WHERE DOES AUTOMATION HELP IN PACKAGING?
Like many other sectors, the packaging industry, too, has been forced to face a large number of changes to their surrounding circumstances – some pleasantly surprising, some less so. Among the latter phenomena is the dreaded ghost of “lack of skilled workers”. In spite of a demand for their services, companies are experiencing problems finding the necessary personnel.
In the worst case, this means frank losses. One of the reasons is that the so-called “baby boomer” generation has now reached retirement age and the following generations simply did not feature as many births. The change in demand and the new requirements made of packaging in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic put added pressure on the situation.
It was only January when the German industry association for paper and plastic wraps, the Industrieverband Papier- und Folienverpackung (IPV) issued a warning about the problem. “It's not five minutes to twelve, it's already three minutes past twelve. We aren't threatened by a lack of skilled workers, our production is already suffering and so is the industry's guarantee to deliver. The lack of skilled workers has long since become a lack of manpower across several industries” says Karsten Hunger, head of IPV.
WHAT ARE THE CONSIDERATIONS?
How to balance this, then? The magic word “automation” promises one way out of this situation. On paper, this looks rather easy: In the future, what is now manual labour will be done by highly specialised machines and robots. No need for staff, no days off, production around the clock.
But apart from these urgent factors, automation promises further advantages. For one, there is speed. When looking at individual work steps, a specialised machine will usually beat human staff regarding speed. Using machines therefore means significantly increasing turnover. Especially in the packaging of food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products, automation can also decrease the risk of contamination for the product through less points with manual contact.
In reality, the process of automation is of course much more complex. Before a ready-to-work robot is standing on the shop floor, the work step that needs to be carried out must be precisely analysed, sequences of movements must be modelled and compatibility with the packaging materials must be agreed on.
The process therefore starts with a cost-benefit analysis. Robotics specialist Omron shows us what this could look like in practice. The company offers a return-on-investment-calculator which shows interested parties whether the investment into a mobile or collaborative robot would be profitable for their own company. This way, especially small and medium sized companies can judge far in advance whether and when the step toward automation would be profitable.
Next is the question, which work process if any should be automated. Because not all steps required during manufacture can just be taken over by robots. One area that is especially suited, for example, is loading and unloading machines as well as unpacking pallets. The individual steps are usually very simple and also continually required.
At interpack, mechanical engineering company Syntegon, for example, is demonstrating how machines can be used in packaging. At their show floor, the company is presenting the laterally loading boxing machine BEC by its subsidiary Kliklok as part of an integrated line for packaging layered cakes. A robotic pick-and-place platform grips five pieces of cake, each wrapped in a tubular bag, and feeds them into the BEC which fully automatically packages them in cardboard boxes. The machine achieves a performance of up to 135 boxes per minute. No human can compete.
TRUSTED RECOGNITION OF ALIEN MATERIAL
Another area in which the packaging process can easily be automated, is product inspection. The food packaging industry above all places importance on no faulty goods entering retail sales where they could cause expensive recalls, or in the worst case, health problems for consumers.
An absolute no-go in food packaging are foreign bodies in the finished product or inside the outer packaging. Here, automated X-ray systems can help to detect affected packages and discard them from the line. At interpack, this process can be observed at the booth of Mettler-Toledo. The mechanical engineering company is presenting the newest generation of their metal detector series M30 R. These detect foreign metal bodies in dry food, for example in pasta or confectionery, but also in large-format products like boxes of meat or sacks of flour.
SOLUTIONS FOR CONFINED SPACES
In spite of all their advantages, fully automatic solutions always are a financial investment that must not be taken lightly, and which perhaps not everyone can or wants to make. A compromise between automation and financial possibilities are so-called cobots. These are collaborative robots (hence the name) which just like autonomous robots are specialised for a single work step, but are always operated by a human member of staff. They are often smaller and can be installed without physical guard barriers, which makes them suitable for challenging spacial situations.
How compact a filling process with a cobot can be, is demonstrated by mechanical engineering company Schubert at interpack, with a line for the cosmetics manufacturer Börlind. Inside a space of two by four meters, the new tog.519 helps to fill liquid cosmetics into glass bottles or jars, which are then closed, weighed, sealed and inspected.
In short: Automation of work steps has a lot of promising advantages, but is also a weighty investment, especially for small and medium sized companies. But with the increasing value of skilled workers more and more companies will probably decide to use automated solutions, especially for work steps that are required often and are easy to automate.