How Robotics in Packaging Can Increase 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.

Top changeover challenges for food and beverage manufacturers (and how to solve them)

New products hit store shelves each day, with up to 21,000 new food and beverage products released in a year. That doesn’t account for the new package sizes and packaging designs that brands develop and launch to keep up with ever-evolving consumer demand. As the marketing and development continue to innovate and tailor products to the liking of consumers, the production side quickly is handed a new puzzle to solve. Adding product sizes and formats translates into shorter production runs, and the inevitable result is more frequent changeovers, including secondary packaging. Adding changeovers without losing line efficiency (and money) is easier said than done. While a mainline brand has the product volume to keep changeovers to a minimum, small- to medium-sized brands may be forced to accommodate two, three or even more changeovers in a single shift. Whether the line switches to a smaller bottle for a variety pack or from boxes to pouches, achieving a rapid and accurate changeover is essential. “Compared to 20 years ago, food and beverage manufacturers are under greater pressure to maintain a certain level of speed and agility to hold down their per-unit costs,” says Derek Bolland, Director of Engineering at Douglas. “New products go to market almost monthly for some companies,” Bolland says. “That’s why gaining the ability to adapt to these changeovers in their secondary packaging line is appealing and a must.” Let’s take a look at some of the biggest barriers to recovering efficiencies lost to changeovers on the secondary packaging line, and how to remove them.

Parts and components add complexity to changeovers

Older packaging equipment is not built or designed for fast, efficient changeovers. The simple reason is in years past, they weren’t needed. “Once they decided to go to market with some kind of product, the packaging would look the same for years,” Bolland says. “So that same piece of secondary packaging equipment would last for years. In an older-model case packer, one changeover can mean using 50 or more parts and many adjustments.” It’s easy to see how that adds time to the changeover process, along with opportunity for human error, which would lead to a line stoppage and the product waste that comes with it. “If one piece is off, the whole machine can’t run properly,” Bolland says. “And from there, it can take time to identify the needle in the haystack, to fix the problem and get the line running again.” Design of your secondary packaging machine can simplify the parts and components, thus helping producers gain back some of that time lost to installing parts and recovering from faults. “One thing we try to do is reduce components needed for changeovers,” Bolland says. “We reduce the number of parts our customers need to physically take out and put back in. We group products and pack patterns that our customers run, and minimize the number of change parts while eliminating change parts and change points altogether wherever possible.”

Machine layout and orientation

Designing a production line is very much an art and a science, and it takes a careful analysis to ensure that you don’t inadvertently turn the production floor into a maze. Sometimes, Bolland sees just that when he visits manufacturing facilities. When it’s time to launch a changeover, it’s quite the production. The machinist is winding his way around this maze of conveyor belts, gathering tools and parts, maybe even climbing a ladder to access the section of the machine to reach the adjustment points. It leaves him wondering: How many extra steps are they taking just to swap components on a case packer? For that reason, manufacturers are thinking about the real estate on the manufacturing floor when it’s time to add secondary packaging equipment, so they can conserve space and avoid the maze effect. “Thoughtful, compact machine design cuts back on the walking, which is actually an effective way to save time on changeovers,” Bolland says. “At Douglas,” he went on to say, “all access points are kept to one side of the machine, including adjustment points, operating screens, magazine holders and gluing systems for case packers.”

Achieving consistent repeatability

One metric of a successful changeover is repeatability; that is, how well do you replicate a successful machine task on the next run without wasting more time fiddling with the machine settings? A case packer with manual controls often requires fine tuning to get to that precise, problem-free handling of the product. One solution is developing processes and training personnel. But today, machine automation programs changeover settings into the machine controls. So even after several changeovers, the machine easily restores the old settings to pack the cases exactly as it did earlier. This is a significant area where automation increases line efficiency, and generates high ROI.

Shortage of skilled workers

As illustrated earlier, an older case packing machine has many change parts and components, and requires a skilled machinist to complete the changeovers with speed and precision. However, food and beverage manufacturers face the ongoing issue of hiring and keeping experienced operators. Newer case packers are designed with fewer parts, controlled by easy-to-use, easy-to-learn human-machine interface (HMI). In the end, you need fewer hands and less experience to complete a changeover on secondary packaging equipment. This means even a novice can operate the machine, so machinists can focus on more complex tasks and other critical needs on the production floor. [Learn more about What manufacturers can do about the growing workforce skills gap]

Rapidly changing package sizes and formats

Changing packaging sizes and formats requires a top-to-bottom look at the entire production line, and secondary packaging is no exception. When brands launch a line that’s packaged in a handy single-serve pouch instead of the standard box, the manufacturer faces a choice: Get a change part so the case packer can grab the pouch or rely on manual labor to package the pouches for shipping. However, ordering a custom case packer to complete the job can take several months of lead time, not to mention the fact that success of any product is never guaranteed — where’s the ROI in that investment? That’s where food and beverage companies need flexibility in their secondary packaging line. A modular approach in machine design would help manufacturers gain agility to accommodate new product launches. The modular approach is all about being built for flexibility, so as products and demands shift and evolve, the production line can be easily adapted to meet the production needs in less time. “At Douglas, once a food manufacturer purchases a case packer, they can order a prefabricated component when they need it,” Bolland says. “All they have to do is send the samples, and their Douglas associate can help them identify the right component so they can get that line up and running with a significant reduction in lead time.” Modular design also means gaining the ability to easily connect secondary packaging machines — case erectors and sealers — so you can build the line you need for a specific production and change it as needed. The modular approach gives manufacturers the ability to change formats with less lead time, reduce overall new equipment costs, and lets CPG makers stay agile so they can be competitive in a razor-thin market. [Check out A Rundown of Flexible Packaging Solutions]

