Interview: Peter Trechow
Material lifecycles instead of packaging waste – why is this easier said than done?
Marcus Behrens: To decrease the amount of packaging waste, there is an urgent need for many players to work closely together, along the entire supply and recycling chain. Whilst it is important that packaging materials and their raw components meet the demands of companies that have specific packaging requirements for their products, the materials also need to be functionally compatible with our packaging machines. Thus, there are high expectations to meet the brief on cost, cycle times, as well as the function and quality of the packaging. Later in the chain, there is a reliance on users to dispose of the packaging responsibly so that recycling companies can feed it back into the cycle. As you delve deeper into this topic, more challenges emerge. For example, decades of development have gone into modern packaging products. They have become thinner, more tear-resistant, more efficient and have multiple barrier layers against fats, oxygen, moisture, or UV radiation to protect the goods. These sophisticated products are now set to be replaced by mono-materials, which can be difficult to process, and are often more costly. When specifying sandwich materials which offer a choice of layers, tradeoffs can be made between function and cost. This option is not available with mono-materials, where consistency of quality can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, within batches or even rolls.
Sebastian Cruz Euceda: This could result in defective goods and additional cost pressures. Therefore, we have to adapt the drive technology to the material and at the same time plan tolerances for quality fluctuations to ensure stable processes even at top speed. This is just one challenge. Paper behaves differently compared to plastic; sandwich material is different to mono-material. To develop market-ready solutions, all parties involved should ideally have a common understanding of the respective challenges, to collectively achieve an overall increase in machine efficiency.
In a recent project you replaced plastic packaging with paper packaging – How do you close the gap between changing the material, to reaching a solution ready for series production?
Behrens: In our case, the entire development process took us a period of four years. We replaced transparent plastic tubular bags for kits, with paper bags. Because paper is opaque, a label was needed to indicate which parts were included. To make them easy to grip, we developed a stand-up pouch. Within the process, the paper bags behave quite differently to the original plastic bags. Paper is more likely to tear and should not be bent under any circumstances. These characteristics require soft process control, and, according to customer requirements, only allow a maximum of 15 defects per million bags. To make matters worse, there was only limited space in the plant, for our machine.
What role did Rockwell Automation play and when was their support required?
Cruz Euceda: We started working together two years ago and since then, have supported HDG in three ways. Technically, it was initially about optimizing the drive technology and automated handling in terms of high cycle speeds and quality requirements: no kinks, chatter marks or tears. We also provided support in addressing sustainability, among other things by highlighting the power consumption based on data, to work out how this can be reduced. And finally, it was about the supply chain. Due to the pandemic and the global chip shortage, it was difficult to provide all components by the deadline. This is where our partnership with our distributor S&D proved its worth, enabling us to build up a warehouse for this project.
The transition to the Circular Economy would require machines that can process different materials with and without a barrier function. Is that even possible?
Behrens: To a certain extent. Within the project, we developed a heat seal with polymer adhesive and a patent-pending mechanical paper joint, whose tensile strength can rival plastic joints. Purely paper-based solutions are particularly interesting for secondary packaging - individually packaged products for outer packaging. However, our process can also be run with plastic mono material. But there are limits in terms of flexibility. They will hardly process ultra-thin high-tech film and paper webs on one machine. And today we are dealing with materials that stretch by 20 to 30 mm under the influence of heat. Processing them requires sophisticated sensors, actuators, and camera-based quality controls.
What is the opinion of automation engineers on flexible material and such machine concepts?
Cruz Euceda: I'm thinking of the usual 15- to 20-year life cycle of packaging machines. It is still unclear which materials will prevail – and how they will continue to develop. Furthermore, due to the increase in demand for personalized products and packaging, the packaging process is becoming even more complex. For this reason alone, there is a demand for smart, flexible transport solutions within the machine, to enable quick changeovers and thus sustainable innovations within the production process.
Is the spirit of communication and cooperation that has been aimed for already noticeable in your practice?
Behrens: We communicate closely with manufacturers of films, paper, and the raw materials they use. And brand manufacturers often bring us on board in the early stages of their projects. When the various players get together, controversial discussions may arise. But that's exactly what moves us forward. It sensitizes us to how many aspects need to be considered for creating an overall sustainable solution and inspires us to broaden our focus and to think about the challenges other players might come across.
Cruz Euceda: The challenge is too great to be solved alone. It's a matter of bringing together know-how from all the stakeholders involved. As automation specialists, we see transferable best practices across many industries. The importance of transparency has also increased. It’s vital that we understand where there is commonality in terms of customer requirements, for example in the food sector, and how best to address the need.
The EU's Circular Economy Action Plan calls for 70 percent of all packaging to be recycled by 2030. Is this target already reflected in the market?
Behrens: Yes. Some multinationals want to reach this target in 2025 and are converting their processes at full speed already. This is paving the way for smaller suppliers to follow. Almost every inquiry we receive from Europe focuses on recyclability. Conversions of existing plants that we upgrade for the processing of sustainable materials are also very much in demand.
How important is Rockwell Automation in the transformation of the packaging market?
Cruz Euceda: This is a market with great potential, as the issue of sustainability continues to grow as a priority and will therefore have an enormous influence on the entire packaging market. In order to industrially process the new, often not yet fully developed materials, data-based, quality-monitored processes are required, with everything that this entails, from sensors and actuators, to control systems, or cybersecurity. These are topics that we feel comfortable discussing; where we are happy to support our customers with our technical and industrial expertise.