cartridge for a lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 16, wherein the outer wall of the cartridge is fabricated from a translucent material.

20. A cartridge for a lid dispensing assembly in accordance with claim 16, further comprising at least one pair of outwardly extending shoulders disposed on an outer surface of the outer wall and extending parallel axially along the length of the cartridge and defining a channel configured to receive an upwardly extending rod of a magazine of the lid supply assembly to align the cartridge with an opening of the magazine.

Description:

REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS

This application claims priority from Provisional Application Ser. No. 60/675,119, filed on Apr. 27, 2005, which is expressly incorporated by reference herein.

BACKGROUND OF THE DISCLOSURE

The present invention relates generally to systems and methods for dispensing container lids and, more particularly, to systems and methods for dispensing plastic container lids.

Various systems for dispensing container lids have been previously described. For example, U.S. Pat. No. 5,946,886 to Bealer, the specification of which is expressly incorporated by reference herein, discloses systems for transferring container lids from a supply stack and repositioning the container lids relative to awaiting containers using a substantially constant-rate reciprocal drive. The system includes a lid supply assembly and a lid transfer assembly. The lid supply assembly includes a bridge support structure and a container conveyer carrying containers on which the container lids will be attached. The bridge support structure supports a number of lid magazines, each of which is adapted to hold a vertical stack of container lids. The lid magazines are provided with a lid release collar at a bottom end thereof that includes fixed-position detents that support the stacks of container lids. In this system, pneumatic conduits direct pressurized air to the lid release collar to provide air separation between the individual container lids in the stack to allow the container lids to be removed from the stack one lid at a time.

Bealer further discloses that the system includes a vacuum head corresponding to each of the magazines of the lid supply assembly and disposed below the magazines. In order to remove container lids from the magazines, the vacuum heads are displaced vertically and brought into contact with the lowermost one of the container lids in the corresponding stack. A source of vacuum in fluid communication with the vacuum heads causes the lowermost one of the container lids to be captured by the vacuum heads by suction. Upon being captured by the vacuum heads, the lowermost lids in the stacks within the magazines are forcibly pulled past the detent members as the vacuum heads are displaced vertically downward. In such a manner, the lowermost lids in the stacks within the magazines are released and held under the influence of the vacuum by the vacuum heads as the vacuum heads move the container lids into position proximate the corresponding containers for attachment.

FIG. 1 illustrates one embodiment of a lid supply assembly 10 for dispensing foil or paper container lids during the container packaging process. In this embodiment, the lid release collar is in the form of a manifold 12 (bottom surface shown) having a plurality of openings 14 shaped to correspond to the shape of the container lids to be dispensed therethrough. The container lidding system includes vacuum heads, such as those described above, corresponding to each of the openings 14. In this embodiment, detents are provided in the form of washers 16, 18 attached to the bottom surface of the manifold by bolts 20. The washers 16, 18 are dimensioned and positioned such that portions of the washers 16, 18 extend inwardly into the corresponding openings 14 such that the washers 16, 18 engage the bottom surface of the lowermost container lid in the corresponding stack of container lids to support the stack of container lids during the dispensing process. In the illustrated embodiment, the washers 18 correspond to two of the openings 14 and, correspondingly, provide detents engaging the container lids in the two corresponding openings 14. Due to the light weight of the foil and/or paper container lids, and the relative rigidity of the container lids, the washers 16, 18 need only extend inwardly into the openings 14 a relatively short distance in order to support the stack of container lids. In applications involving foil container lids, the minimal incursion of the washers 16, 18 into the openings 14 results in either no bending of the container lids or a slight bending of the edges of the foil container lids at the point of engagement with the washers 16, 18 as the lowermost container lid is pulled past the washers 16, 18 such that a sufficient seal may be formed between the container lid and the container despite the slight bending of the foil container lid.

Recently, applications have been developed wherein containers may be sealed with thin plastic container lids. In these applications, plastic container lids may have approximately the same size and shape as the previously-used foil and paper container lids, but with the plastic lids being more flexible and, correspondingly, less rigid and resistant to bending. As a result, the plastic container lids may be able to bend and fall through the openings 14 past the detents, such as the washers 16, 18, normally used for foil and paper container lids. One potential solution for plastic container lid applications is to increase the size of the washers 16, 18 and the corresponding distance that the washers 16, 18 extend into the openings 14. However, increasing the size of the washers may encroach on the surface necessary for the vacuum heads to engage the container lids. Therefore, a need exists for an improved detent mechanism for supporting a stack of plastic container lids, or other types of flexible container lids fabricated from other materials, in a lid supply assembly without obstructing the removal of the lowermost container lid for attachment to a corresponding container.

Bealer further illustrates that the lid magazines may be formed by a plurality of upwardly extending rods that are positioned to receive stacks of container lids to be dispensed by the lid supply assembly. Presently, stacks of container lids are manually loaded by an operator into the magazines, with the operators grasping a portion of a stack of container lids between their thumbs and fingers and sliding the partial stacks down into the magazines. The size of the partial stack that may be loaded into a magazine is limited by the amount of container lids the operators can pinch between their fingers without the container lids in the middle of the partial stack squirting out. As a result, four to six inch tall magazines must be filled with partial stacks of container lids two inches or smaller at a time to fill the magazines without dropping the stacks of container lids. Moreover, the direct handling of the container lids in applications having greater sanitary and sterilization requirements may pose additional issues related to handling the container lids without contamination. Therefore, a need also exists for improved apparatus and methods for loading stacks of container lids into the magazines of the lid supply assemblies.

The container lid stacks are prepared by die-cuts performed on semi-automatic equipment with a simple stacked output. The current manufacturing and stacking process requires a considerable amount of manual handling of the stacked product. The die-cut equipment converts a continuous web or rollstock of the raw material for the container lids into individual container lids by punching the material through openings in a die plate configured in the shape of the container lids. The unused rollstock is wound onto a take up real on the press, and the punched out container lids are presented to the operator in corresponding chutes of an outfeed assembly that maintains the container lids in stacked form. This allows the container lid output to be captured and aligned for subsequent packaging.

The stacked container lids require a constant application of opposing force to prevent the container lids from falling over in the output chutes of the outfeed assembly. Consequently, each output chute includes a device for applying a force to the end of the stack opposite the punch that is slidable to allow the stack to accumulate in the output chute has additional container lids are punched out of the rollstock. In order to package the stacked container lids, the operator retrieves a small portion of the stack of container lids from an output chute, and places the portion of the stack in a stack fixture that aligns the container lids and positions the stack for weigh counting. Multiple small stacks must be retrieved from the outfeed assembly to fill the fixture. Attempting to retrieve a large stack of container lids can result in the operator dropping the container lids because adjacent container lids tend to slip against each other. The operator is required to both retrieve the container lids, and to apply a force to the remaining stacked container lids in the output chute to prevent the stack from falling over. As the operator handles the product multiple times, the likelihood of dropping or damaging the container lids is increased. Once the fixture is full, the container lids are weigh counted. When the appropriate size stack of container lids has accumulated in the stack fixture, a transit carton is placed over the stack fixture, the carton and fixture are inverted, and the stack fixture is removed from the carton leaving the container lids in the transit carton. In view of the manual nature of transferring the stacked container lids to the transit carton, a need exists for an improved outfeed system and method for transferring the stacked container lids to a transit carton for shipment to customers.

