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Automating Your Variety Pack Production

Variety packaging isn’t a new game in the beverage industry. Product sales for beverages like flavored malt beverages (FMBs), ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails, seltzers, etc. are driven by variety packs. With the market shifting from glass bottled to canned variety packs, and with the heightened production speed and efficiencies entailed, more companies are searching for variety packaging automation that will fit their unique product requirements. If you’re looking to add automation, here are a few notes to get you started on the right foot.

Listen to “What Innovations Are Shaping Beverage Variety Pack Automation” podcast »

Consider Your Output Needs

One of the first things to consider when evaluating the addition of automation to your variety pack production is the level of production you need to obtain. In short, how many cases or cartons are required during a specified time period? You’ll also want to consider how many flavor combinations and formats you’ll be building. Output requirements are typically determined by sales volume and customer demand.

Information to gather:
  • Type of product you’ll be packaging (cans, PET bottles, glass bottles, etc.)
  • Packaging type (cartons, cartons in trays, tray-only, tray/film, pad/film and film-only, etc.)
  • Number of flavors
  • Flavor combinations
  • Production output goals

Determine Availability of Resources

Historically, the justification process for automation was primarily based on labor costs. Now it’s based on labor availability. With pandemic regulations and low job application rates, labor availability and skillset is one of the biggest challenges for any type of packaging line and is a large consideration factor when determining automation needs.

One of the ways we help producers face this challenge is by keeping their systems’ technology and operation as simple as possible. Frequently in the past, robotics was used in packaging equipment to help producers reduce labor costs. However, with the changing skillsets many producers are finding in their personnel, turning solely to robotics is not a guaranteed solution. Simplifying system design and operation allows laborers to operate sophisticated equipment with little need for training.

As with any project, the availability of capital is a key contributor in the decision of what and how much automation to implement. While producers will see a reduction in labor costs over time, choosing the right investment level and stepping in to automation at the correct pace is a difficult process. Working through options and forecasting ROI with an industry expert can be extremely helpful.

Variety Pack solutions require various amounts of floor space, but can generally be configurable to the space you have available. It’s important to determine how much space you can allot to the entire packaging process and work with an expert to configure solutions to fit that space.

Choose the Right Level of Automation for You

Check out this infographic that illustrates how to go about choosing the right level of automation for your business » View Infographic

How Douglas Can Help

One thing we’ve learned in this industry is that technology evolves to meet producer’s output needs. At Douglas, we’re happy to walk with producers from the early educational phase of variety packaging all the way through the life of their equipment.

Discover Douglas’ line of Variety Pack options » View Options

How to get a fast and accurate case packer proposal

Communication, no matter the channel, can easily get lost in translation, especially when food, beverage or other CPG manufacturers communicate with OEMs regarding secondary packaging and automation equipment. When requirements and expectations aren’t clearly communicated by both parties, it can cost time and money to resolve last-minute issues. Even when manufacturers deliver ample information about their product, it’s not easy to anticipate every need with precision. These uncertainties can create added risk, potentially leading to unforeseeable costs if information gaps are not addressed.

Fortunately, you can reduce these uncertainties by understanding both what you need and what your OEM partner needs to ensure mutual success. Doing so allows you to get your products from your facility and into your customers’ hands with minimal interruptions along the way.

Before you start working with an OEM, these are a few questions you may want to address:

How can I provide clear product and packaging information?

The best way you can do this is by providing product samples and packaging materials to your OEM. These samples and materials are crucial for reducing risk and uncertainty. How? They allow packaging automation OEMs to experience the physical attributes of your product in a real and meaningful way. Often, the handling characteristics of a product or package can’t be fully appreciated until an OEM can actually attempt to put your product through the physical paces that your application requires. Samples can also help OEMs evaluate their own automation equipment requirements, which can reduce the complexity and the cost of your case packer.

One note on samples, however, is that timing matters. Most of the best packaging equipment manufacturers are forced to build their equipment on a backlogged schedule. To you, this is part of the lead time you experience. To OEMs, this period of time prior to building your machine is the perfect time to gather samples and materials that ultimately de-risk your project. Ideally, when the time comes for OEMs to start building and, eventually, testing your packaging automation application, your product samples and packaging materials should already be in their possession. If these important materials are not on hand, your level of project risk increases considerably.

