Automation is a broad term in the manufacturing world and can apply to many parts of your production line, from processing to packaging to palletizing. Our expertise is in packaging automation, which starts with your unwrapped product fresh off your processing line, and ends with a finished pallet, ready to load onto your trucks.
There are three important types of packaging automation: primary, secondary, and tertiary/palletizing. We’ll walk through each of them in this article to give you an idea of what a fully automated packaging line could look like for your product.
Primary Packaging Automation
This type of automation deals with loading your product into your primary packaging equipment. It could be a muffin coming out of a cooling tunnel, ready to enter your flow wrapper, or a fresh cut of meat coming out of a slicer, ready to enter your thermoformer.
Whatever your product is, your feeding/loading strategy into your primary packaging machine is critical. There are three key attributes that will guide this process:
- Your production requirements: You’ll want to think about the volume of products to be packaged, the speed and efficiency (throughput) requirements, quality standards, and available floorspace in your plant for implementing an automated feeding and/or loading system.
- The state or nature of the product being packaged: Are you packaging food? If so, will it be raw, cooked, or frozen? What about non-food products? You’ll want to consider sterility requirements or potential dimensional challenges.
- The product presentation for the packaging process: Is your product traveling in a bulk format as it enters your packaging machine, or is it fed serially? Is there a need to reorient the product for proper packaging?
Packaging infeeds and outfeeds are designed to manage sorting, orientating, allocating, positioning and inserting products in a quick and safe manner without damaging the product. Conveyor systems are often an integral aspect of packaging infeed or outfeed automation.
Some key types of equipment in this area include:
- Vibratory bowls, which can be used for randomly sorted bulk products that must be fed into another machine one-by-one, oriented in a particular direction.
- Hoppers, which are used to help buffer packaging processes by accumulating and conveying products to maintain a continuous, even flow.
- Linear feeders, which enable both linear sorting and product orientation.
Secondary Packaging Automation
This type of automation, also known as case packaging automation, does just that – packs your packaged primary products into cases to protect it in transit.
Case formers, sealers and label applicators offer a faster, more accurate and reliable approach to manual efforts, which often result in sloppy/poorly placed tape or labels and are impacted by even simple things like employee absences.
Manual labor at this stage often requires substantial space for workstations and materials storage, whereas automated equipment at the end of your packaging line can actually reduce required warehouse space.
Secondary packaging automation emphasizes equipment flexibility and strong product control. It provides the ability to allow for quick and easy size changeovers of the packaging machinery, and there are several types.
The most common method: Vertical/top load case packing
Products are simply placed into the container from the top. Typical top-loaded products can include glass bottles, cartons, flexible pouches, flowpacks, bags and sachets.
For small footprints: Horizontal/side load case packing
This method is typically used for handling retail cartons or structured products and can be used for either low- or high-speed lines. Side load case packers can only handle a small product array, but are great for limited floor space.
For the lowest cost: Wrap-around case packing
This method uses precut flat sheets of corrugated blanks, with major and minor flaps sealed on the side, instead of the top. Less cardboard surface means this type of packing is typically cheaper, which improves inventory efficiency. Typically used for canned foods or beverages, wrap around case packing can reach far higher speeds than traditional top or side load packing.
For gentle packing: bottom loading
This method is used typically for food applications with rectangular or lay flat cartons, delicate/sensitive products, dairy applications with gable-top cartons or gallon jugs, products with shrink wrap or transparent film on top, and industrial cans or bottles.
Tertiary Packaging and Palletizing Automation
This type of packaging automation is all about improving the transportation of products in bulk from producers to retail or storage/distribution centers. It provides protection during shipping and storage, allowing more inventory to be moved with easier handling. Shipping and storage environments can be harsh, so end of line packaging is aimed at optimizing footprint and in-transit protection.
There are two main types of palletization: mechanical and robotic.
Mechanical palletizers offer a smaller footprint and use fewer movements, decreasing the probability of dropped product. Mechanical palletizers are typically lower cost than robotic palletizers and deliver different levels of flexibility, particularly in single product applications. They are simple to install, repurpose and maintain, and can perform at very high speeds for applications with rigid, cube-based shapes.
Robotic palletizing systems are increasing in popularity due to their decreasing cost, combined with improved reliability, flexibility and increasingly smaller equipment footprint.
A palletizing robotic system can perform one task, such as loading the pallet, or many simultaneously: package products, load boxes onto a pallet, and wrap the pallet with shrink wrap. It is a gentler, more consistent treatment than manual palletizing.
On the other hand, if a robotic palletizer is loading 4 different pallets and the robot goes down, all 4 SKUs will be affected at once, whereas since each mechanical palletizer handles a single product, not all SKUs may be affected.
Keep in mind the nature of the environment in which operations will be conducted, as some environments will be better suited to one or the other.
Automated packaging solutions rarely come “off the shelf.” That’s why it’s critical to have a trusted partner that understands your exact product, application, and requirements to make your project a success.