Packaging Automation Study: Future Prospects
The Internet boom of the 1990s and the subsequent bust in the early days of the 21st Century had an undeniable effect on the way we conduct business today that can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the rapid proliferation of Internet-related technologies helped to “open up” the plant floor and made Ethernet and other forms of machine-to-machine communication possible.
The Internet boom of the 1990s and the subsequent bust in the early days of the 21st Century had an undeniable effect on the way we conduct business today that can be both a blessing and a curse. Digital edition of supplement and research study are available .
On one hand, the rapid proliferation of Internet-related technologies helped to “open up” the plant floor and made Ethernet and other forms of machine-to-machine communication possible. On the other hand, the 24/7 nature of the Web and the ability to research products and prices from suppliers around the globe has reset the consumer's definition of what a shopping experience should be.
Today’s consumers differ greatly from those of just a decade ago. They demand the exact product they want, when they want it, and at the right price. If a retailer– online or otherwise – can’t fulfill their needs, someone else will. Furthermore, consumer tastes tend to change more rapidly, so manufacturers must be able to respond by accelerating time-to-market for new products, as well as to accommodate shifts in product mix and quantity as dictatedby the so-called “big box” retailers. Consequently, flexibility is rapidly emerging as the key to long-term success.
This shift is supported by study data. When asked if packaging machine flexibility provides a key competitive advantage, an overwhelming 94% signaled the affirmative, with 51% stating they “completely agree.” Similar evidence can be found elsewhere in the study. For example, when considering the purchase of new machinery, only 29% said they were more likely to buy a single-purpose machine.
Investing in automation
Automation has been ongoing in the industry for some time. However, many packagers say they are saddled with old equipment or machines that were purchased separately and just can’t talk to each other. One respondent complained about non-standard integration of multiple OEM components and workstations. “Trying to make each component or workstation communicate with the others has to be done in a unique way every time,” he said. Another claims that lack of standardization and backwards compatibility makes it difficult to upgrade and/or integrate older process controllers and field devices with the new human-machine interface (HMI) software and hardware, allowing only marginal or incremental improvements of existing systems
Despite these problems, packagers in the survey repeatedly related successes they have experienced by utilizing automation. “We have evolved our automation over the past 15 years with good results,” said one. “We planned and followed the plan, using living documents while adjusting to real needs.”
Eighty-one percent of study respondents said their companies are investing in automated packaging machines primarily to control labor costs. As one packager said, “We developed a machine that helped reduce the workforce from 16 persons to four. The overall cost of these machines (research and development, plus purchase price) was lower than the monthly cost of the workforce replaced.“
Packagers also expect that automating their processes will help them gain new efficiencies and make them more competitive. Other reasons cited include great speed to market, greater flexibility in changing size and type of product, better use of supply chain capacity, improved accuracy, and better safety.
Not surprisingly, 88% of survey respondents recognized the growing importance of sustainability in packaging, agreeing that within the next five years, it will become a major driver for automation of packaging lines. In fact, 33% of respondents list sustainability as one of the main reasons they are considering automation.
It’s easy to see the complexity of these operations, and why packagers are turning to specially-designed, yet highly flexible machines that perform such tasks as filling, forming, sealing, labeling, marking and coding, cartoning, conveying, palletizing, and wrapping.
As needs continue to evolve and market pressures become increasingly complex, packaging professionals will come to rely on automation-solution providers to an even greater degree. And they expect to use more of them in the future as well. Forty-two percent stated that the number of automation suppliers they’ll use will increase during the next five years, indicating that there is strong growth ahead for machine builders, component suppliers, and automation-solution providers.
“We see the packaging automation technology marketplace as one of strong growth and great potential,” says ARC’s Resnick. “There is a much greater degree of technological sophistication and advanced capabilities in today’s packaging equipment, and we expect that trend to accelerate moving forward.”
NOTE: Other products/technologies were indicated at less than 46%
Process & batch control
Network - software & diagnostics
• Previous experience with supplier
• Vendor reputation/known brand
• 24x7 service and support
• Pre-existing relationships/integration with other solution providers
• Product availability
Read other articles in the Packaging Automation Benchmark Study, Part 1:
Automation Success: In Their Own Words
To gain greater insight into how automation equipment is creating significant, tangible benefits for packaging professionals, we put forth the following request: “Please describe a recent project or situation in which automation made a major impact on your packaging process or company.”
Many respondents indicated they have been able to realize impressive results:
“We recently added case sealers to our fractional packaging line, it saves about 8 seconds per case, at 2– 3 million cases per month.”
“We implemented software cycles for quick changeover from beverage flavor to beverage flavor and saved about 90 minutes of run time per day.”
“We developed a machine that helped reduce the workforce from 16 persons to 4. The overall cost of these machines (R&D + purchase) was lower than the monthly cost of the workforce replaced.”
“Within the last year we replaced a manual industrial bag filling and palletizing line with automated baggers and robot palletizing. Labor dropped from 3 to 1 person per shift.”
“We installed an OEE data collection system, consisting of a server pulling data from PLCs on major packaging line machine, and improved OEE by 20% in first 6 months…”
“We automated a small assembly operation that reduced 4 operators to one and increased output 225%.”
As evidenced by these results, proper selection and– more importantly – full utilization of automation solutions can reduce costs, boost productivity and improve profitability.
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Annual Salary Survey
After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.
The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.