Deliver What They Want

Are multiple SKUs slowing you down in this age of consumer demand for customization and same-day delivery? Now you can rethink packaging machine design.

By Neil Bentley, business manager and Jesse Mendenhall, product marketing manager, Rockwell Automation

Sara and her husband Antoine love peanuts for both snacking and baking. Sometimes they buy their own snacks in small packages on a quick run to 7-Eleven or Safeway. Other times, they choose larger packages of various sizes for party bowls or for baking projects like cookies, peanut brittle, caramel peanut brownies and other treats for family and friends. They look for lower-salt or no salt options, they insist the packaging be environmentally friendly, and they sometimes order their peanuts online for next-day delivery.

This is just one of thousands of examples of mass customization where increasingly, personalized products and customized delivery are the norm and is moving steadily from concept to reality. Consumers who now make most of their purchases online expect door-to-door delivery within a day or less. And those accustomed to ordering personalized items ranging from athletic shoes to candy-coated chocolates expect more options across all facets of their lives.

In addition, the trend toward smaller households has spurred the growth in single-serving offerings. Simultaneously, a heightened demand for convenience has prompted the emergence of more multi-pack options.

While the “lot size of one” is not yet commonplace, the movement toward increased customization and multiple SKUs is having an extraordinary impact on consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers and the OEMs who serve them.

To keep pace, CPG companies and copackers require highly productive and agile packaging equipment. For OEMs, the challenge is designing cost-effective machines that can meet new demands for flexibility across primary, secondary and tertiary packaging applications.

Conventional Obstacles to Packaging Agility

Efficiently transporting products from point A to point B is critical to any packaging application. But while legacy equipment on plant floors typically was designed for high-speed throughput, it faces significant obstacles when handling highly variable products.

The heart of the problem? The equipment’s ability to respond on the fly to a diverse product mix is restricted by conventional conveyance methods based on rotary motors and indexed motion. These systems are designed to advance products through the line on a preconfigured path at a fixed speed.

On a traditional packaging line, “pitch” — the spacing between products — is determined at the outset and based on “worst-case” scenarios. Pitch is limited by the longest dimension of product in the direction of travel, the largest packaging station and the maximum pitch achievable by the system.

Likewise, a conventional system can’t vary the number of products handled at each station or the amount of time required for each operation. “Parallelism” — the synchronized movement of products through the line — is fixed and determined by system throughput requirements and the process that takes the longest to complete.

The result is a unified, yet fairly inflexible system. For example, if the largest station must be 500mm long, every station is 500mm long. If one station must handle three products simultaneously to meet throughput requirements, all stations must handle three-up products regardless of the actual duration of each operation. And overall line speed is only as fast as the slowest process on the line.

Make the Best of It

Despite limitations, conventional systems can reach impressive speeds when packaging uniform products. However, efficiency drops precipitously as product mix intensifies.

Why? To match ever-changing consumer demand, manufacturers must increasingly rely on more frequent changeovers to address shorter, more customized product runs.

Unfortunately, modifying a conventional packaging line to accommodate a different size or collation requirement can take hours or days to complete. Comprised of sometimes hundreds of mechanical components including chains, belts, pop-up stops and more, these systems are both difficult to changeover and prone to maintenance.

Manufacturers and copackers also face growing retail demand for unique product combinations. For example, a retailer might request custom “value packs” featuring shampoo and conditioner in a single carton for exclusive sale through their outlets.

Although both products may be produced in the same plant, many manufacturers have yet to devise an efficient way to manage this level of packaging customization. In fact, many continue to run products through conventional high-speed packaging lines — and transport skids of both products to another area where it’s manually depalletized and repackaged into desired combinations.

Transformative Technology that Thinks Differently

Advancements in linear motors and independent cart technology (ICT) bring a new level of intelligence to packaging operations and allow manufacturers to think differently about product flow.

How? Linear motors change the equation with magnetic direct drive propulsion of multiple product-carrying carts along a track.

Linear motors enable independent control of each cart using control software — and embedded sensors that continuously calculate cart position. Accelerations, decelerations, velocities and positions are programmable.

Instead of traveling at a fixed speed, products independently move from station to station as packaging operations are completed. And once the system starts running, it precisely adjusts speeds and distance as needed in the process.

In other words, line pitch and parallelism are variable and dynamically modified to manage traffic flow.

Advancements in linear motors and independent cart technology bring a new level of intelligence to packaging operations.

Envision a packaging line that automatically adjusts pitch to accommodate first flat and then formed carton sizes. Or a system that seamlessly transitions from three-up box formation to four-up filling to eight-up loading. It’s possible, with ICT.

Equally important, changeover from one product or packaging format to another is programmable — and managed from a recipe-driven operator interface.

And because ICT uses far fewer moving parts than conventional fixed conveyance systems, machine complexity and maintenance is kept to a minimum. 

The end result is an extraordinarily efficient system that maximizes throughput, flexibility and uptime.

Keeping Track

For manufacturers moving closer to highly personalized options, the ability to individually track products from process applications through packaging is critical.

Imagine a scenario where a manufacturer offers online ordering of custom personal care or household goods. Whether or not regulatory requirements apply, the success of that initiative depends on the manufacturer’s ability to consistently deliver the correct product or product combination to the correct consumer.

Because ICT is based on establishing and maintaining carrier position at all times, it intrinsically creates a high-fidelity track-and-trace record to ease the process. For products that must meet regulatory requirements, this functionality can also streamline validation and compliance.

Indeed, intrinsic track and trace capabilities also open new avenues of efficiency for industries that traditionally have not used automation. For example, what if a customer could select every ingredient for a rice bowl or noodle dish online, and then have the custom, packaged entrée delivered to their door? It’s happening today, with ICT.  

Making “What if” Real

ICT supports a new level of design freedom that wasn’t possible within the fixed pitch and fixed parallelism model. To make the most of it, both OEMs and end users need to rethink how they approach machine design.

While many base elements of legacy equipment can be repurposed, ICT offers opportunities to improve workflows and add automation to previously manual operations. This helps their end-users and retailers deliver those peanuts to Sara and Antoine exactly how and when they want them.

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


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