4 Technologies Transforming Packaging Line Flexibility


To understand how new technologies can improve flexibility, Bosch Rexroth Corp.’s Marco De Giuseppe discusses the areas where they can have the biggest impact.

The food packaging industry is no stranger to change. Candy and snack packaging operations have always needed flexibility to handle shifting demands, whether it’s new portion sizes, new products or novel package designs for special campaigns. But today, more than ever, packaging lines need more ways to adapt quickly to ever-changing conditions, all while meeting increasing pressure for productivity and line efficiency.

There are several factors that have made flexibility a key to survival. Short-term factors like COVID-19 have caused massive supply chain gaps and increased inflation. In the long term, changing consumer buying behaviors and preferences for options including sustainable packaging and personalized labels creates additional pressure on brands to find new ways to package products.  

Nevertheless, as the industry’s needs change and evolve, so too do the technologies available to packaging lines. While adapting to the accelerating pace of technological change can be a challenge, packaging operations can greatly improve their flexibility with specific technology solutions and a smart approach to automation. 

What does effective automation look like in a packaging line? To understand how new technologies can be used to improve flexibility from beginning to end, look to where they can have the biggest impact. Whether automating a single application or taking a systemwide approach, here are four key areas where packaging operations can make the most meaningful improvements. 

1. Controls

A long-standing criticism of automation engineering is how time-consuming it can be, especially when launching whole new production lines. Long intervals from initial design to first production runs do not align with the timelines packaging lines face today. 

That critique is valid for many conventional automation platforms. Machine hardware that isn’t modular, is bulky and is bound to closed automation control architectures can pose serious hurdles to implementation. Furthermore, without an open control system, operations must rely on specialized engineering resources and esoteric programming languages to automate the system. These proprietary, closed systems also create interoperability challenges when trying to replace old equipment and integrate new technologies. 

But with the latest advances in automation controls, packaging lines today have access to open systems that offer far more flexibility to meet changing requirements. They can also take advantage of open control systems that use an app-based approach, similar to a smart phone, for programming machine functions or integrating new technologies. 

Production facilities and machine builders can choose apps from the automation platform provider or third-party suppliers, or they can develop their own apps with functions tailored specifically for food packaging applications. This makes it easier to navigate accelerating technological change because now packaging automation programmers can use coding they already know, whether it’s for a new machine, virtual reality, IoT or advanced cybersecurity.

Using this approach to automation also opens possibilities for process transparency, product tracking and predictive maintenance. With an open ecosystem, operations can more easily integrate machines and other technology into a complete system that offers unprecedented connectivity. That means almost any piece of equipment can also operate as an edge device, collecting data on processes and production flows to optimize efficiency. 

2. Conveyors & Transport

Conveying systems used to be one of the last considerations when designing and equipping a packaging line. But today, transport technology is more connected and more modular than ever before, making it one of the easiest ways to achieve an agile packaging operation. 

Take, for instance, modular plastic chain conveyor systems. Consisting mainly of plastic and configurable aluminum components, they are designed to maximize flexibility and optimize production flow in any type of manufacturing footprint. The only limit is the engineer’s imagination. Unlike stainless steel systems, which are welded, plastic chain conveyors can be quickly reconfigured and modified. Advances in these systems also satisfy several other key industry trends, such as larger and heavier packages, increased reliability and uptime through more reliable belts, chains and gearboxes and the ability to easily incorporate Industry 4.0 capabilities, such as sensors, into existing conveyor systems.

Companies should also consider linear transfer systems. Food packaging lines that must contend with high volumes or custom packaging scenarios require high-speed and high-positioning accuracy. Linear motor-driven carriers provide extremely fast transport with precise positioning accuracy while operating independently of each another. These systems can run autonomously, and their machine functions can be adjusted through simple programming. 

Some of these systems also offer built-in connectivity, with visual displays that monitor power consumption, lubrication, temperature and can even enable virtual simulations that help operators find optimal throughput and carrier use. By factoring connectivity into a transfer solution, operations can ensure they are tooling their packaging operation for the future. 

3. Smart Mechatronics 

When it comes to automating applications like package sealing, embossing, forming and pick-and-place operations, food packagers need to streamline engineering and deploy solutions faster. The technology concept known as “smart mechatronics” builds on the latest advances in mechatronic control, hardware and software to offer intelligent, connected systems that are ready to use “out of the box.” Used widely in applications ranging from product assembly to single- and multi-axis Cartesian-style robots for material handling, this approach to automation is also particularly well-suited for packaging end-of-line functions.

This type of highly configurable system can help operations achieve quicker time to market by simplifying the engineering tasks for systems that can quickly shift for product variants or add new functionality on the same production line. These next-level mechatronics also support transparent production processes, with features that automatically capture process data and enable real-time condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.

4. AMRs & Cobots

Robotics play an increasingly important role in packaging environments. As systems become sophisticated enough to handle a wider range of tasks, they can provide the flexibility operations need to address labor force shortages. Technologies including autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) play a big role in improving efficiency and safety in warehouse automation. They can also improve flexibility in systemwide processes when connected to a single control system that uses data from the entire production floor to respond to disruptions or optimize flows. 

However, not all robots are created equal. Lines that require maximum flexibility need AMRs that can handle a variety of payloads and operate in a variety of spaces and changing production floors. Today, there are AMRs on the market with the capacity to handle payloads up to 1,000 kilograms and offer 360-degree obstacle detection. Some AMRs also interface with other equipment including conveyor systems and collaborative robots (cobots). 

Cobots offer a highly flexible solution for applications such as picking and placing, box forming and palletizing. They can adjust to varying package sizes without adjustments to hardware. New technology, including seven-axis cobot systems, improve reach, allowing for more options of where to position the robot on the packaging line. 

But most importantly, it’s becoming easier to program new machine functions in today’s robots. If operations use an open technology ecosystem and app-based approach to controls, they can change robot functions as needed using a simple drag-and-drop app downloaded from a server. Today, a robot can be used one day for loading candy bars and the next it can be used to load full cases onto pallets with minimal programming. 

Choosing A Technology Partner 

Although it’s important for packaging operations to have the flexibility to work with multiple technology providers, choosing a partner with a complete automation portfolio with an app-driven software architecture, open interfaces and scalable hardware options can provide the greatest value, making problem solving more flexible and effective. A complete automation offering will extend beyond the technology to holistic engineering support and efficient service.

Contributor Info

Marco De Giuseppe is head of CPG center of competence at Bosch Rexroth Corp. He has more than 21 years of experience in engineering, global key account management and strategic portfolio development. He can be reached at [email protected].