Adding Efficiencies to Your Packaging Starting with the End-of-Line

By Naomi Holdvogt, Director of Marketing, Robotics and End of Line at ProMach

While end-of-line packaging is the last in a series of steps your products undergo before leaving your facility, many would argue they’re the most important. That’s because the manner in which products are packed and arrive to your customers is the first exposure to your brand. Products that are carelessly packed or damaged due to inadequate wrapping reflect poorly on your brand. This can lead to a decline in confidence with your customers, costly returns or loss of market share.

End-of-line packaging is not an area to cut corners. Rather, new technologies are helping drive a higher level of automation into this critical area. These advancements are not only increasing efficiency and productivity, but really work to set the stage for your brand’s long-term success.

What exactly is end-of-line packaging? Think of it this way: bundle it, pack it, seal it, palletize it, wrap it, and go. As implied by its name, end-of-line packaging refers to the final stages of the packaging process before a product is shipped. This includes machinery such as case and tray forming, shrink wrapping, case and tray packing, robotic packaging, case sealing and stretch wrapping.

Case/tray forming and sealing

One of the first areas of end-of-line packaging is forming cases or trays and sealing them once product is packed. Commonly also known as pack and seal machines, the value they bring to customers are numerous, from increasing throughput, reducing labor, improving ergonomics – all while improving product protection so the product safely arrives from facility to their store.

Furthermore, some pack and seal machines can be integrated with customers’ existing ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning). That integration makes a pack and seal machine “smarter” – controlling the entire process from order picking to shipping. The system will be able to determine the most efficient case size based on the quantities and sizes of each item. That accuracy and efficiency reduces the amount of time to package while increasing throughput and saving money. This is important for companies dealing in e-commerce where the size of the package is a big determinant of the shipping costs.

When pack and seal machines accurately determine the correct box and packaging material, there is no waste. A machine that minimizes waste reduces the amount of dunnage needed to package products. The added value and cost savings are why smarter, fully integrated pack and seal machines are growing in popularity.

Shrink wrapping

For many products, such as bottles, cans and jars, or bundling multiple products together, shrink wrapping is an ideal form of packaging as it provides a cost-effective, secure seal. Today, innovations like vertical shrink wrappers can be placed in-line with the filler, and product is wrapped in the upright position, using a top or bottom trim seal. This eliminates the time and labor of laying the product down before wrapping. Wrapping product vertically with a trim seal has become a popular method as it removes the unsightly seal seam across the side panel of the package, allowing product graphics or printed film graphics to appear crisp and clean.

In the sealing head of shrink wrappers, orbital-motion designs eliminate the need for the head to move with the product while the seal is being made, which increases the throughput speed of the wrapper.

Case packing

Many companies who have been successfully hand-packing cases find themselves needing more speed to meet growing demand. Automating their case packaging and palletizing processes is a great place to gain efficiencies.

Case packing machines are reliable, efficient and easy to operate. Popular styles such as side-load or top-load, intermittent or continuous motion designs bring a high degree of accuracy to applications. human machine interface (HMI) software allows operators to switch pack patterns and case dimensions, which is helpful when packing different brands that have specific packing requirements.

In side-load case packing, product is pushed into cases that are partially assembled. Once product is loaded, the flaps of the case are automatically closed and sealed. In top-load case packing, cases advance into the machine fully formed, robotics then pick the items and place them into the case, which are then closed.

A type of product that lends itself better to side-load case packing are cartons. That’s because they are more stable and consistent in shape and size while being pushed into cases. On the other hand, flexible pouches are better candidates for top-load case packing. Reason being since they are flexible, their shape may alter while being pushed in a case and affect the overall packing process. Pick and placing flexibles into a case eliminate that concern.

Palletizing

Automation is also lending a helping hand to palletizing. End-of-line systems are designed to take cases and automatically load pallets ready for shipment. Whether stacking cases or trays through mechanical methods, or using robotic pick-and-place solutions, the efficiencies gained through automating this area is impressive compared to manually performing these tasks.

Robotic pick and place has become a common fixture in today’s manufacturing environments. Gone are the days of spending hours troubleshooting and repairing robots. The advanced engineering found in modern robots bring a high level of reliability. Robotic systems have proven performance, along with the flexibility to work multiple SKUs with little to no changeover points compared to a conventional, hard automation system. Additionally, many companies don’t have the staff with the skillset anymore to accomplish that more complex changeover. Customers would rather have equipment that can perform changeovers with a push of a button; automatic changeovers are available for both robotic and hard automation case packers. These are just a few reasons why so many industries are using them to automate their processes.

Using 2D cameras or 3D sensors, robots are able to identify, inspect, distinguish, select and reach the right items within their work envelope to be picked and placed in preparation for packaging. Robots excel at orientating items in a prescribed pattern quickly and consistently, operate cleanly and provide a level of repeatability that’s critical to industries.

Stretch wrapping

Stretch wrapping pallets is often the final stop before your products head out the door. And yes, automation is making an impact here, too. The benefits are clear: protecting product during transport.

By automating your stretch wrapping capabilities, you are providing a safer and secure way to transport pallets. Automatic stretch wrapping systems include turntable, rotary tower and orbital configurations. All three offer advantages, including a tighter wrap. That’s because film is designed to be stretched when wrapped around a load. By stretching the film and applying it to the load, it acts as a rubber band keeping the product tight and secure. When film is applied by hand, a person at the beginning of their shift may be applying 100 percent stretch to the film (that percentage drops as fatigue sets in). While that percentage may seem impressive, it doesn’t compare well to automatic units that typically wrap with pre-stretching film at 260 percent or higher. A pallet that’s wrapped with film pre-stretched to 260% uses less film than a pallet hand-wrapped at 100 percent.

It wasn’t that long ago that most of these end-of-line areas were performed manually, and in some cases they still are. But technology is providing a much-needed assist in helping companies’ end-of-line systems significantly boost their productivity; the more automation deployed, the stronger ROI is realized. No two packaging applications are alike, so it’s important to match the correct end-of-line machinery that best meets your production goals. A reputable packaging equipment OEM can audit your processes and recommend a fully integrated solution. There’s no better place to begin growing your business than by looking at the end of the line.

About the Author

Naomi Holdvogt is the director of marketing for robotics and end-of-line at ProMach (https://www.promachbuilt.com/). She can be reached at 320-852-7705; Naomi.Holdvogt@promachbuilt.com

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