Advancements in technology, pandemic-related disruption to production lines, supply chain shortages, and the skilled labor gap are driving manufacturers toward automation in packaging and processing operations, according to The Future of Automation in Packaging and Processing report from PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. Automation has become an increasingly important tool for manufacturers as they strive to meet the growing demand for products while maintaining efficiency and cost-effectiveness. PMMI’s report identified several trends in automation shaping the industry for the years to come.
One key trend is the growing use of collaborative robots, or cobots. These robots work alongside human workers, performing tasks that are repetitive, strenuous, or dangerous. Designed to be flexible and easy to program, cobots can be used for a wide range of applications. This trend is expected to continue as the use of cobots is becoming more widespread in the industry, particularly in packaging and palletizing operations.
Another trend highlighted in the report is the expanding use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. These technologies are being used to optimize processes, reduce downtime, and improve quality control. By analyzing data, AI can identify patterns and make predictions, which enable manufacturers to make better decisions. The use of AI is also leading to the development of predictive maintenance systems that can identify potential problems before they occur, reducing the risk of equipment failure and downtime.
The report also highlights the importance of data analytics in automation. With the increasing use of sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT), manufacturing operations are generating a growing amount of data. By analyzing this data, manufacturers can gain valuable insights into their processes, identify areas for improvement, and make data-driven decisions. This trend is expected to continue as the adoption of IoT devices and sensors grows.
One of the most significant trends identified in the report is the integration of automation across the entire value chain. This includes the integration of manufacturing, packaging, and logistics operations, as well as the integration of suppliers and customers into the value chain. By integrating these processes, manufacturers can achieve greater efficiency, reduce costs, and improve their overall competitiveness.
This has become more evident as the demand for e-commerce expands. As fulfillment operations continue to increase in complexity, the need for automation grows. The last mile is becoming more challenging, especially as companies like Amazon are getting consumers accustomed to higher levels of convenience such as shorter delivery times and higher levels of order transparency. Due to this fulfillment complexity, a growing number of retailers are turning to third-party consulting services to help design efficient automated fulfillment networks. PMMI’s report finds that nearly half of consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies are feeling the impact of e-commerce on their operations right now. CPGs are reporting slower throughput, in some cases up to 50% slower, to accommodate the added flexibility required for e-commerce.
These changes may result in third-party warehousing and distribution companies fulfilling orders on behalf of CPG companies. This approach could help maintain speed with the added benefit of reduced inventory and storage — thus increasing flexibility for CPG operations. Being able to quickly shift production to meet demand and have products shipped directly from the factory to consumers means there is no need for inventory, saving money and space. With consumers wanting a more personalized experience, such as the ability to choose recipe ingredients or products in a variety pack, new plants designed for end-to-end automation may need to be built with the e-commerce factor in mind. Industry 4.0 could play its part in a re-tooling of the manufacturing and distribution systems to enable e-commerce to be the standard distribution method, rather than just being an add-on to the wholesale route.
Flexibility in automation is another key factor highlighted in the PMMI report. With the changing demands of consumers and the increasing complexity of products, manufacturers need to be able to adapt quickly to changes in demand. This requires automation systems that are flexible and can be reconfigured easily to accommodate changes in production requirements. The use of modular automation systems is becoming more widespread, allowing manufacturers to quickly add or remove modules as needed.
Typically, companies want to automate processes that are repetitive and unchanging, and automating a flexible line where product sizes, materials, and formats change regularly is seen as a challenge. Smaller companies, which don’t have the volume of product going through a line and often need to change the products being run, can find flexibility limits their automation choices, so they stick to manual processing. But with labor shortages kicking in, together with the need for increased speed and efficiency on production lines, the growing expectation from CPG firms is that automation companies will come up with new technologies that enable flexibility, such as adaptable machines that can address changing needs quickly, even multiple times a day in some cases. Companies want automated solutions, but they don’t want to lose the agility to change products and pack sizes and troubleshoot the unexpected.
Lastly, as the use of automation increases, it is important to ensure that workers are safe and that the risk of accidents is minimized. This requires the use of safety systems such as sensors, safety gates, and emergency stop buttons. The report highlights the need to ensure workers are trained to operate and maintain these automated systems safely.
PMMI’S Future of Automation in Packaging and Processing report provides valuable insights into the trends and developments that are shaping the packaging and processing industry. As technology continues to evolve, the use of automation is becoming increasingly important for manufacturers to remain competitive. By adopting these trends, manufacturers can improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve sustainability.
The packaging and processing industry is on the cusp of significant change, and those who adapt and innovate will be the ones who succeed. Automation solutions for a variety of packaging and processing applications will be on display at PACK EXPO Las Vegas (Sept. 11–13, 2023; Las Vegas Convention Center). This event will be the most comprehensive packaging and processing show in North America in 2023. On track to be the largest and broadest edition of this trade show since its inception, PACK EXPO Las Vegas will showcase solutions from over 2,000 suppliers. From engaging with colleagues and hearing from industry experts to witnessing materials, technologies, and machinery in action, attending PACK EXPO Las Vegas is the most effective way to explore packaging and processing solutions for every kind of product, entire production lines, and even the supply chain. To learn more, visit packexpolasvegas.com
Jorge Izquierdo is vice president of market development at PMMI.