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Packing smaller

18 September 2015

How will packaging machines develop to be more flexible for increasingly small batch sizes in the food and drink industry? Customer demand for more variation in their choices is leading to smaller batch sizes becoming much more common in a variety of industries, including the food and drink market. 

Packaging needs, first and foremost, to protect and preserve products, whether they are displayed in supermarkets or sent direct to consumers. The increase in online suppliers has also contributed to the need for smaller batch sizes, with producers packing to fulfil orders based on multiple product lines. Finding a packing process or system that can cope with fluctuating demand, frequent changes in product size and be inexpensive to run has therefore become a major challenge for many food and drink producers.

For FANUC, the answer lies in robotics and developments in new areas of technology that allow packaging to become more flexible and to work faster. “Robotics in food manufacture is most definitely at an inflection point – a bend in the curve – where many technologies that used to be found only in science fiction are becoming everyday reality,” explains John Rainer, Regional Sales Manager at FANUC UK. “Today’s breeds of compact, flexible robots feature large work envelopes, quick programming and user-friendly controls – making it easier than ever to justify small-batch production.”

The latest development in robot controllers is the ability to control up to four robot arms and numerous additional axes, from a single CPU, with only the addition of control boxes to house the servo amplifiers and power components. The controller is also able to control additional axes to enable specific functions to be achieved, such as the use of more flexible and adaptable servo grippers in place of pneumatic grippers, which can help to future-proof any gripping needs required by the industry. 

“The ability to control additional axes would allow the robot to be placed on a linear rail, for example, if it needs to cover a wider work envelope,” says Rainer. “Which makes it a good solution for end of line packaging applications.”

Robot applications are fast moving towards retail friendly packaged deliveries from distribution centres. Pallets can now include a variety of products, reducing a retailer’s holding stock and consequently, their wastage. Pallets with mixed SKUs are especially beneficial for convenience retailers who want to offer a reasonable selection of brand variety in a more compact space.

“Palletainers are becoming a popular option with some retailers, as they offer the ability to pack netted, bagged or loose product much more efficiently than just onto a pallet,” says Rainer. “One of our recent applications has been developed in response to the requirements of shelf-ready packaging in the fresh produce sector. As fresh produce packs are shingle fed off a conveyor, the robot with a dedicated end effector moves them from a horizontal position, presenting the packs neatly in an upright collation for loading into a box or shelf-ready tray.”

FANUC believe that as consumer choice broadens, robots will need to continually evolve so they are flexible in the tasks they can perform. Once tasks are mastered, systems can be updated with controllers, software and new end effectors, enabling them to easily change function in-line with brand and packaging trends.

Increasing flexibility
Automated Packaging Systems have discovered that, when visiting companies, small businesses and start-ups are packing goods by hand into packaging materials purchased online. While the branding is professional and websites are up and running, the room for growth and development within the business is limited. But the investment needed to move into an automated environment can be steep, while not taking that step can limit business growth. Popular form, fill and seal machines can be expensive, as well as having a large footprint and demanding an onsite maintenance facility. For small online food and drink suppliers, who run small batch sizes, there is often not enough capital, labour or large pack-house space to be able to run these types of equipment. 

For a business to grow or keep up with demand, their packaging systems must have the ability to change bag size or style quickly and with minimum fuss. When food producers invest in automation, they need to remember that it is more cost-effective to pack multiple products on one machine, rather than investing in multiple systems. Machines should be operator-friendly and work on quick bag changeovers to reduce downtime in the process. 

In order to offer flexibility, Automated Packaging Systems believes that the footprint of packaging systems needs to be kept at a premium. Multinational food and drink manufacturers use machines continuously on dedicated product lines in large factories, but many of their customers have small premises. Ensuring that systems have a small footprint could see producers pack at the point of dispatch while not taking up valuable storage space. Having all-in-one systems that can be easily moved and stored for seasonal produce will allow producers to use space in other areas. 

