Packaging machinery uses cutting-edge automation, and it’s no wonder. Facilities that parcel products need to deliver high throughput, but modern consumers demand smart packaging in the form of no-fuss containers that protect everything from M&Ms to patio furniture. What’s more, there’s a continuous drive to customize packages and let consumer-facing companies wrap products for bulk distribution, single-item sales and everything in between.
To satisfy these design objectives, packaging machinery over the last decade has become increasingly adaptive. That was evident in a range of motion components and fully integrated designs at this year’s Pack Expo in Chicago.
More specifically, the newest adaptive machines are modular (so they can be reprogrammed if not physically reconfigured on the fly); fitted with HMIs (to let operators feed high-level operational data into machines as needed); and based on components that satisfy the efficiency, safety and networking standards of multiple regions.
Consider the retail-ready packaging that some machines assemble—the product-packed pallets increasingly common in club stores such as Costco and BJs. The machines that put these shelf-ready displays together rely heavily on servo-driven stations and robotic arms that usually interface with a conveyor. In a typical setup, the conveyor takes product to a station that orients individual units for grouping, then the modules travel on the conveyor to subsequent stations that group packs into patterns that let retailers use larger cartons for shipping, stacking and displaying items once they’re in stores. Setup of such machines is almost always through HMIs.
“The packaging machines of the next generation are cabinet free, adaptive, simple, and ready for connected industry,” said Steffen Winkler, VP of Sales and Industry Sector Management Food, Packaging, and Printing at Bosch Rexroth.
Case in point: Kangaroo Brands, maker of pita bread and sandwiches, uses servo-driven cartooning machines called Veronicas to boost productivity and flexibility. This vertical cartoner from Ultra Packaging has electric drives and controls from Bosch Rexroth to deliver more packaging flexibility.
“In serving the larger retailers and club stores, we had to begin packaging our pita sandwiches in different count cartons,” said Justin Rice, Kangaroo plant manager.
Now his company uses four, six, 12 and 14-count carton sizes, and the Veronica lets operators make speedy changeovers to different carton sizes—even up to 18 changeovers a week, depending on market demands. According to Rice, now that process typically only takes 10 to 15 minutes, as Kangaroo trained four different associates to use touchscreen HMIs on the machine to trigger the changeovers.
Even on the OEM side, simplicity is key.
“By using Bosch Rexroth IndraDrive Mi motors and drives, we reduced our linkages and other machine components by 60%,” said Bob Stockus, Ultra Packaging VP.
In a similar setup, candy-wrapping machine-maker A.M.P. Rose uses an eXtended Transport System (XTS) from Beckhoff Automation, an integrated servo-driven conveyor that lets users enter package and pack sizes and quantities for automatic machine changes on the fly.
Connecting IT and OT
According to Winker, future packaging machines will also be judged by how well they integrate into what he calls “connected industry concepts.” Here, the idea is to let design engineers build machines and networks to connect operational technology or OT—the drive, control and even process and manufacturing components and software that they integrate everyday—with those of information technology or IT…here, the managerial, sales, ERP, supply-chain and inventory tools of an organization.
“In the future, networking of the machine world with corporate IT will…boost efficiency [production] of small batch sizes,” said Winkler. His company brands these efforts (and the company’s related set of open standards, software tools, function packages and Open Core Interface) as Open-Core Engineering.
In a similar effort, ABB purchased IT/OT software company Ventyx in 2010 partly to expand offerings and let management and ERP-level data dictate what happens on factory floors.
Likewise, Rockwell Automation partnered with Cisco last year to offer some of the same functions to OEMs and end users. Much of the integration here uses factory-floor standard Ethernet/IP (SIP) to connect to IT data for IT/OT convergence. Such integration is relevant to many industries, but the special benefits to packaging include regulation of output to better meet demand, as well as product safety through tracking.
Flexible packaging evolution
Formats for individual products—stand-up pouches, child-resistant (CR) packaging, anti-bacterial wraps, multi-function container lids and custom-sized cartons—also continue to proliferate. In fact, according to the Flexible Packaging Association, a trade association for converters of flexible packaging and industry suppliers, the market for specialty packaging grew nearly 4% this year, to $28 billion globally. That’s thanks to better automation mentioned earlier, as well as advances in materials and processes. Case in point: Some OEMs that build form-fill-seal machines for pouch products are switching from heat sealing to ultrasonic sealing, as the latter is more forgiving and efficient. Ultrasonic welding also improves beverage packaging. One technique from Germany-based Xolution (not to be confused with OXO) ultrasonically welds polypropylene lids to aluminum cans for a portable mug design that otherwise lets beverage companies can drinks by traditional means.