OEMs do understand that there are certain circumstances in which product samples are just not available. Often, this is because your marketing teams have developed a new product and physical samples simply aren’t available yet. In these situations, if you can’t provide samples, drawings are the next best option, especially if they’re accompanied with dimensional details. While drawings typically can’t demonstrate how products will handle the collating and case loading process, they can help OEMs visualize the product orientations and pack patterns.

Can spreadsheets clearly lay out information?

In theory, spreadsheets seem like they’re the best option for communicating packaging specifications and requirements because they are able to clearly outline pack patterns, package speeds and product rates. But in practice, spreadsheets are an inferior alternative to physical products and materials. When you use spreadsheets, reverse engineering is often required to figure out what pack patterns will fit in your case. In short, spreadsheets are often an inadequate substitution for the actual product that the OEM will need to package within the scope of its packaging automation equipment.

Does product or package orientation matter?

Yes, it does. Orientation determines or is impacted by several factors, including:
  • Whether mechanisms to upend or rotate products are necessary
  • The simplest orientation for an entire machine
  • Appropriate machine infeed
  • Side selection for HMI and/or operator interface
  • Material graphics orientation

Are the graphics on the case important?

Sometimes, case graphics aren’t an issue. Other times, this knowledge is just as important as fitting your product within the case. Today, many cases are “retail ready,” meaning secondary packaging will play a role in how your product gets displayed on the store shelf. When working with retail ready products, the producer should have the graphic on the outer case and the product itself easily visible.

What is the importance of footprint and plant layout?

Similar to providing linear packaging information, there are best practices to providing information on space limitations and layout requirements. Unfortunately, manufacturers and OEMs don’t always discuss these details in full, causing both parties to lose time and money. For instance, an OEM may provide a proposal for a solution that does not ultimately fit in the producer’s plant layout. Because the solution “doesn’t fit,” the OEM could be disqualified, even though they could have provided an alternate solution if they had discussed plant layout details in advance.

When clear information is provided, these issues can be avoided and a substantial amount of time can be saved. A few of the things that should be conveyed to the OEM include:
  • Where the equipment must fit
  • Where any physical plant constraints exist
  • Where adjacent components (labelers or bar coders, for example) must sit
  • Where your products are coming from
  • Where the completed case will be discharged

We help our customers get the results they want

Communicating your packaging needs is easier said than done. But when you actively examine the causes behind manufacturer and OEM miscommunications — and seek to avoid them — you will be better positioned to escape the money and time-consuming errors that can occur along the way.

At Douglas, we work with our customers to make sure they understand the ins and outs of their case packing machines. With our reputation as a reliable problem solver and a dedicated leader in creating the best customer experiences, we will make sure your machine can package everything you need it to.

Interested in learning more? You can find all of the information on our website or contact us any time at 320.763.6587.

The benefits of buying secondary packaging machines ‘Made in the USA’


In a globalized world, buying equipment and parts from other countries has become commonplace for many American producers.

This is typically due to the fact that a) goods are sometimes more affordable overseas, since labor is often cheaper there, or b) certain regions of the world have built up hubs of knowledge and expertise, making them well-known and trusted producers of certain categories or types of goods.

When U.S. CPG producers purchase automated packaging equipment from overseas companies, it is usually due to the latter. And so it is that over the years, Germany and Italy have developed a strong reputation for the design and manufacture of good automation equipment.

Often, the purchase of foreign packaging equipment can be justified. But there are some downsides you should be aware of.

What are the downsides of foreign packaging equipment?

In a word, “support.” While foreign packaging equipment manufacturers may — and usually do — have respectable service and support standards in their own country or region, the Atlantic Ocean creates some stubborn challenges.

Imagine you purchase a packaging machine from Germany. Imagine that machine develops a significant throughput problem that even your best maintenance technicians can’t solve. So you call the OEM.

On the other end of the line you encounter a thick accent that you strain to understand. After fighting through an explanation of your problem, you’re finally transferred to a remote service technician who attempts to remotely troubleshoot your problem. Unfortunately, the language barrier you share with the remote service tech is even more challenging than your encounter with the switchboard.

By the end of your draining conversation, the remote service tech finally relents and agrees that the OEM needs to send a technician to explore the problem in person. Sadly, he says, their limited pool of technicians stationed stateside are fully booked. They’ll have to send a technician from Germany.

Three days later, after a trans-Atlantic flight and a long drive to your plant, the technician shows up. He’s good, so he quickly recognizes that a key OEM part needs replacing. He promptly calls back to the plant and requests that the part be expedited.