Waste caused by priming and cleaning

A changeover doesn’t simply add time to the process, it also adds a certain amount of waste. Stopping and priming are unavoidable effects, and when you calculate the volume of wasted product and materials in a year that results from these processes, it adds up to a lot of money on the table. One calculation that goes into adding any line is whether wasted products would offset the gains in timing. “However,” Bolland says, “something as simple as shortening conveyors can reduce the number of products needed for priming. This also reduces the number of products left behind on the line, saving time and effort on cleanup.” When there are more SKUs to make and pack up during a shift, quick changeovers are key to reducing manufacturing costs. Get in touch with a Douglas team member now to learn more about how our line of innovative secondary packaging solutions can be completely customized to your unique needs.

Pizza production: Making end-of-line packaging fast, consistent and simple

It is common for frozen pizza startups to generally start out doing everything by hand. Assembling the pizza pie and then stacking the plastic wrapped products into the shipping container is all manual. Gradually, as business grows with demand and the business has more capital to invest, the startup replaces manual pizza-making processes with automation. Usually, the last segment to automate is the end-of-line packaging. The process to add secondary packaging equipment frequently comes with questions. Based on lessons learned from other steps in their journey to automation, pizza producers want to confirm investing in a case packer that would add efficiency, not unwanted complexity. Here’s a look at how this evolution takes shape, and how a pizza producer can gain efficiency.

The need to update from RSC cases to wraparound cases

Frozen pizza is one of the most popular products in the freezer aisle at the grocery store. In 2019, 197.8 million Americans consumed frozen pizzas, with U.S. sales reaching $292 billion, according to data cited by Statista. Projections show robust growth over the next five years, with sales projected to reach $376.95 billion by 2025. In light of all that opportunity, what frozen pizza startup wouldn’t want a space in the frozen foods aisle of a major retailer like Walmart or Aldi? Contracts with major retailers come with specific requirements for secondary packaging. Most require that the products arrive in easy-open, shelf-ready packaging, sometimes with display features. “This shelf-ready packaging saves retailers time and labor stocking shelves, while also reducing accident rates,” says Jon Hoyme, Regional Sales Manager for Douglas. “For example, producers may want a case design that breaks in half, so frozen pizzas can be set upright on a freezer shelf,” he says. For the pizza manufacturer, this means manually packing standard RSC shipping cases will no longer meet their needs. Forecasts indicate this will increasingly be the case. According to a recent industry report quoted in Packaging World, retail ready packaging for frozen foods products will see 8.1% annual growth through 2024, the highest of any retail sector. The answer lies in tray and case packers that have the ability to work those side-loading wraparound cases for the shelf-ready packaging retailers want on their shelves.   [Learn more about RSC vs wraparound cases]

Fast, fault-free changeovers

Investing in a case packer is no small investment. For a small-to-medium frozen pizza startup, a machine designed for fast, foolproof changeovers is essential. “Unlike a larger pizza manufacturer, it’s not unheard of for smaller manufacturers to have two to three changeovers in a shift to fill the orders,” Hoyme says. That’s because pizzas come in multiple sizes, from 6” to as large as 16”, they can be round or square, or get packed in traditional plastic wrap or set in a boxed container. When that pizza maker is making pies for a private label, the variables in their production line increase. Larger, mainline brands are cranking out various pizza sizes and shapes non-stop at a very high volume, so it’s not unusual for them to need just one or two changeovers a week. Smaller pizza makers, running at 200 pizzas a minute, every minute wasted on a changeover comes at a high cost. The last thing a growing pizza producer wants is a case packer machine that adds a new set of complications — frequent faults, confusing processes and uneven repeatability. During a changeover, speed is everything, and modern case packers are better designed to switch easily from size to size. For example, Douglas’ most recent model of case packer, the CpONE, has 35% fewer change points and 40% fewer parts. “Those who opt for complete automation, with many change points controlled by a step or servo motor, some changeovers can be completed in as little as 5-7 minutes,” Hoyme says. “That’s where they realize their ROI.” “When they’re making 200 pizzas a minute, that time savings in changeovers adds up over the course of the year pretty quickly,” Hoyme says.

