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Meeting future demands: Packaging industry of tomorrow

15 April 2011

The road towards ‘lights out production’ where processes are fully automated, just got shorter for the packaging industry, says Keith Thornhill, business development manager for Siemens Industry Automation & Drive Technologies

He looks ahead to the challenges the packaging industry will face around production efficiencies and environmentally friendly solutions.

There are some startling facts about the future. By 2030, the world’s population will have increased by 33%, demand for food and energy by 50% and demand for water by 30%. Focus will inevitably be on reducing waste, energy and water use and developing sustainable food sources to meet significant population increases.

Businesses will also need to invest time and resources into overcoming these challenges by becoming more operationally efficient and, ultimately, sustainable.

The future of the packaging industry will be defined by how effectively it rises to the issues it faces. Companies will need to take a holistic view of their production processes and their products to ensure they are best placed for success in the future.

Sustainability is the buzz word. It is set to affect every element of the packaging industry, including how materials are used and how processes are adopted.

Packaging will itself become more sustainable. Companies will look to develop the highest quality packaging using the minimum amount of material and if possible, from recycled materials.

This will impact on levels of waste from packaging and will meet the demands of consumers who will become increasingly more aware of the environmental impact of waste packaging. It will also become important for packaging to be fully recyclable as people will be targeted to recycle more and reduce the waste that goes to landfill. At this point, it is also worth noting the potentially significant increases in raw material costs making it essential financially to keep material use to a minimum.

Sustainable processes will rise on the business agenda. Production processes will need to become ever more energy efficient and ensure waste is kept to an absolute minimum. In addition, businesses may start to investigate the benefits of onsite generation of low carbon energy sources to secure their energy requirements and enhance their CSR profile.

Investing in research and development will be crucial. This will allow companies to produce ever-more sophisticated and sustainable packaging solutions. There will be pressure for packaging to become more innovative than it has ever been. For instance, packaging may ‘move’ and could eventually be more like an ‘advert’ than a simple branded box or package.

There is definitely a trend towards packaging being part of the ‘experience’ of a product. The production side of businesses needs to keep pace with the challenges of innovative marketing and R&D. This will require investment in both retrofit technology and new machines and systems.

When companies are focussed on developing the most innovative and sustainable packaging solutions possible, they need to be able to turn them around quickly and easily. This will require flexible production. Increasingly manufacturers are considering the lifecycle of machinery and no longer do they view all systems as ‘for life’.

By adapting to a more short-term view of machinery and its functionality, companies will invest in the right machinery at the right time to meet the varying pressures of research, product development and marketing. Only by having a fully flexible approach to production will companies be able to stay ahead of the competition.

This flexibility in production will also be crucial in allowing companies to meet the demands of the supermarkets. To ensure they do not lose out to competitors, companies need to have the flexibility in their production lines to switch size and quantity of products instantly. Developing long term contracts and working in partnerships with supermarkets will also be important to enable this to occur.

Working in such a way allows the creation of a fully sustainable supply and demand chain between supermarkets and manufacturers. By working in partnership over a long period of time, companies will be able to formalise production systems to ensure they continue to meet the needs of the supermarkets they supply with minimal need to constantly adapt processes.

When companies know they have a long term contract with a supermarket, finance teams will be more willing to ring-fence the investment in the technology required to help them maintain demand for the supermarket.

The need for technology innovation in the packaging industry is also under constant pressure. People want to digest information as quickly and simply as possible in this techno-savvy world of internet news and smartphones.

We are a generation led by images, not words. Words and data will make way for illustrative references and interfaces used in automation will convey information in a more visual way and become ever simpler to use.

The backbone of automation technologies will also play increasingly important roles on the road to ‘lights out’ production. For instance, sensors, vision systems, robotics, drives, motion and PLCs networked both horizontally and vertically within a production facility will be essential in having the reliability of machinery required, and the communication between machines and the plant to flexibly control production.

‘Lights out’ production is the ultimate in any manufacturing process. The electronics industry where ‘lights out’ production was initially developed has been pushing the boundaries of manufacturing for many years. It has been the approach of lean manufacturing concepts and technology adoption that has made this successful.

There is no reason why, with the challenges that lie ahead, this methodology can not be realised in the food and beverage and pharmaceutical sectors. The automation technology is already here to achieve greater operational efficiency benefits, but in many instances the short-termism of investment is stopping the evolution. To make a step change, retail, manufacturing and technology companies need to be in partnership to drive the innovation and investment required.

The world is facing many challenges and ultimately, the packaging industry will need to play its part in overcoming these - just as every other sector will. Becoming more sustainable is an objective that is set to be increasingly important across the private and public sectors. Only by investing in retrofitting and new machines, being able to respond to developments in R&D and cutting waste from the supply chain, will the packaging industry be able to become fully sustainable.

Totally integrated automation will play a huge part in this and technology providers will also be under pressure to produce equipment that can not only reduce waste and energy, but can provide the flexibility of production required to meet ever changing market demands.

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