SUMMARY

In one aspect, the invention is directed to a lid dispensing assembly for supplying container lids in a container packaging process. The lid dispensing assembly may include a magazine having a plurality of openings extending between a top surface and a bottom surface of the magazine and shaped to correspond to the shape of the container lids being dispensed from the lid dispensing assembly, and a plurality of rods extending upwardly from the top surface of the magazine proximate each of the openings. The rods proximate each opening define a holding area above the opening configured to receive a stack of the container lids and align the stack of container lids with the opening. The lid dispensing assembly may further include adjustable retention mechanisms connected to the bottom surface of the magazine and disposed proximate the openings of the magazine with at least a portion of the retention mechanisms disposed inwardly of the edges of the openings to engage bottommost container lids of the stacks of container lids disposed in the holding areas and passing through the openings. The retention mechanisms are moveable between at least a first position in which the retention mechanisms are disposed a first distance inwardly from the edges of the openings and a second position wherein the mechanisms are disposed a second distance inwardly from the edges of the openings that is greater then the first distance.

In another aspect, the invention is directed to a lid dispensing assembly for supplying container lids in a container packaging process, wherein stacks of container lids are disposed in cartridges. The dispensing assembly may include a magazine having a plurality of openings extending between a top surface and a bottom surface of the magazine and shaped to correspond to the shape of the container lids being dispensed from the lid dispensing assembly, and a plurality of rods extending upwardly from the top surface of the magazine proximate each of the openings, with the rods proximate each opening defining a holding area above the opening configured to receive a cartridge containing a stack of the container lids and to align the cartridge and the stack of container lids with the opening. Either the opening or the rods defining the holding area above the opening are configured to engage the cartridge to prevent the cartridge from passing through the opening and to allow the stack of container lids to pass through the opening.

In a further aspect, the invention is directed to a cartridge for a lid dispensing assembly for supplying container lids in a container packaging process. The cartridge may include an outer wall defining an elongated cavity having a cross-section corresponding to the shape of the container lids being dispensed from the lid dispensing assembly and having a length dimensioned to allow the cartridge to receive a stack of container lids within the elongated cavity. The cartridge may further include an open end configured to receive a stack of the container lids being inserted into the elongated cavity. In one embodiment, the cartridge includes a second end disposed opposite the open end and having an inwardly extending lip configured to engage the lateral edges of the endmost container lid of the stack of container lids received through the open end of the cartridge to prevent the container lids from passing through the second end of the cartridge, and configured to provide an opening for engagement of a portion of the surface of the endmost container lid from the exterior of the cartridge. In a further embodiment, the cartridge includes at least one pair of outwardly extending shoulders disposed on an outer surface of the outer wall and extending parallel axially along the length of the cartridge and defining a channel configured to receive an upwardly extending rod of a magazine of the lid supply assembly to align the cartridge with an opening of the magazine.

DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

FIG. 1 is a bottom view of a prior art lid supply assembly;

FIG. 2 is a bottom view of a lid supply assembly in accordance with the invention;

FIG. 3 is a top view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2;

FIG. 4 is a cross-sectional view through line 4-4 of FIG. 3 of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2;

FIG. 5 is a cross-sectional view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2 and corresponding vacuum heads, with stacks of container lids in the magazines;

FIG. 6 is a cross-sectional view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2 with the vacuum heads engaging the lowermost container lids;

FIG. 7 is a cross-sectional view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2 with the vacuum heads pulling the lowermost container lids downward;

FIG. 8 is a cross-section of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2 with the lowermost container lids removed from the stack of container lids;

FIG. 9 is a perspective view of an embodiment of a container lid cartridge in accordance with the invention;

FIG. 10 is a top view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2 with the container lid cartridge of FIG. 9 attached to one of the magazines;

FIG. 11 is a cross-sectional view through line 11-11 of FIG. 10 of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2 with the container lid cartridge of FIG. 9;

FIG. 12 is a perspective view of an alternate embodiment of a container lid cartridge in accordance with the invention;

FIG. 13 is a top view of an alternate embodiment of a lid dispensing assembly in accordance with the invention;

FIG. 14 is a cross-sectional view taken through line 14-14 of the lid dispensing assembly of FIG. 13;

FIG. 15 is a top view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 13 receiving the container lid cartridge of FIG. 12;

FIG. 16 is a cross-sectional view taken through line 15-15 of the lid dispensing assembly of FIG. 14;

FIG. 17 is a perspective view of a further alternative embodiment of a container lid cartridge in accordance with the invention;

FIG. 18 is a further alternative embodiment of a lid supply assembly in accordance with the invention;

FIG. 19 is a cross-sectional view through line 19-19 of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 18;

FIG. 20 is a top view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 18 receiving the container lid cartridge of FIG. 17;

FIG. 21 is a cross-sectional view through line 21-21 of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 18 receiving the container lid cartridge of FIG. 17;

FIG. 22 is a top view of a further alternative embodiment of a lid supply assembly in accordance with the invention;

FIG. 23 is a cross-sectional view through line 23-23 of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 22;

FIG. 24 is a top view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 22 receiving the container lid cartridge of FIG. 17;

FIG. 25 is a cross-sectional view through line 25-25 of FIG. 24 of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 22 receiving the container lid cartridge of FIG. 17;

FIG. 26 is a partial bottom view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2 with an embodiment of an adjustable guide bar bracket in a first position;

FIG. 27 is a cross-sectional view through line 27-27 of FIG. 26 of the adjustable guide bar bracket;

FIG. 28 is a partial bottom view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 26 with the adjustable guide bar bracket in a second position;

FIG. 29 is a partial bottom view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 2 with a second embodiment of an adjustable guide bar bracket with the guide bar in first position;

FIG. 30 is a cross-sectional view through line 30-30 of FIG. 29 of the adjustable guide bar bracket;

FIG. 31 is a partial bottom view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 29 with the guide bar in a second position;

FIG. 32 is a partially exploded perspective view of a still further alternative embodiment of a lid supply assembly in accordance with the invention;

FIG. 33 is a bottom perspective view of the magazine of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 32;

FIG. 34 is a cross-sectional view through line 34-34 of FIG. 32 of the magazine of the lid supply assembly;

FIG. 35 is a cross-sectional view through line 35-35 of FIG. 32 of the magazine of the lid supply assembly;

FIG. 36 is a perspective view of a further alternative embodiment of a container lid cartridge in accordance with the invention;

