As with many other industries, packaging manufacturers are seeking to digitize their operations. Although not an entirely new concept, it is yet to be adopted across all operations in packaging manufacturing as organisations look to prioritise opportunities that enable immediate return on investments and promote long-term growth.
Technologies such as cloud-based manufacturing, AI, and the Internet of Things (IoT) can all combine to deliver solutions, optimise production, empower the workforce, and drive sustainability. By transforming operations in manufacturing to more streamlined processes, digital solutions are shifting the dynamic of the packaging value chain.
Roger Gaemperle, head of industry strategy and marketing EMEA consumer segment, Rockwell Automation, highlighted that the packaging industry’s digital transformation impacts not only the technology involved, but also the people and domain expertise.
“You need a range of skills to successfully implement and utilise digital technologies, which requires a high level of expertise. So, I think in the end, it impacts all of them,” Roger described. “While digital solutions enable new capabilities and optimisation of processes and production, they also require changes in processes and a change management approach usually, depending on the scale of digital transformation.”
Increased productivity and efficiency
In many organisations, data is often stored in separate silos, such as separate databases or software systems. This can create inefficiencies and make it difficult for different teams to collaborate and share critical information. However, by investing in cloud-based systems and integrated software platforms, these data silos can be broken down, allowing for better sharing of insights, more informed decision-making, and improved performance.
“Producers need to find new ways to decrease costs and boost productivity,” Roger stated on the topic of innovation in a growing digital landscape.
One of the ways this can be achieved through digital operations is with the utilisation of augmented reality tools. These tools allow for remote commissioning, where maintenance and repair work can be conducted and discussed from anywhere in the world. Experts can easily access and share data remotely, resulting in significant cost savings. Additionally, augmented reality tools can be used for guiding workers through different maintenance or troubleshooting steps. This not only increases the quality of their work, but also safety. At the same time, less skilled workers can be utilised to perform the required work steps supported by connected remote experts.
“Travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic made on site machine maintenance and also factory acceptance tests challenging. Digital tools that connect local machines and workers with remote experts helped solve some of these challenges and their large benefits remain even in a post-pandemic time,” Roger emphasised.
Rockwell Automation’s cloud-based wireless software platform enables Premier Tech Chronos, an Italian processing and packaging machine builder, to share vital diagnostic information with customers to enable predictive and preventative maintenance activities, accessible via mobile technology. The capabilities can range from flagging issues to fulfilling orders and scheduling maintenance. As a result, machine health and maintenance can be better tracked and improves overall performance.
Another way to increase productivity is with robotics technology, which enables greater productivity and efficiency through packaging operations, leading to improved productivity within the workforce, as well as addressing the potential shortage of skilled workers.
Additionally, Rockwell Automation’s iTRAK system overcomes the limitations associated with conventional manufacturing methods. It allows for independent control of the machine’s magnetically propelled movers and facilitates automatic changeovers, thereby reducing the need for system restarts. This technology creates opportunities for automated processes, which can relieve the workforce and improve speed and accuracy that aligns with today’s packaging production needs.
Improved product quality
Digital solutions can provide prototyping capabilities, saving time and money that would otherwise be wasted on producing an entire machine or production line only to discover flaws that require starting over again.
Traditionally, machine builders built and assembled physical prototypes to test the machines and to identify potential issues, now with virtual prototypes manufacturers can test its functionality and evaluate its suitability before committing to large-scale production. This process also enables manufacturers to quickly identify potential design issues early on, ensuring that the final product meets the required quality standards, avoiding costly production mistakes down the line.
“You can design the machine or even the whole production line virtually and you don’t have to build a prototype, which would cost money and time,” Roger explained.
Facilitating collaboration between designers and manufacturers, Roger continued that you can “visualise the product, show it to potential customers, and jointly discuss potential changes or improvements.” This would allow for enhanced customisation especially concerning clients that request package-on-demand services.
The rise in package-on-demand orders has led to an increasing need for packaging machines to be more flexible to adapt to requests and changes without delay, whilst maintaining quality and limiting unnecessary waste.
AI algorithms can generate optimal packaging designs that are customised to fit the specific product and minimise excess space, saving on unnecessary packaging material waste and costs. This may not seem like significant cost savings on a per-order basis, but according to Roger, the cumulative cost savings and sustainability metrics over the course of a year can be quite substantial.
Another way sustainability is being realised in this transformation is through inline quality control. Image recognition, for one, is allowing manufacturers to minimise the amount of waste generated during production and reduce the organisation’s overall footprint.
“Machine learning tools are able to detect damaged containers or misplaced labels, and then loop it back into the control system to improve the process so that you have less waste,” Roger discussed.
Thirdly, the Internet of Things (IoT) can greatly improve processes at a machine level, by enabling real-time monitoring of machines. IoT can encourage good waste management and reduction of energy costs by providing real-time data on production lines and equipment. With this data, manufacturers can identify and address inefficiencies (e.g. determine the amount of energy consumed during the production process), optimise operations and reduce waste. One way this can be achieved is through sensors, Roger stated.
“Working in the past with customers, we’ve found success in investing in smart sensors for crucial components in packaging machinery. This sensor data allows for detecting any anomalies and even predicting remaining lifetime to optimise maintenance and extend lifetime.”
Prioritising opportunities and investments
With all that being said, digital solutions should not be viewed as a silver bullet. Digital solutions are just a tool to achieve a desired business outcome. Organisations should therefore thoroughly assess and analyse exactly what it is they want to get out of digitalising their operations.
“I think it’s important to really start with the business objective and then define a clear strategy around that,” Roger discussed. “With digitalisation being such a wide field, go for the low-hanging fruit - where there is relatively little investment, but a huge impact.”
In terms of calculating return on investment and defending digital investments in front of a board, Roger explained that it is a matter of quantifying the reasons:
“Often it’s relatively straightforward to quantify or at least estimate the increase in availability, quality, throughput or decrease in energy consumption that digital solutions enable. In these cases, the return on investment of the digital solution can easily be calculated. In other cases, it is not that straightforward. For example, solutions that reduce risks such as cyber security threats or food safety incidence as the financial impact of such incidents as well as the probability of them happening are not straightforward to quantify.”
The digital transformation in packaging manufacturing is bringing about a wave of innovative changes that can significantly improve old processes and shape the industry’s future. This is being achieved through transparency, the breakdown of data silos, enhanced customisation, and improved product quality. That said, it is important that packaging manufacturers conduct a thorough assessment of their business goals and capabilities and prioritise the digital applications that best align with them before making an investment.