Tips to Guide Automation of Secondary Packaging

Photo courtesy of Cama Group.

Labor shortages, space constraints and increasing SKUs are driving up demand for automation of case tray packing.

By Billy Goodman, Managing Director for Cama North America

Having worked in the secondary packaging industry most of my life, I’ve seen tremendous change and progress, but also many of the same ongoing challenges. The current quandary we are facing with both labor shortages and minimal space amplifies the need to automate with compact and flexible machinery.

Today, a record number of consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers — small and large — are looking to automate their packaging lines. According to a 2020 Automation White Paper published by PMMI, 60% of leading CPGs and 46% of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) identified secondary packaging as their next planned automation project.

Can you afford not to automate?

Changing demographics, such as more baby boomers retiring and a lack of skilled labor entering the work force, are forcing many companies to automate. Unfortunately, this is not a short-term issue.

According to PMMI, on average, leading CPGs’ manufacturing lines are 64% automated, with SMEs not far behind with 56% automation on their lines. At leading CPGs, 21% of tasks are semi-automated and 15% remain manual. While at SME’s, 20% of processes are semi-automated and 24% of tasks remain manual.

As CPGs look to automate their packaging lines, they’re often met with more questions than answers, at least initially. Perhaps the question they should be asking is “Can they afford not to automate?”

Most manufacturers recognize that automation will help improve both their operations and growth strategy. But, like everything else, expanding automation is easier said than done. Key among their concerns when looking to automate are:

  • Justifying the costs and return on investment (ROI)
  • Understanding which areas to automate
  • Fitting machinery within limited floorspace
  • Dealing with labor shortages and finding labor skilled enough to operate and maintain the new equipment

With Cama Group’s Augmented Reality (AR) Machine Assistant, customers can easily manage maintenance and spare parts, train operators, and simplify changeovers between various SKUs. (Photo courtesy of Cama Group.)

Improving packaging line efficiency and production with tray packing, cartoning, case packing, and robotic loading systems can deliver ROI within six months to two years of installing new equipment. Typically, businesses realize savings through reduced labor and sustainability costs.  Automation not only saves on labor costs (including recruiting and retaining employees), but it frees existing workers for promotions to other meaningful roles. In addition, the efficiency of automation often enhances sustainability, reducing wasted product or material.

Industry 4.0 – do you need it?

Perhaps you’ve made the decision to automate and are now overwhelmed by the choices and options available. Certainly, secondary packaging equipment has come a long away in the last several years. Do you really need state-of-the-art features such as auto changeover and Industry 4.0? This is where having a good partner as your secondary packaging equipment supplier will help you navigate through the options and payback.

Let’s look at Industry 4.0, which is a combination of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Internet of Systems working together to enable smart factories. The ability to gather and analyze more data helps factories to improve production and efficiency. It is truly an example of the old saying “work smarter, not harder.”

We know many food and non-food packaging plants, in addition to other businesses, are beginning to implement Industry 4.0 to help prepare their businesses for the future and allow smart machines to improve their efficiency. With Industry 4.0, manufacturers can optimize their operations quickly and efficiently. Connected machines are better able to collect and analyze data in order to assist with maintenance, performance and other issues.

Industry 4.0 includes such features as:

  • Autonomous Robots
  • Simulation/Virtual Engineering
  • Big Data/Analytics
  • System Integration
  • Internet of Things (IOT)
  • Cyber Security
  • Cloud Computing
  • Additive Manufacturing/3D Printing

Many of these capabilities are available to integrate cartoners, case packers, sleeving systems, and robotic loading systems, and additional technology is in the works. And an Augmented Reality (AR) Machine Assistant makes it easier to manage maintenance and spare parts, train operators, and simplify changeovers between various SKUs.

With an AR assistant, companies benefit from virtual experiences to train operators on a new case packer or tray loader before it arrives on site, which greatly reduces training time and offers a “jump start.” It’s also a more productive way to train new operators or to perform on-the-fly troubleshooting.

The benefits of using AR for virtual training include:

  • Safety – In a virtual environment operators become familiar with the equipment without taking any risks
  • Effectiveness – Because it is intuitive and enables workers to successfully complete tasks with which they may have little experience, operators learn more effectively
  • On Demand Availability – Training sessions can start before a machine is installed in the plant and can be recorded and viewed multiple times

Cama Group’s IF318 Robotic Case Packer is a Monoblock system that includes case forming, packing, and sealing in a compact footprint. (Photo courtesy of Cama Group.)

Additionally, AR can assist with changeover. For instance, if a company runs a particular SKU seasonally, such as a holiday product, this could be a unique machine set up that only occurs for one or two months per year. With high employee turnover rates, there may not be an experienced operator available who knows how to set up this package format. The ability to use AR to train new operators solves this problem.

Space concerns and Monoblock systems

Another consideration that is a big challenge for many plants is adequately using available floor space. In many cases, there is just not enough space available to install the equipment they desire. In such cases, it is necessary to find equipment that offers a footprint compact enough to work within the minimal floor space and ceiling limitations.

One potential solution to save space with tray forming, cartoning, or case packing operations is to consider a Monoblock system. This includes all phases of the operation – case, carton, or tray forming, loading, and sealing – in one integrated machine. When we can perform multiple functions in one machine, it not only saves space and costs, but also allows for greater control over the full process. In addition, Monoblock systems typically don’t need separate controls for each phase, which saves on costs and parts as well.

With case packing equipment, machine lengths can vary depending on whether they’re designed to run standard RSC cases, display-ready, or wrap-around cases. Whatever your case packing line needs, be sure to look for equipment that offers flexibility, trouble-free operation, and high productivity.

Seek a long-term partner

Finally, look for suppliers who will truly be a long-term partner. Capital equipment is expensive – if you find a supplier that offers added value, your investment will go much further. What do we mean by added value? This could include reduced need for newly developed technology, spare parts, virtual training and maintenance, and even services to help manufacturers save on materials and improve sustainability.

For instance, a packaging consulting department helps companies by studying the best packaging solution in relation to their product’s characteristics, packaging materials, and end user’s requirements. For example, consultants often offer suggestions for a slight redesign of a tray or case that ends up improving the strength of the tray or case and companies can realize significant savings in the long-term.

About the Author:

Billy Goodman, Managing Director for Cama North America, Buffalo Grove, Ill. has more than 25 years of experience in the secondary packaging industry.

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