FIG. 37 is a perspective view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 32 receiving the container lid cartridge of FIG. 36;

FIG. 38 is a perspective view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 32 receiving the container lid cartridge of FIG. 36 with the use of a bladed tool;

FIG. 39 is a perspective view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 32 having received the container lid cartridge of FIG. 36 and with a portion of the container lid stack disposed within the dwell area of the corresponding opening;

FIG. 40 is a cross-sectional view through line 40-40 of FIG. 39 of the magazine of the lid supply assembly and container lid cartridge;

FIG. 41 is a cross-sectional view through line 41-41 of FIG. 39 of the magazine of the lid supply assembly and container lid cartridge;

FIG. 42 is a partial bottom perspective view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 32 having eccentric washer and adjustable guide bar retention mechanisms;

FIG. 43 is a bottom perspective view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 32 having eccentric guide bar holder adjustment mechanisms;

FIG. 44 is a top perspective view of the lid supply assembly of FIG. 32 having eccentric guide bar holder adjustment mechanisms;

FIG. 45 is a perspective view of an outfeed assembly for receiving die-cut container lids and loading the container lids into corresponding cartridge;

FIG. 46 is a perspective view of the outfeed assembly of FIG. 45 with a partial stack of container lids; and

FIG. 47 is a perspective view of the outfeed assembly of FIG. 45 with a filled the cartridge having been removed.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF VARIOUS EMBODIMENTS

Although the following text sets forth a detailed description of numerous different embodiments of the invention, it should be understood that the legal scope of the invention is defined by the words of the claims set forth at the end of this patent. The detailed description is to be construed as exemplary only and does not describe every possible embodiment of the invention since describing every possible embodiment would be impractical, if not impossible. Numerous alternative embodiments could be implemented, using either current technology or technology developed after the filing date of this patent, which would still fall within the scope of the claims defining the invention.

It should also be understood that, unless a term is expressly defined in this patent using the sentence “As used herein, the term ‘______’ is hereby defined to mean . . . ” or a similar sentence, there is no intent to limit the meaning of that term, either expressly or by implication, beyond its plain or ordinary meaning, and such term should not be interpreted to be limited in scope based on any statement made in any section of this patent (other than the language of the claims). To the extent that any term recited in the claims at the end of this patent is referred to in this patent in a manner consistent with a single meaning, that is done for sake of clarity only so as to not confuse the reader, and it is not intended that such claim term be limited, by implication or otherwise, to that single meaning. Finally, unless a claim element is defined by reciting the word “means” and a function without the recital of any structure, it is not intended that the scope of any claim element be interpreted based on the application of 35 U.S.C. § 112, sixth paragraph.

FIGS. 2-4 illustrate one embodiment of a lid supply assembly 100 adapted for use in dispensing plastic container lids. Referring to FIG. 2, the lid supply assembly 100 may have a similar configuration to the lid supply assembly 10 previously described, and may include a manifold or magazine 102 having a plurality of openings 104 shaped to correspond to the plastic container lids to be dispensed by the lid supply assembly 100. In the illustrated embodiment, the lid supply assembly 100 is configured to provide twelve stacks of container lids for use in the container packaging process. The lid supply assembly, 100 may further include washers 106, 108 connected to the magazine 102 by bolts 110 such that the edges of the washers 106, 108 partially extend into the corresponding openings 104. While the container lids illustrated herein are tear drop-shaped, those skilled in the art will understand that lid supply assemblies as described herein may be configured to retain and dispense container lids of varying shapes depending on the particular packaging implementation. Moreover, while the embodiments set forth herein discuss the dispensing of plastic container lids, those skilled in the art will understand that the lid supply assemblies as described herein may be used to dispense other types of flexible lids fabricated from other materials, such as from light weight foils and the like, that may deflect as the lids are removed from the magazine and return to their original shape for attachment to the containers.

In order to retain stacks of plastic container lids within the openings 104, the lid supply assembly 100 may further include a plurality of guide bars 112 that may be attached to the bottom surface of the magazine 102, such as by spot welding, with portions of the guide bars 112 overlying the openings 104. The guide bars 112 may be fabricated from any appropriate material to retain the container lids, such as metal, plastic, nylon, composite materials, and the like. In the illustrated embodiment, pairs of the guide bars 112 are aligned along opposite sides of a row of the openings 104 and inwardly of corresponding edges of the openings 104. Aligned in this manner, the portions of the guide bar 112 provide additional surface area for engagement with the lowermost plastic container lid in each stack without encroaching substantially further into the openings 104 than the previously-used washers 106, 108. The increased surface area of the guide bars 112 within the openings 104 provide increased surface contact with the lowermost container lids such that the plastic container lids may be retained within the openings despite their increased flexibility over the previously used foil and paper container lids.

FIG. 3 is a top view of the lid supply assembly 100 illustrating the openings 104 without stacks of container lids disposed therein. The top view of the lid supply assembly 100 further illustrates the portions of the washers 106, 108 and the guide bars 112 disposed within the openings 104 to engage the plastic container lids. In this embodiment, the lid supply assembly 100 may further include a plurality of rods 114, 116 positioned in locations corresponding to the washers 106, 108 and bolts 110 (not shown), defining the holding areas corresponding to the openings 104, and configured to receive the stacks of container lids. The rods 114, 116 may be disposed proximate the edges of the corresponding openings 104 such that the container lids received therein may be aligned with the openings 104 such that the container lids drop into the openings 104 as the lowermost container lids are removed from the stacks. As with the washers 106, 108, the rods 114 may each define the holding area for one of the openings 104, while the rods 116 may define the holding areas for multiple openings 104.

The attachment of the rods 114, 116 is further illustrated in FIG. 4. As shown in FIG. 4, the magazine 102 may include counterbored throughbores 118 proximate the edges of opening 104 for positioning and attachment of the rods 114, 116. Each rod 114, 116 may be inserted into the upper counterbore of the corresponding throughbore 118 for proper alignment, with the bolts 110 being screwed into corresponding threaded portions of the rods 114, 116 to secure the rods 114, 116 and washers 106, 108 in place on the magazine 102. With the rods 114, 116 mounted to and extending upwardly from the magazine 102, the stacks of container lids may be inserted into the holding areas defined by the rods 114, 116 and lowered into the openings 104 where the lowermost container lid is engaged by the guide bars 112 and washers 106, 108.

Referring to FIGS. 5-8, the removal of the lowermost plastic containers through the openings 104 is illustrated. As shown in FIG. 5, container lid stacks 120 disposed within the holding areas defined by the rods 114, 116 are supported by the guide bars 112 and washers 106, 108, with corresponding vacuum heads 122 positioned below the container lid stacks 120. Once the containers are positioned for attachment of container lids, the vacuum heads 122 are moved upwardly into engagement with the lowermost container lid of the corresponding container lid stack 120 as shown in FIG. 6. Once the vacuum heads 122 engage the container lid stacks 120, suction may be applied by a vacuum source fluidly connected to the vacuum heads 122 to secure the lowermost container lids 124 to the vacuum heads 122.

