Automation has been in the product packaging arena for quite some time. Fixed equipment from days gone by automated the placement of caps on bottles and labels on other packages. Those devices were very rudimentary when compared to the capabilities of packaging automation that is available today. It was a time consuming task in the old days to keep the equipment tweaked enough to get the labels on straight and the caps on tight enough. But it sure beat the alternative of doing that stuff by hand! Though we did have to hand tighten some of the bottles when the “automated” capping device was not screwing them on tight enough. Also there were usually some bottles soaking in pans of water to remove the crooked labels, so that they could be labeled straight. I am glad those days are gone!
Automation has moved us into a new era with packaging. The demands that are made of packaging automation has kept right on climbing as well. That old fixed automation that we used to use has gone by the by. Thankfully as technology takes production into a “better place” that old fixed automation has been replaced by robotics that have all the capability, reliability, consistency, and adaptability that is required by demanding manufacturers and their customers. Designers are offering more and more complexity in the design of packages. The packaging automation that has to handle those packages must have flexibility in order to do what is required. There are all sorts of shapes, sizes, and configurations. The number of these variations is continuing to increase. A wide variation of product package configurations is being demanded by membership stores. These stores want to have several different products in packets or much larger sizes of products in the sealed packets. These packages required that customers buy more than one product in a sealed package that has been put together by robotic automation.
When these packages are created in the manufacturing plants, the packaging automation must be flexible enough to be programmed to handle many variation in the sizes and shapes of products to be packaged. The production operation, as a whole, is required to package a wide array of product types. The demand of the market place has pressured companies to produce multiple sizes and shapes of products with all sorts of variations in packages. This scenario has created a lot more packages than what used to be available. There used to be only one unit of a given product, like dish washing soap, now there is the original package and the new multiple unit packages of the same product. The packaging automation process at the manufacturer has been increased because of these multiple type packages, making much more work for the production lines. The lines need to be extremely flexible.
The mechanical labeling machines of years gone by were a mass of moving parts, so called “automated”. The reliability of that equipment was very tenuous. The smallest part in the chain of parts that were required to complete the labeling process over and over again, could break at a moments notice. In our situation we had to have a big box full of replacement parts on hand and a highly talented technician standing by at all times. There were many times that the production job that was running on the production line where the labeling equipment was running, was kept on schedule by a very adept technician with immediately available replacements parts. These technicians were worth their weight in gold. Packaging automation used now has a great deal of reliability. For one reason there are fewer moving parts, which gives the device less possibility of breaking down. Now the technician that works with automation equipment will sometimes be responsible for several devices at the same time.
There is a large degree of adaptability in packaging automation. In earlier days all the packaging was done in some kind of corrugated material. These were of various thicknesses and most of the time that packaging was a cardboard box. Now days a lot of the packaging has migrated away from corrugated materials and moved to softer shrink wraps that are stronger than corrugated, but do not have the sturdy shape of the boxes. Most of the early production lines did not have any automated way to handle the packing of products into the shipping boxes. An employee was assigned the task of being a “packer” at the end of the production line.
With the automation that is available now, robotics have the adaptability to “shrink wrap” the products into how ever many units are required by the currently programmed production job. Then the wrapped units are put on pallets by robotics at the end of the line. When it comes time to run the next very different production job, the robotics are simply loaded with new instructions from the program that was written to control the new production job. Robots just do what they are told. Setup times are very short to go to a new job. The program should have been already written that includes the instruction that the robotics need for performing the new production job. This new program just needs to be loaded into the controller of the robotics. The longevity of automation is much greater since it is so adaptable to do so many jobs without a lot of time in changeover between jobs.
The specialized packaging that can be done by automation has eliminated efforts that merchandisers and warehouses have to do with when they traditionally received products. Typically products of only one type and size were loaded by the manufacturer on a given pallet. The warehouse had to break down the contents of those pallets and the pallets of several other products so that pallets could be loaded with mixed products. This was and is the demand nature of the customers of the warehouse. Packaging automation is going a long way to improving the entire supply chain of products.
John Mitchell is President of Provision, Inc, an online publisher of information about the uses of automation in production and manufacturing. The company website, http://www.provinc.net, allows companies to ask questions of consulting engineers about production automation. Requests for quotes can be submitted to production automation specialists.