Whether this is your first automation project or your fifth, chances are it’s far from your last. Current trends indicate that automation is the future of packaging across virtually every market, including food.
It’s fair to say that the perceived value of automation has evolved over time. Today, automation’s biggest driver is business optimization, as globally integrated manufacturing and activity-based cost accounting have taken center stage.
Let’s take a closer look at the components and benefits of automation shaping this trend.
Decreasing Human Error
While most automation investments today are closely associated with high-volume production, low-volume, highly manual shops will eventually benefit from robotic advances as these technologies become even more cost effective. Automation has become a realistic alternative compared to the risks associated with human-based processes.
Automation typically produces an immediate return on investment by reducing operator involvement and human error, by avoiding shutdowns and improving yields, and by increasing throughput. These new platforms reduce operator fatigue, accelerate training, and enable emerging disruptive technologies that will change the game for maintenance effectiveness, production scalability and process adaptability.
As mechatronics give way to software-based functional virtualization, the line between machine controls and factory management systems becomes blurred. Organizations that fail to embrace a strategic approach to capital justification may not adequately value the impact of smarter, more connected packaging platforms.
Advanced, smart automation helps future-proof production capabilities by delivering more agile and adaptable solutions that can be reconfigured rapidly and cost effectively to address business changes – such as product mix or volumes. This kind of adaptability also enables organizations to more easily leverage emerging disruptive technologies that can drive significant competitive advantage. The quantifiable value such platforms offer, while more complex and difficult to estimate, is very real.
Target Operational Improvements
One expects that a new packaging automation solution will offer features and functions not available with older platforms or manual systems. But this is also an ideal time to target operational improvements by modifying existing operations and practices as part of your automation investment.
Replacing like-for-like is a huge lost opportunity. Trading in your legacy approach for modern automation that can be more easily supported and maintained not only results in greater cost efficiencies, but also helps minimize human risk factors that impact both product and safety.
Advances in Robotics
Technological advances in robotics over the last decade have driven more food processors to embrace automation for previously manual-intensive operations. While the upfront cost of robotics can make the business case harder to justify in the short term, the flexibility of software driven robotics add value by making it much easier to re-configure handling systems. Easier re-configuration helps to make these solutions cost-effective long-term investments.
Another major factor is the introduction of collaborative robots (Cobots) which are designed to operate safely in close proximity with production staff sans safety cages. Cobots’ ability to handle delicate tasks such as moving easily damaged products (bakery for example) further extend automation’s reach and help alleviate labor turnover associated with highly repetitive tasks.
Increasing Production Flexibility
Modern, smart and connected packaging solutions help automate processes that may have been untenable with older technology. Advanced process controls and robotics enable automation of more complex manual processes, increasing production flexibility by making it profitable to automate even for smaller lot sizes. If your manual operations are constrained by specific legacy components or equipment, now is the time to consider upgrading or replacing them.
Adapting to Evolving Trends and Business Models
The explosion of eCommerce distribution in the food markets heavily favors automation. The rise of such non-traditional distribution systems, such as eCommerce giant, Amazon, are already causing disruption and concern among food processors.
The company’s influence over the U.S. grocery market is abundantly clear based on the ongoing trend of retail earnings. The winners are increasingly eCommerce driven (Walmart, Costco, Whole Foods) while the laggards (Kroger, BJ’s) are experiencing issues migrating to a digital footprint.
The inability to meet distribution demands for specific delivery times or same day shipping may also help justify an automation investment.
Only producers who can align their production capabilities with the demands of a highly scalable and automated distribution system will be able to take advantage of the digital transformation that is reshaping how products get into the hands of end users.
The Future of Automation
As demonstrated in other industries, food packaging automation will enjoy broad-based adoption based on measurable increases in productivity and efficiencies. It creates a compelling value proposition when combined with pragmatic factors such as reduced package damage, labor, and material usage rates, along with improved worker safety and ergonomics.
Digital transformation is now a cross-industry mantra, intersecting every aspect of our personal and business lives, and fundamentally changing expectations of how work can be accomplished. Automation is an enabler of this production-level transformation.