Once the vacuum heads 122 are connected to the corresponding container lids 124, the vacuum heads 122 are displaced downwardly to remove the container lids 124 from the container lid stacks 120 as shown in FIG. 7. As the vacuum heads 122 are displaced downwardly, the edges of the lowermost container lids 124 slide over the corresponding guide bars 112 as the plastic container lids 124 deflect under the downward force applied by the vacuum heads 122. In order the ensure the removal of one container lid 124 from the container lid stack 120, pressurized air may be applied to the container lid stack 120 to reduce the coefficient of friction between adjacent container lids 124. Alternatively, the plastic container lids 124 may be embossed to reduce the amount of surface contact between adjacent container lids 124 and, consequently, the friction between adjacent container lids 124 such that the bottom most container lid 124 may slide past the guide bars 112 without additional container lids 124 being pulled along with it. As shown in FIG. 8, once the lowermost container lids 124 are pulled from the stacks 120 and moved past the guide bars 112, the plastic container lids 124 return to their flat shape as shown in FIG. 8 so that the container lids 124 may be placed flush against the opening of the corresponding container in preparation for forming a peelable seal there between.

While the detent members are illustrated and discussed herein as being guide bars attached to the bottom surface of the magazine, those skilled in the art will understand that other mechanisms may be implemented to provide increased surface area for engaging the plastic container lids without substantially encroaching on the surface area to be engaged by the vacuum heads. For example, the magazine may be fabricated with inwardly-extending detent portions partially covering the openings 104 in a similar manner as the guide bars 112, or extending inwardly about the entire circumference of the openings 104. As another alternative, cam members may be slidably or rotatably connected to the bottom surface of the magazine 102 such that the cam members may be moved into position to engage the plastic container lids and locked in place if necessary for the packaging operation. Configured in this way, the cam members may be moved into position to engage the plastic container lids when necessary, and may be moved out of position if it is desired to attach paper or foil container lids using the same equipment.

The guide bars 112 are discussed above as being spot welded or otherwise attached to the bottom surface of the magazine 102. However, the guide bars 112 may alternatively be attached in a manner facilitating adjustment of the distance the guide bars are disposed inwardly from the edges of the openings 104, and thereby varying the amount of contact area between the guide bars 112 and the container lids. FIGS. 26-28 illustrate one embodiment of an adjustable guide bar bracket 210 that may be used to adjustably attach the guide bars 112 to the magazine 102. Referring to FIGS. 26 and 27, the bracket 210 may include a pair of flanges 212 extending outwardly in opposite directions and having slots 214 therethrough. The bracket 210 may be attached to the bottom of the magazine 102 by set screws 216 disposed slidably within the slots 214 and screwed into corresponding holes in the bottom surface of the magazine 102. As shown in FIGS. 26 and 27, in a first position, the bracket 210 may be disposed with the guide bar 112 relatively close to the edge of the opening 104, with the set screws 216 tightened to retain the bracket 210 and, consequently, the guide bar 112 in position. If additional surface contact between the guide bar 112 and container lid is necessary, the set screws 216 may be loosened and the bracket 210 repositioned as shown in FIG. 28 such that the guide bar 112 is disposed more inwardly from the edge of the opening 104.

Those skilled in the art will understand that the brackets 210 may be attached to the magazine 102 with other attachment mechanisms allowing the brackets 210 to be repositioned as desired, and such mechanisms are contemplated by the inventors as having use with the present invention. For example, the slots 214 of the flanges 212 may be replaced with a plurality of holes at varying distances from the center of the bracket 210 such that the set screws 216 may be inserted in the appropriate holes to dispose the bracket 210 and guide bar 112 in the appropriate position. As a further alternative, the flanges 212 may each have a single hole therethrough, and the bottom surface of the magazine 102 may have a plurality of holes or threaded slots therein allowing the bracket 210 and guide bar 112 to be positioned as desired. Other adjustable connection mechanism will be apparent to those skilled in the art.

In an alternative embodiment illustrated in FIGS. 29-31, an adjustable guide bar bracket 230 may be attached to the bottom of the magazine 102 in a fixed position while allowing the guide bar 112 to be repositioned with respect to the opening 104. Referring to FIGS. 29 and 30, the bracket 230 may include a pair of flanges 232 extending outwardly in opposite directions and having holes therethrough. The bracket 230 may be attached to the bottom of the magazine 102 by screws 234 through the holes and screwed into corresponding holes in the bottom surface of the magazine 102. As further shown in FIGS. 29 and 30, the bracket 230 may include a plurality of receiving portions 236 each configured to receive and retain the guide bar 112 therein. When the guide rod 112 is disposed in the first receiving portion 236 of the bracket 230, the guide bar 112 may be disposed relatively close to the edge of the opening 104. If additional surface contact between the guide bar 112 and container lid is necessary, the guide bar 112 may be repositioned in one of the other receiving portions 236, such as the centermost receiving portion 236 as shown in FIG. 31, such that the guide bar 112 is disposed more inwardly from the edge of the opening 104. Other bracket configurations wherein the guide bar 112 may be repositioned without removing the bracket are contemplated by the inventors. For example, a bracket may include an elongated receiving portion such that the guide bar 112 may be slidable within the receiving portion to adjust the position of the guide bar 112 with respect to the edge of the opening 104. Such a bracket may further include a clamp or other locking mechanism for retaining the guide bar 112 within the receiving portion once the guide bar 122 is set in the desired position.

As previously discussed, in order to facilitate loading of the stacks of container lids into the holding area of a lid supply assembly, it may be desirable to provide cartridges loaded with stacks of container lids that may be used by operators to load the entire stack of container lids into a holding area in bulk. In one embodiment, FIG. 9 illustrates a container lid cartridge 130 that may be used to load a stack of container lids into a holding area of a lid supply assembly, such as the lid supply assembly 100 as shown in FIG. 3. The container lid cartridge 130 may be provided to the packaging facility preloaded with a stack of container lids and ready for use with the lid supply assembly 100. The container lid cartridge 130 may include an outer wall 132 having a cross section corresponding to the shape of the container lids to be stored therein. Further, cartridge 130 may have an open end 134 for receiving and dispensing a stack of container lids, and a closed end (not shown) that may seal the interior of the cartridge 130 from the external environment. In one embodiment for use in sterile environments, the cartridge 130 may further include a cap (not shown) that may be used to seal the open end 134 of the cartridge 130 once the cartridge 130 is loaded with a stack of container lids to isolate the interior of the cartridge 130 from the environment and prevent contamination of the container lids prior to attachment of the lids to the containers.