Two days later, the part arrives at the end of another trans-Atlantic flight and your team is finally able to get around to solving the problem and restoring your specified throughput.


With your line generating $X thousand per hour, that’s a lot of hassle, a lot of days and a lot of dollars that your company has now lost.

Why is buying from home better?

Now imagine the same scenario, only this time you’ve purchased your equipment from a United States-based OEM. The difference? Even if your plant is on the opposite coast from the OEM, the difference can be measured in days, not hours. And probably a few gray hairs, too.

Take Douglas, for example. With a bullpen of service technicians stationed at our main campus in Alexandria — in addition to a distributed network of remote service technicians stationed throughout the country — we can often be where you need us to be within 48 hours.

And those much-needed parts? Overnight.

As you can see, buying your machine domestically is sometimes the best option and can often come with better long-term benefits, even when the initial purchase price is higher. Here are a few geography-relevant points to consider when sourcing secondary packaging equipment:

Geography-based standards matter

When you buy secondary packaging equipment from other countries, the make and models are often designed and manufactured in accordance with that country’s manufacturing standards. Even something that seems insignificant (like Imperial versus Metric measurement systems) can have a profound impact on the way you maintain and operate your equipment. Differences like these can make it more challenging to realize your packaging equipment’s full potential.

Equipment manufactured in the U.S. is built with local and national standards in mind, making your machine easier to understand, use and maintain.

OEM-based technology and component standards matter

Beyond ‘national’ standards, the technology or component standards employed by foreign OEMs can be problematic for American CPG producers and their operators. For instance, many European manufacturers utilize Siemens controls versus Allen Bradley/Rockwell. Even under the best circumstances, like when they allow you to “option” into Allen Bradley/Rockwell components, they will not be experts in Allen Bradley/Rockwell components. This is the case whether they are designing their equipment to include those products or troubleshooting them when things go wrong.

Purchasing domestically, CPG producers can rest easy knowing their parts will be well-supported, will arrive quickly when needed, and will be designed to fit the knowledge and capabilities of their workers.

Time matters

As outlined previously, not only can equipment parts from other countries be complicated to install, they can also be difficult to replace. If a part breaks or malfunctions, you need to get it replaced as soon as possible. Unfortunately, ordering a new part from an overseas provider can take extra time, resulting in significant downtime and lost revenue.

However, ordering from an American provider allows you quicker and easier access to parts, significantly reducing your downtime and allowing you to keep production running.

Relationships and communication matters

Sometimes, ordering a new part isn’t enough and you require technical support. Time zones, language differences, and national rules or regulations can add extra layers of frustration and friction when trying to get an overseas expert on the phone quickly. In some cases, they may have to go through their local staff and conduct a search for the right person to fix the issue.

Secondary packaging producers like Douglas offer 24/7 technical support to customers. If issues arise, in-house experts can work with you on the phone or in person to determine a viable solution.

Also, if you’re working with a secondary packaging producer in another country, there may be extended periods where support is either limited or unavailable due to extended holidays. For instance, European companies are known for taking month-long summer holidays, which can last four to five weeks. And in China, people tend to take a substantial amount of personal time around the Chinese New Year.

Language barriers can also cause customer relationship issues. This can cause communication barriers, which can leave information lost in translation.

Shipping costs matter

If you’re importing a packaging machine from overseas, the cost of shipping can be substantial. Additional costs, like tariffs, can create an extra expense.

Shipping machines domestically across state lines, whether by air, rail or road, is substantially more affordable and timely.

Buying American-made has many long-term benefits

While occasionally businesses may have to pay a little more out of pocket for the initial purchase of their automated packaging equipment, the product quality, customer experience and long-term cost implications usually make ‘buying American’ worthwhile.

If you’re looking for a reliable, fast and efficient secondary packaging solution made in the USA, Douglas can provide you with a machine that provides more uptime, faster changeovers, simplified maintenance and unmatched support.

How Robotics in Packaging Can Improve Operations

The shipping and packaging industry has seen an enormous boost amid the pandemic. But packaging was developing, changing and innovating before COVID arrived.

On today’s episode of “Uptime,” host Daniel Litwin spoke with Steve Lipps, Sr. Director of Product Management for Douglas. With over 25 years in the packaging equipment industry, Lipps highlights the secondary packaging macro-trends and what developments on the horizon are most exciting.