As well as technical improvements to machines to better handle small-batch numbers, the capital expenditure needs to reflect the needs of the business and show a healthy return on investment. Automated Packaging Systems believe that systems will develop to be smaller and more flexible, but continue to meet customer’s demands and show an improved return on investment.

Flexibility isn’t the only requirement
While batches are becoming smaller, there are other reasons for flexibility becoming more of a necessity, such as retailer trends as retailers shy away from long-term commitments to any particular park format or design. Any packaging machine that has been designed exclusively for a specific pack format can become redundant very quickly. The risk for the processor, of course, is that they have used valuable capital to obtain the machine and are then left with an obsolete asset.

“Being simply flexible is not the answer though,” explains Matthew Jackson, Sales Director at Multivac. “Flexibility is required, as well as reliability as each changeover should result in ‘as new’ output and performance. Machines should also make changeover as easy as possible, and be repeatable with a consistent performance regardless of who is carrying out the changeover. Flexibility is of no benefit if the changeover time is not minimised, so a quick changeover is important. An automatic changeover is the best in class, which takes care of all of the abovementioned, and is managed by a recipe on the HMI. And finally, there’s batch size management, which is the ability to count off a production run and stop the line automatically upon completion.”

Key for packaging machine flexibility for Multivac is the downstream equipment installed. “It is of no benefit to change a pack format in two minutes if it then takes 20 minutes to change your converger or metal detector,” Jackson explains. “The ideal solution is total line control, where product recipes are administered by one HMI. This can include labellers, coders, x-ray machines, pack stackers and case loaders, for example.”

The trend for moving towards smaller pack sizes is being driven by convenience and single servings, and requires automation to be faster with greater connectivity. Customers moving to smaller pack sizes invariably request technology to enhance their output speed and tonnage throughput. For example, a customer with a total output of 100 tonnes of product per week may reduce their individual pack sizes from 15kg to 10kg, but will want to preserve their 100 tonne production volume.

“Retailers themselves are seeking space-saving solutions, especially metro, convenience and local stores,” says Paul Wilkinson, Business Development Manager at Pacepacker Services. “There’s been a definite shift towards assorted product trays and it is a quickly expanding market. An example is the offline product swap unit we recently developed for a dip producer. In addition to offering customers a wider product range, using mixed cases and pallets reduces both handling costs and back room stock, which is especially beneficial for perishable goods.”

Another emerging requirement, driven by ever-changing consumer tastes, product personalisation and customisations and multiple size variations from the same product category is for multi-functional and flexible equipment that can be easily reconfigured. Contract packing is also a growth area, and has to cope with different product and pack sizes, dependent on what contract they’re fulfilling. 

“Packaging and palletising robots are getting faster and more cost-effective,” says Wilkinson. “They’re now easier to use with integrated controls and intuitive human machine interfaces. They’re smarter, with advanced sensing and software, and more adept at handling product variations. As a result, single use systems built for a specific application to perform a set task are being superseded by robotics, which can easily be reprogrammed and redeployed to do a different job. Being able to select interchangeable end-effectors adds to the flexibility, resulting in fewer tool changeovers.”

As a result of this growing demand for packing smaller pack sizes at higher speeds, the implication for automation failure is higher. Therefore, system integrators need to make careful selection of control and conveyor suppliers to ensure machinery is fully connected as any production bottlenecks or machine downtime can impact profit margins.

“We’re inching towards Industry 4.0, where upstream and downstream control systems seamlessly integrate and talk to one another and where production lines automatically reconfigure,” says Wilkinson. “In reality, Industry 4.0 is still in its infancy, and cyber factories for many are some way off. However, data is readily available to pre-empt production workflow issues and the pre-programming of HTML screens with a recipe for scenarios can easily address many of the product changeover requirements for food processors and packers today. In the next five years, I believe we’ll see increased implementation in the end of line case loading and palletising systems, in particular the handling of a broad range of products at high speed and tasks. There could also be more contract packers serving a wider customer base, and these need to be able to react to and withstand the swift product changeovers, including seasonal ranges, consumer offers and promotions.”

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