To further facilitate loading of the stack of container lids into a holding area of the lid supply assembly 100, the outer wall 132 may include a plurality of longitudinally extending channels 136 corresponding to and being adapted to be received by the rods 114, 116 extending upwardly from the magazine 102. FIGS. 10 and 11 illustrate the container lid cartridge 130 disposed on the magazine 102 to load a stack of container lids into a holding area proximate one of the openings 104. In order to properly load the stack of container lids 120, the channels 136 are aligned with the upwardly extending rods 114, 116 such that the lids 120 are aligned with the opening 104. Once aligned, the channels 136 slide downwardly onto the corresponding rods 114, 116 to lower the cartridge 130 onto the holding area. As the cartridge 130 is lowered, the operator may place a finger over the open end 134 to prevent the container lids 120 from falling out of the open end 134 of the cartridge 130. Alternatively, a cap over the open end 134 of the cartridge 130 may be configured to cover the open end 134 while allowing the rods 114, 116 to enter the channels 136, with the cover being removed as the open end 134 of the cartridge 130 approaches the surface of the magazine 102. As a further alternative, the magazine 102 or the rods 114, 116 may include a cover or retention mechanism that may engage the open end 134 of the cartridge 130 as the cartridge 130 is lowered onto the rods 114, 116, and be removable by the operator as the open end 134 of the cartridge 130 approaches the surface of the magazine 102. Once the open end 134 of the cartridge 130 is disposed proximate the surface of the magazine 102, the stack of container lids 120 may be released, with the lids dropping into the corresponding opening 104 and into engagement with the guide bars 112 and washers 106, 108 to retain the stack of container lids 120 in preparation for the packaging operation. With the stack of container lids 120 in place, the cartridge 130 may be lifted off the rods 114, 116 prior to initiation of the packaging process.

FIG. 12 illustrates an alternative embodiment of a container lid cartridge 140 that may be received within a holding area of a lid supply assembly to load a stack of container lids therein. As with the cartridge 130, the cartridge 140 may include an outer wall 142 having a cross section corresponding to the shape of the container lids to be disposed therein, and including an open end 144 for receiving and dispensing the container lids and an oppositely disposed closed end (not shown). In this embodiment, the outer wall 142 may include a pair of outwardly extending shoulders 146 running parallel axially along the length of the cartridge 140 and defining a channel configured to receive one of the upwardly extending rods of the lid supply assembly to align the cartridge 140 in a manner discussed more fully below.

In order to receive the container lid cartridge 140 of FIG. 12, the holding areas of the lid supply assembly require modification to accommodate the thickness of the outer wall 142 of the cartridge 140. FIGS. 13 and 14 illustrate an alternate embodiment of a lid supply assembly 150 having rods 152, 154 adapted to receive the container lid cartridge 140. In this embodiment, the rods 152, 154 may include lower base portions 156 being received within the upper counterbores of the throughbores 118 in the previously-described magazine 102 for alignment, and upwardly extending portions 158 having a reduced diameter providing space within the holding areas for receiving the container lid cartridge 140.

Referring to FIGS. 15 and 16, the cartridge 140 may be inserted between the upwardly extending portions 158 of the rods 152, 154 defining a holding area for one of the openings 104. In order to align the stack of container lids 120 with the corresponding opening 104, a corresponding one of the rods 152, 154 may be disposed between the outwardly extending shoulders 146 of the outer wall 142 of the cartridge 140 and thereby insure that the container lids 120 will fall into the opening 104. After the cartridge 140 is lowered and the container lid stack 120 drops into engagement with the guide bars 112 and washers 106, 108, the cartridge 140 may be lifted during the operation of the packaging system to visually determine the quantity of container lids 120 remaining in the holding areas.

FIG. 17 illustrates a further alternative embodiment of a container lid cartridge 160 that may be used to provide a stack of container lids and to remain in place within the holding area as the container lids are dispensed during the packaging process. Similar to the cartridge 140, the cartridge 160 may include an outer wall 162 having a cross section corresponding to the shape of the container lids to be dispensed, and including an open end 164 allowing the insertion and dispensing of the container lids, and a closed end 166 retaining the stored container lids within the cartridge 160.

The cartridge 160 may further include an opening or window 168 through the outer wall 162 through which an operator may observe the container lids stored therein. The cartridge 160 may be used with the lid supply assembly 150 as described above, or with alternate lid supply assemblies configured to receive the cartridge 160. For example, as illustrated in FIGS. 18 and 19, a lid supply assembly 170 may be similar to the previously described lid supply assemblies, and include rods 172, 174 defining container lid holding areas capable of receiving the container lid cartridge 160. The rods 172, 174 may include cutout portions 176 providing space within the holding areas for insertion of the cartridge 160. As shown in FIGS. 20 and 21, the cartridge 160 may be inserted downward between the cutout portions 176 of the rods 172, 174 with the cartridge 160 aligned with the corresponding opening 104. Once the cartridges 160 are inserted into the holding areas, an operator may observe the level of the container lid stacks within the cartridges 160 through the corresponding windows 168 to determine when the container lid stacks require replenishment. As an alternative to providing openings 168 in the outer walls 162 of the cartridges 160, the cartridges 160 may be fabricated from a transparent or semi-transparent material such that the amount of container lids within the cartridges 160 is readily observable through the outer walls 162 of the cartridges 160.

FIGS. 22-25 illustrate a further alternative embodiment of a portion of a lid supply assembly 180 configured to receive a cartridge for loading a stack of container lids therein, and for retaining the stack of container lids with minimal lateral movement once the container lid cartridge is removed therefrom. Referring to FIG. 22, an opening 182 in a magazine 184 of the lid supply assembly 180 includes a corresponding magazine housing 186 for retaining a stack of container lids. The magazine 186 housing includes a first portion 188 and second portion 190 slidably mounted to the magazine 184. The first and second portions 188, 190 may include outwardly extending flanges 192, 194, respectively, having corresponding slots 196, 198 therethrough. The first and second portions 188, 190 may be connected to the magazine 184 by screws 200, 202, respectively, attached to the magazine 184 and slidable within the slots 196, 198 of the corresponding flanges 192, 194. The magazine housing 186 may further include springs 204 connected between the portions 188, 190 and biasing the portions 188, 190 together as shown in FIGS. 22 and 23, with the inner walls of the first and second portions 188, 190 defining a channel having a cross section corresponding to the shape of the opening 182 and the container lids to be disposed there. In order to facilitate reception of a container lid cartridge 160 therein, the upper edges of the first and second portions 188, 190 may be beveled to receive the open end 164 of the cartridge 160.