Adequate training

In manufacturing, maintaining adequate staffing is a challenge. One worry that comes with adding a new automation unit is whether the business will be able to find and keep staff to operate the new case packer. Switching from hand packing to automation is a big transition for the workforce, and in a tight labor market, it’s not always an easy transition. That’s why Douglas designs its case packers so it’s simple enough for a non-machinist to operate, and provides plenty of on-site, hands-on training, rather than focusing solely on classroom training. Hoyme says that hands-on instruction means employees retain more of the training, they become more familiar with the machine, and have the ability to “make smart decisions and ask smart questions.” Once the case packer is ready to join the line, the benefits start showing up right away. “There’s savings for the producer, less changeover time and higher production line efficiencies,” Hoyme says.

Getting to OEE

When it’s time to automate end of the line processes, whether you’re in pizza production or another food specialty, Douglas makes it fast and seamless for you to start realizing the overall equipment efficiency (OEE) you expect from your investment. Get in touch with a Douglas team member now to learn more about how our line of innovative secondary packaging solutions can be completely customized to your unique needs.

How JIT inventory and Shelf-ready packaging are helping retailers

This year has proven to be remarkable in many ways. March 2020 was memorable in how it gave the world a glimpse into the workings of the supply chain. As the coronavirus began spreading and taking hold in the U.S., consumers flocked to their favorite big-box retailers and grocery stores to stock up on food and necessities. That led to the much-talked-about toilet paper shortage of 2020. Yes, there were empty shelves. But as any maker of consumer packaged goods (CPG) knows, it wasn’t a true shortage. Year after year, toilet paper sales have fallen into some easy-to-predict buying patterns that hadn’t changed much, and it was not anticipated that 2020 would be any different. When toilet paper sales surged to 71% higher year-over-year from March 1 to May 2, 2020, according to Nielsen, it created an unprecedented situation. Truly, it was a shock to the system. Without a doubt, consumers found this frustrating (and understandably so), but to watchers of business trends, the shortage brought to light just how efficiently our supply chain system works, as it moves consumer packaged goods from a manufacturing facility to market. As you well know, there are no stockpiles of toilet paper waiting in the warehouse, just in case people might want to buy more. Inventory costs money. Once the roll comes off the manufacturing line, it stays moving until it hits the retail shelves. This super-lean system throws up a multitude of challenges to makers of consumer packaged goods. Not only are CPG manufacturers constantly looking for solutions to make their line more efficient, they’re also meeting the ever-evolving standards of retailers. Retailers are also looking for ways to boost efficiency, and sometimes, that has ramifications for the CPG manufacturers. In light of the TP situation, let’s take a look at a few.

Just-in-time inventory

Just-in-time (JIT) inventory is a concept that applies to retailers and manufacturers. Though their approaches may differ, the shared goal is minimizing storage to reduce costs of inventory. Just keep it flowing. What this means is retailers are stocking just enough product to meet forecasted demands, and on the manufacturing side, CPG makers are keeping just enough raw materials on hand to meet the immediate needs of production. If your CPG manufacturing line isn’t optimized, a retailer’s JIT inventory system can create a new set of inefficiencies to solve, and here’s how … When retailers pursue JIT inventory, an Achilles heel can quickly emerge on the manufacturing side in the form of changeovers. Prior to JIT inventory, CPG manufacturers could juggle a multitude of products by maximizing the volume of each run, so a production week would have as few line-stopping changeovers as possible. When retailers were willing to accommodate a bit of extra inventory, this gave manufacturers a workaround with time-wasting changeovers. With JIT inventory systems, retailers are focusing more on leaner shipments so they’re receiving only the volume of product that meets the current, forecasted needs. This puts the responsibility on the manufacturer to adapt. One solution is to find space to store excess product until the retailer wants it. When faced with the expenses of land, facilities and labor, finding a solution to make changeovers work emerges as the better long-term solution. Another second solution for CPG manufacturers is turning to innovations and upgrades to manufacturing equipment. The result is faster changeovers, machines with more intuitive controls and fewer touchpoints resulting in fewer parts that can break.

Shelf-ready packaging

In the ongoing competition for the pocketbook of the American consumer, another cost-saving solution retailers are using is shelf-ready packaging. This solution is all about optimizing either the packaging, or how it is packed, with the aim of reducing the labor needed to get products on the shelf. Shelf-ready packaging can mean positioning products on containers so they can be easily stacked in aisle pallets at warehouse supermarkets, or it can mean easy open cases that are ready to stack on the shelf. When different segments of the market — grocery, warehouse and convenience stores — each have their own requirements for shelf-ready packaging, it adds a new dimension to your changeovers. Not only are you working with retailer-specific packaging, you’re also working with retailer-specific secondary packaging.

Fragmented market

No two retailers have the same needs when it comes to sizes and types of products they want to sell. When it comes to bottled drinks, convenience stores, dollar stores and warehouses each have their own specifications for sizes, packaging and flavors for the CPG makers who want a piece of the shelving territory. As these realities of working with retailers illustrate, optimizing your manufacturing line is a complex process. When you can meet their needs, it will keep your products stocked on the shelf. Ready to optimize your production line with secondary packaging machines that support your team’s ability to keep things running? Get in touch with a Douglas team member now to learn more about how our line of innovative secondary packaging solutions can be completely customized to your unique needs.