How Ecommerce Is Impacting Packaging Equipment Design

How Ecommerce Impacts Packaging Equipment Design

Systems such as independent cart technology can help OEMs guide manufacturers in managing the high-mix, agile packaging that consumers demand.

Justin Garski, solution architect, Mechatronics, Rockwell Automation

How do you automate the packaging process in a made-to-order world? Consumer demand for different sizes, shapes and flavors has completely changed the way consumer packaged goods (CPG) brand owners and manufacturers produce and package their goods. And for OEMs, this trend means that packaging equipment needs to perform differently than ever before.

The reality is, most packaging lines aren’t equipped for rapidly changing demand. Conventional conveyance just can’t keep up. Producers are finding themselves in a highly manual conundrum of delivering in this high-mix environment without the proper automated packaging solutions to make it cost-effective.

The Amazon Effect

The Amazon effect has an unquestionable impact on how retailers go to market. However, the underlying movement of changing consumer demands and expectations goes far beyond brick or click shopping habits. Manufacturers are equally pressured to produce and package high-mix, low-volume products as demand for specialization and variety packs is increasing fast.

Imagine a dozen products running through the same packaging line. A product might run for a few days, then the hours-long changeover process takes place, causing all work-in-progress to stop before the next product has its turn. This practice can mean building up a month’s worth of inventory for each product because it could be that long before it gets time back on the line again.

This scenario isn’t uncommon. Living with lengthy changeovers is something producers do because, given budget constraints and legacy systems, they have no choice.

Through an army of delta robots, a variable pitch infeed and a couple of smart valves, most machines in operation today can expand pack sizes, from six to 12 to 24. It takes a while for the changeover, hurting productivity, but it’s possible.

With the Amazon effect however, you might need a variety of flavors in each of those six, 12 or 24 packs. From here, things get manual, really fast. Top CPG companies and local producers alike are finding themselves unpacking single-product packs and manually repacking into rainbow packs. Picture the packaging waste. The money lost. The already critical challenge of finding workers, compounded by needing even more manual labor.

OEMs have an opportunity to solve these challenges for customers using efficient, agile and intelligent automated packaging solutions.

Think Beyond Current Needs

Independent cart technology (ICT) and other systems can be a useful alternative to the throughput and physical limitations of existing mechanics. But you have to go beyond the specs.

The typical equipment order process goes something like this: Purchasing or engineering is charged with buying a machine for a certain application and send out a request for quotation (RFQ). OEMs quote the machine without too much deviation, or risk losing the sale.

Now, fast forward to after the job is won, machine is built and the executive team shows up for the factory acceptance test. The machine they see isn’t built for a more flexible future. It doesn’t offer one-button changeovers, different pack patterns or solve their greatest business challenges. With this audience, the added upfront costs for the right packaging equipment becomes secondary as they see an inevitable future of costly modifications and retrofits down the road.

Operations leaders can examine how technology such as ICT can help solve production and business challenges. And, this process all starts before there’s a project on the table. Before the RFQ goes out. Before there’s a directive to buy for X, when everything from A through Z is still possible.  

Case in Point

Aagard, maker of custom automation equipment and a Machine Builder Partner within the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork™ program, recently saw this scenario play out with a customer.

Aagard learned of its customer’s business challenge, to automate packaging of variety packs in various configurations — 4,000 configurations to be exact. These ranged from one to six flavors and 12 to 96 products per case. And, with stand-up display trays, divider sheets, tight floor space, fast changeover and high-end line rates (100 cases per minute), it became clear that traditional packaging technology wouldn’t offer the agile solution the customer really needed.

Competitive proposals involved dozens of delta robots over a conveyor, adding up to thousands of components including rotary motors, gearboxes, grippers and other complexities. With the agility and ease of operation needed, an automated packaging solution built around iTRAK® technology from Rockwell Automation became a simple answer.

This project didn’t start with an RFQ, or a call from purchasing. Representatives from Aagard, Rockwell Automation and the end user sat in the same room and envisioned a machine that could do something never done before.

“The key to success in this situation was to focus in on the business need and evaluate available technology,” says Jason Norlien, vice president of technical sales at Aagard. “We created a solution built for future market demand and business growth.”

Rockwell Automation-controlled gantry robots will pick the product for staging, building the pattern needed for each carton. From there, iTRAK components adjust to accommodate the height, width and overall pack configuration and select the right-sized cardboard blank to fit the product. This is done without tooling changes. Only the single push of a button on the human-machine interface (HMI).
That same instruction from the HMI could also come from a supervisory or ecommerce system. So, as the Amazon effect takes a deeper hold in CPG, custom orders can be easily accommodated without manual intervention.

A Smarter Way

Whatever the solution, manufacturers need to stop unpacking just to repack. To stop modifying and retrofitting for each change in consumer behavior. There is a smarter way, and it starts with packaging equipment manufacturers thinking ahead, educating up front and being business enablers.

Learn more about modular, scalable linear motor systems from Rockwell Automation.

The Journal From Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ is published by Putman Media, Inc.

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