Referring to FIGS. 24 and 25, a cartridge 160 is illustrated partially inserted into the magazine housing 186. As the open end 164 of the cartridge 160 engages the beveled edges of the first and second portions 188, 190, the first and second portions 188, 190 slide outwardly away from the opening 182 against the biasing force of the springs 204, with the slots 196, 198 sliding around the screws 200, 202. When the cartridge 160 reaches the top surface of the magazine 184, the container lids drop into the opening 182 and into engagement with the guide bars 112 and washers 106, 108. When the cartridges 160 is lifted out of the magazine housing 186, the biasing force of the springs 204 pulls the first and second portions 188, 190 inwardly towards the position illustrated in FIGS. 22 and 23. When the first and second portions 188, 190 fully return to their normal position, the inner walls of the first and second portions 188, 190 are disposed in close proximity to the container lid stack, thereby preventing substantial lateral movement of the container lids during the packaging process. As discussed with respect to the cartridge 160, the magazine housing 186 may include an opening or window, or may be fabricated from a transparent or semi-transparent material, such that an operator may visually observe the amount of container lids remaining in the holding area.

In alternative embodiments, cartridges for supplying stacks of container lids may include electronic identification devices, such as bar codes, radio frequency identification (RFID) chips, and the like, for use in security and inventory control functions. In one embodiment, each cartridge may have an RFID chip attached thereto. The RFID chip may include information such as the type of container lid stored therein, the quantity of lids stored therein, the supplier of the container lids, and the like. The embodiment may further include a receiver disposed proximate the packaging equipment such that the receiver may detect the RFID chip when the cartridge is loaded into the lid dispensing assembly. The RFID chip, the receiver and/or interfacing system may programmed to process the data use in process control and management functions. For example, upon detecting the presence of the RFID chip on the cartridge, the receiver and or the interfacing system may be programmed to reduce the current inventory level of cartridges available for the packaging process and, if necessary, trigger an order to replenish the supply of cartridges for the packaging process. Such identification devices may also be used by the supplier of the cartridges for inventory control and other processing functions.

FIGS. 32-35 illustrate a further alternative embodiment of a lid supply assembly 300. Referring to FIG. 32, as with the previous embodiments, the lid supply assembly 300 includes a magazine 302 to having a plurality of openings 304 shaped to correspond to the shape of the container lids to be received therein and dispensed therefrom. The lid supply assembly 300 further includes a plurality of rods 306 extending upwardly from top of the magazine 302 that are arranged to receive stacks of container lids and align the container lids with corresponding openings 304. The rods 306 may extend substantially vertically from the magazine 302, and may be tapered near the top in order to receive the stacks of container lids and the cartridges in which the container lids may be disposed. Depending on the characteristics of the container lids to be dispensed, the lid supply assembly 300 may further include adjustable retention mechanisms, such as eccentric washers 308 and guide bars 310 shown more clearly in the bottom view of FIG. 33, that may be disposed over portions of the openings 304 to engage in to support the bottommost container lids of the stacks of container lids, and to allow the bottommost container lids to be pulled from the stack by the vacuum heads 122 in the manner described above. The adjustable retention mechanisms 308, 310 are discussed more fully below.

Referring to FIGS. 32 and 33, the lid supply assembly 300 may further include a base plate 312 that may attach to a bottom surface of the magazine 302 to complete the lid supply assembly 300. The base plate 312 includes an opening 314 configured to receive a corresponding downwardly extending the lower portion 316 of the magazine 302, with a bottom surface of the upper portion 318 engaging in upper surface of the base plate 312. Configured in this manner, the feed system may accommodate multiple sizes and shapes of container lids without requiring a major changeover of the lid supply assembly. With the base plate 312 remaining in place, the magazine 302 may be removed and replaced with a different magazine that is configured to dispense container lid having a different size and/or shape required for the next production run. The lower portion 316 of the new magazine may be inserted into the opening 314 of the base plate 312, and the vacuum heads 122 of the flight table of the feed system may be relocated if necessary to align with the openings of the new magazine. While not specifically illustrated, the magazine 102 described above may be configured in a similar manner with a downwardly extending lower portion configured to be received within the opening 314 of the base plate 312.

The openings 304 of the magazine 302 are configured to receive the container lid cartridges and the stacks of container lids contained therein, and to allow the cartridges to be replaced without interrupting the production run in which the container lids are being dispensed. Referring to FIGS. 32, 34 and 35, the configuration of the openings 304 will be discussed in greater detail. For purposes of clarity, the rods 306 and retention mechanisms 308, 310 not included in the cross-sectional views of FIGS. 34 and 35. The upper end of the opening 304 includes a beveled edge 320 angled inwardly toward the center of the opening 304 for receiving a container lid cartridge as it is inserted between the upwardly extending rods 306. As the inner surface defining the opening 304 proceeds downwardly, at an intermediate position the opening 304 narrows such that the inner surface defines a retaining rim or shoulder 322 configured to engage the container lid cartridge such that the cartridge is partially disposed within the opening 304, and to allow the container lid stack to fall past the shoulder 322 and downwardly into the lower portion of the opening 304.

Proximate the bottom of the opening 304, the inner surface further narrows to define an inwardly extending annular ring or flange 324 configured to engage the outer edges of the bottommost container lid of the container lid stack. Depending on the size and composition of the container lids, the annular flange 324 may provide sufficient engagement of the bottommost container lid to support the stack as the container lids are being dispensed. If not, additional retention mechanisms may be attached to the bottom surface of the magazine 302 as described previously and as will be described further below. The portion of the opening 304 between the retaining shoulder 322 and the annular flange 324 defines a dwell area 326 receiving the portion of the container lid stack extending below the bottom open end of the container lid cartridge. When the container lid cartridge is empty and the topmost container lid in the stack is below the retaining shoulder 322, the container lid cartridge may be removed and replaced with a full cartridge without disturbing the stack being dispensed from the opening 304. The dwell area 326 may be configured with a sufficient depth such that the container lid cartridge may be replaced before the container lids within the dwell area 326 are removed by the corresponding vacuum head 122.

The magazine 302 is further configured to receive the rods 306 and the retention mechanisms 308. At multiple locations proximate each opening 304, the lower portion 316 of the magazine 302 includes throughbores 328 extending upwardly from the bottom surface and configured to receive set screws attaching the eccentric washers 308 to the magazine 302. At the top surface of the magazine 302, downwardly extending counterbores 330, 332 may be aligned with the corresponding throughbores 328, and are configured to receive the lower ends of the rods 306. The counterbores 330 are disposed at outer edges of a single one of the openings 304 and may be positioned to tangentially intersect the inner surface of the corresponding opening 304 such that the outer surface of the rod 306 and the inner surface of the opening 304 form a substantially continuous surface when the rod 306 is disposed within the counterbore 330. Similarly, the counterbores 332 are disposed between pairs of openings 304 and may be positioned to tangentially intersect the inner surfaces of both openings 304 such that the outer surface of the rod 306 and the inner surfaces of the openings 304 form substantially continuous surfaces when the rod 306 is disposed within the counterbore 332. To secure the rods 306, the lower ends of the rods 306 may include a bore (not shown) configured to receive a screw passing upwardly through the throughbore 328, such as a set screw securing an eccentric washer 308 to the magazine 302 To further assist in installing cartridges and corresponding container lid stacks, the magazine 302 may include relief cuts 334 proximate the openings 304 that allow a tool to be used for lowering the cartridge and container lid stack into the opening 304 in a manner described more fully below.