The packaging industry ultimately serves the consumer, and, as consumer trends change, so does packaging. These changes often call for an increase in operations, and COVID has posed a specific challenge to the packaging industry, pushing it to do more with less.

As resources have been less available, demand has never been higher, but robotics are poised to help the packaging industry adapt.

Lipps said he sees investments in machines that emphasize simplicity and usability becoming more important, making it intuitive for operators. Expanding on that, he also sees designers finding ways to reduce parts, thereby reducing maintenance.

All of these developments in robotics trickles down to the packager, buyer and consumer, making the process cheaper and more efficient. Specifically, packaging technologies can address key needs and challenges related to the skilled labor gap, productivity, asset utilization, machine flexibility, changeover, accessibility, ergonomics and safety, and much more.

Product pallets: How do robotic palletizers stack up?

Palletizing product requires careful planning. Carton sizes and pallet patterns must come together into one sturdy structure that fits the skid. No gaps should exist between the block of cases and the locking ties. If any gap or overlap leaves room for sliding, then the pallet can’t “move” as a single, integrated unit as it’s transferred by forklift or semi-trailer. If the unit cannot move seamlessly, the result is toppled stacks, which lead to damaged products, inventory shrinkage and increased returns … not to mention injury.

Labor advantages of robotic palletizing

Eliminating the need for labor is one of the key reasons to automate palletizing.
  • Workers who spend an 8-hour shift lifting and stacking cartons and bags that weigh 10 pounds, 25 pounds, 40 pounds or even more, are at greater risk of injury caused by strains, slips and falls.
  • Manual palletizing can be a difficult-to-fill job, which can create gaps and headaches when managing a production line.
  • Even if your production has relatively low-speed requirements, manual palletizing can lead to line back-ups and stoppages, lowering your overall efficiency.
[Read What is a palletizer?]

Which applications are best for robotic palletizers?

For operations that require high-speed solutions or need to pack pallets of mixed formats, a conventional palletizer makes more sense. Robotic palletizers can offer some advantages, depending on your operation and your palletizing needs. If utilizing a robotic palletizer, changing pallet patterns is a simple process that doesn’t require retooling or replacing components. Simply enter the dimensions of the containers (and other requirements), and the software that controls the machine will create multiple-layer patterns that are formatted to fit the skid that you choose. The following is a look at the types of pallets that are well-suited for robotic palletizing.

Automated palletizing of single cases

For low-speed lines with simple packing needs, robotic palletizing can be an ideal and cost-effective solution that helps Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies gain line efficiency with automation. In this scenario, it’s common to find a collaborative robot model.
  • Collaborative robot, or a co-bot, is when the robotic palletizer works in close proximity to humans, each contributing to the task.
  • While the robot stacks cases, workers remove fully loaded pallets to be tied and shrink-wrapped, and place new skids for the next pallet.
  • Because co-bots reduce other automated tasks, such as pallet handling and pallet conveyance, the co-bot model is an effective way to manage costs.

Automated palletizing of multiple lines

Sometimes referred to as rainbow pallets, this refers to building a pallet with cases or bags that originate from two or more production lines.
  • These applications are becoming more common due to retailer requirements. As retailers rely less on labor-intensive inventory practices, and adopting more just-in-time practices, they have fewer requirements for fully-stacked, single-product pallets.
  • The end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) on a robotic palletizer can be customized to handle a variety of sizes and SKUs. With the EOAT, a robotic palletizer can pick up single cases, or multiple cases, depending on the palletizing pattern.
  • Automation eliminates the opportunity for human error, which can increase with the specific layering requirements that come with multi-line palletizing.

Automation of display palletizing

It’s not uncommon for warehouse retailers to require products that arrive in display-ready pallets.
  • The retailer simply transports the pallet to the sales floor, removes the corner boards and other pallet stabilizing components, and the product is set up and ready for customers to shop.
  • To make the pallet more enticing to customers, warehouse retailers require a pallet pattern that has labels facing outward. A robotic palletizer can be programmed to stack the cases into that pattern, ensuring the labels in the stack are visible from all directions.

Robotic palletizing solutions from Douglas

Before your product heads out the door, solid, stable pallets are a priority. The engineering and manufacturing experts at Douglas will work closely with your team to build an end-of-line layout that meets your needs while maximizing ROI. Get in touch with a Douglas team member now to learn more about our line of innovative secondary packaging solutions.