FIG. 36 illustrates one example of a container lid cartridge 340 that may be implemented with a lid supply assembly 300 to load a stack 342 of container lids into one of the openings 304. As with the previously described cartridges, the cartridge 340 may include an outer wall 344 having a cross-section corresponding to the shape of the container lids to be stored therein. The cartridge 340 may be fabricated from a translucent material has shown, or may include a window, such as the window 168 of the cartridge 160 of FIG. 17, to provide a visual indication of the amount of the container lid stack 342 remaining in the cartridge 340 as the lids are being dispensed. Further, the cartridge 340 may have an open end 346 for receiving and dispensing the stack 342 of container lids, and may further include a partially or fully closed (not shown) that may constrain the container lids within the cartridge 340 being inserted into and removed from the open end 346.

In order to ensure proper alignment of the cartridge 340 with a corresponding opening 304 of the magazine 302, the cartridge 340 may have one or more locating ribs or channels 348 disposed on the outer wall 344 and extending in a longitudinal direction from the open end 346 to the opposite end. In the illustrated embodiment, the channels 348 have a semicircular cross-section and are dimensioned to partially wrap around a corresponding one of the rods 306 of the magazine 302 in a manner that allows cartridges 340 to be disposed in adjacent openings 304 at the same time. Prior to use of the cartridge 340 with the magazine 302, the magazine 302 may have a strap or band 350 disposed around the outer wall 344 and engaging the stack 342 of lids to retain the container lids within the cartridge 340. The band 350 may be fabricated from any appropriate material that will not contaminate the container lids, such as a paper loop that slept on and off of the cartridge 340, a plastic loop, a rubber band, and the like.

The various container lid cartridges may be fabricated and configured in any desired manner to accommodate the requirements of a particular implementation of a lid supply assembly. The size and shape of a cartridge may be appropriate for the material being contained, and multiple container lid stack heights may be accommodated. The configuration of the cartridges may also vary depending on the customer requirements. For example, the cartridge may be used as the final packaging material that may be disposed after used by the customer to dispense the container lids shipped therein. Alternatively, the cartridges may be used as recyclable containers by the supplier, and may be fabricated from a material that may be cleaned and disinfected when returned to the supplier prior to receiving a new container lid stack. Still further, the cartridges may be used as a fixture at the supplier level for introducing the container lid stack to alternate shipping media such as sized polybags, transit cartons or shrink wrap sleeves. Consequently, the skill near will understand that the cartridges may be fabricated using a variety of materials and manufacturing processes. For example, the cartridges may be fabricated from a rigid polymer material using injection molding, blow molding, extrusion, vacuum forming or any other appropriate process. Still further, the disposable cartridges may be fabricated from paper or a corrugated material. Moreover, the precise geometry of the cartridges may be at least partially dictated by a manufacturing process or specific requirements of the customer's implementation. As a result, the cartridges may have straight outer walls were the cartridges are fabricated in an extrusion process, and may alternately have tapered walls were the cartridges are molded in a vacuum forming process. Additionally, one end of the cartridge may include a restraining lip to prevent the lids from falling out, and may further include flange ends to restrain the cartridge within the magazine if necessary. Those skilled in the art will understand that other configurations, materials and fabrication methods for the cartridges may be implemented and are contemplated as having use with lid supply assemblies in accordance with the present invention.

The loading of a cartridge 340 into an opening 304 of the magazine 302 will now be described with reference to FIGS. 37-41. Referring to FIG. 37, the cartridge 340 containing a stack 342 of container lids is being lowered toward one of the openings 304 of the magazine 302. As the cartridge 340 is lowered, the cartridge 340 is oriented to correspond to the opening 304 and with the channels 348 align with corresponding rods 306 surrounding the opening 304. The rods 306 are received into the channels 348 and the cartridge 340 is lowered towards the opening 304 with the stack 342 of container lids being held within the cartridge 340. Referring to FIG. 48, an embodiment of a tool 352 for use in loading the cartridge 340 into the magazine 302 is illustrated. In this embodiment, the tool 352 has a pair of blades 354 extending outwardly and being spaced to pass around the rods 306. Before the cartridge 340 is lowered, the tool 352 is pressed against the open end 346 to hold the stack 342 within the cartridge 340. The cartridge 340 is lowered between the rods 306 with one of the rods 306 disposed between the blades 354 of the tool 352. The tool 352 is oriented such that it descends into the relief cut 334 as the cartridge 340 is lowered. The cartridge 340 is lowered until the open in 346 and/or the channels 348 are engaged by the shoulder 322 of the opening 304. The relief cut 334 extends below the shoulder 322 such that the tool 352 may continue to move downwardly with the stack 342 of container lids and into the dwell area 326. At this point, the tool 352 may be withdrawn from the relief cut 334 to allow the stack 342 of container lids to pass downwardly into the dwell area 326 and into engagement with the annular flange 324 as shown in FIGS. 39-41.

As the container lids are removed from the stack 342 by the vacuum head 122, the level of the stack 342 within the cartridge 340 is visible through the transparent outer wall 344 or window disposed therethrough, and approaches the open end 346 of the cartridge 340. When the level of the stack 342 falls below the open end 346 of the cartridge 340, the empty cartridge 340 may be pulled outwardly from between the rods 306 without disturbing the stack 342 of container lids, and a new filled cartridge 340 may be installed in the manner just described before the original stack 342 of container lids is dispensed in its entirety.

As discussed above, in addition to the inwardly extending annular flanges 324 of the openings 304, the magazine 302 may include additional adjustable retention mechanisms for supporting the stack 342 of container lids. Referring to FIG. 42, in one embodiment a plurality of eccentric washers 308 may be attached to the bottom surface of the magazine 302 by set screws 360 screwed into the throughbores 328 surrounding the opening 304. The eccentric washers 308 are elongated so that the distance by which the washers 308 extend inwardly into the opening 304 may be adjusted by loosening the set screws 360 and rotating the washers 308. The washers 308 may be positioned to extend inwardly a sufficient distance to support the stack 342 of container lids while allowing the vacuum head 122 to remove the bottommost lid of the stack 342. FIG. 42 also illustrates an adjustable retention mechanism including the guide bars 310, which may be similar to the guide bars 112 previously described, and adjustable brackets 362 fastened to the bottom surface of the magazine 302 by set screws 364 that may be screwed into the throughbores 328 or to additional throughbores 366 located specifically to accommodate the guide bars 310. The brackets 362 may be similar to the brackets 210, but include a single flange 368 having a slot 370 in which the set screw 364 is slidably disposed, and the position of the guide bars 310 may be adjusted by loosening the set screws 364 and sliding the bracket 362 in a similar manner as previously described.

FIGS. 43 and 44 illustrate a further alternative adjustment mechanism for the guide bars 310. In this embodiment, the guide bars 310 are connected to eccentric holders 380 by brackets 382 and set screws 384. The set screws 384 may be screwed into corresponding holes 386 of the circular holders 380 to hold the guide bars 310 in a desired position. The eccentric holders 380 may be disposed within counterbores 388 extending upwardly through the bottom surface of the magazine 302 and having coaxially aligned throughbores 390 extending between the counterbores 388 and the top surface of the magazine 302. In one embodiment, each eccentric holder 380 may include a threaded shank 392 extending upwardly through the throughbore 390 and engaged by a corresponding threaded nut 394 (FIG. 44) to alternately tightened and loosen the eccentric holder 380. To adjust the position of the guide bar 310, each of the nuts 394 of the eccentric holders 380 may be loosened along with the set screws 384 attaching the guide bar 310 to the holders 380. Once loosened, the guide bar 310 may be moved to the desired position and the set screws 384 and nuts 394 may be tightened to retain the guide bar 310 in position. In an alternative embodiment, the shank 392 and nuts 394 may be replaced by a screw inserted into the throughbore 390 and received into a corresponding hole in the upper surface of the eccentric holder 380 such that the screw may be loosened to allow rotation of the eccentric holder 380 to adjust the position of the guide bar 310.

As previously discussed, the container lids are fabricated by semi-automatic die-cut equipment from a continuous web or rollstock of raw material, and are output to an outfeed assembly to form the container lid stacks. FIGS. 45-47 illustrate an embodiment of an outfeed assembly 400 configured to load the stacked container lids into the container lid cartridges 402, such as those described herein, with decreased manual intervention by an operator. The outfeed assembly 400 is connected to a die plate 404 having a plurality of die-cut openings 406 configured in the shape of the container lids to be cut and stacked. During fabrication, a continuous web of the lid stock raw material is fed over the surface of the die plate 404 opposite the outfeed assembly 400, and punches corresponding to the openings 406 punch out the container lids from the web each time the web moves an incremental distance slightly greater than the width of the openings 406. In this manner, the number of container lids produced from a web of the lid stock may be optimized.

Referring to FIG. 45, the outfeed assembly 400 may include an end plate 408 disposed opposite the die plate 404, and a plurality of cartridge guide rails 410 connected between the die plate 404 and the end plate 408. The cartridge guide rails 410 may be arranged about the openings 406 of the die plate 404 such that the container lids passing through the openings 406 maintain a consistent orientation as the corresponding container lid stacks are formed. Each of the openings 406 may have a stack resistance assembly 412 mounted on the corresponding guide rails 410 to apply an opposing force to prevent the container lid stack from falling over. Each stack resistance assembly 412 may include a connector 414 slidably disposed on one of the guide rails 410 and engaging the guide rail or guide rails 410 to provide a resistive force against movement of the connector 414 along the guide rail 410. Each stack resistance assembly 412 may further include an arm 416 extending from the connector 414 in the direction of the die plate 404 and having a contact pad 418 disposed on an end of the arm 416 distal to or opposite the connector 414. The arm 416 may be dimensioned such that the contact pad 418 may extend through and beyond an open end of a cartridge 402 disposed on the guide rails 410.

The outfeed assembly 400 further includes separator guide rails 420 corresponding to each of the openings 406 and having separator assemblies 422 disposed thereon. Each separator assembly 422 may include a connector 424 slidably disposed on one of the guide rails 420 and engaging the guide rail 420 to provide a resistive force against movement of the connector 424 along the guide rail 420. Each separator assembly 422 may further include a separator arm 426 pivotally attached to the connector 424 by a bracket 428. The pivotal connection of the separator arm 426 allows the separator arm 426 to be movable between a first position wherein the separator arm 426 does not extend across the corresponding opening 406 of the die plate 404, and a second position wherein the separator arm 426 extends across the opening 406 such that the separator arm 426 may engage the stack of container lids supported by the guide rails 410.

Before the die-cut equipment is activated to fabricate the container lids, cartridges 402 may be placed on the guide rails 410 and oriented to align with the corresponding openings 406 of the die plate 404. When the cartridges 402 are in place, the operator may slide the stack resistance assemblies 412 toward the die plate 404 against the resistive force of the connector 414 such that the contact pad 418 passes through the cartridge 402 and is disposed proximate the opening 406. At the same time, the separator arms 426 are rotated to their first positions such that they do not overlie the corresponding openings 406. Once the cartridges 402 and stack resistance assemblies 412 are in place, the die-cut equipment may be turned on so that the container lids are punched through the openings 406. As container lids continue to be punched, the first container lid in each stack is engaged by the corresponding contact pad 418 to prevent the stack of container lids from falling over.

The connector 414 is configured such that the resistive force prevents the stack resistance assembly 412 from moving in response to the weight of the container lids in the stack, but allows the assembly 412 to move as additional container lids are punched through the opening 406 and added to the output container lid stack 430 as shown in FIG. 46. When the output container lid stack 430 is longer than the height of the cartridge 402, the cartridge 402 is slid over the container lid stack 430 until the cartridge 402 is full and ready to be removed from the outfeed assembly 400. In the illustrated embodiment, the cartridge 402 may include an inwardly extending lip 432 configured to engage the lateral edges of the endmost container lid of the stack 430 while providing a sufficiently large opening for the contact pad 418 to pass therethrough. Before removal of the cartridge 402, the separator assembly 422 may be positioned so that the separator arm 426 is flush with the end of the cartridge 402, and the separator arm 426 is moved towards the second position and introduced into the container lid stack 430 to prevent the stack 430 from falling over.

As with the stack resistance assembly 412, the separator assembly 422 is configured such that the resistive force prevents the separator assembly 422 from moving in response to the weight of the container lids in the stack, but allows the assembly 422 to move as additional container lids are punched through the opening 406 and added to the output container lid stack 430. Once the separator arm 426 is in place, the stack resistance assembly 412 may be withdrawn, and the full cartridge 402 may be removed from the outfeed assembly 400 as shown in FIG. 47. The cartridge 402 may then be banded as shown in FIG. 36 to prevent the container lids from falling out, and placed into a shipping container with other filled cartridges 402. At this point, a new cartridge 402 is loaded onto the cartridge guide rails 410, the stack resistance assembly 412 is moved forward to bring the contact pad 418 into engagement with the output container lid stack 430, and the separator arm 426 is rotated out of engagement with the container lid stack 430.

While the preceding text sets forth a detailed description of numerous different embodiments of the invention, it should be understood that the legal scope of the invention is defined by the words of the claims set forth at the end of this patent. The detailed description is to be construed as exemplary only and does not describe every possible embodiment of the invention since describing every possible embodiment would be impractical, if not impossible. Numerous alternative embodiments could be implemented, using either current technology or technology developed after the filing date of this patent, which would still fall within the scope of the claims defining the invention.