Turnkey options for retail-ready packaging rely on vision-guided robotics to streamline what was once a labor-intensive process. Source: BluePrint Automation

With so many different variations of secondary packaging formats, selecting the best combination of equipment ultimately depends on customers’ demands, often driven by constantly changing consumer trends.

“Turnkey solutions for secondary packaging automation seem to be near limitless,” Jim Campbell, north central regional sales manager, BluePrint Automation (BPA).“Equipment manufacturers are in constant competition to find new ways to automate this process. Conventional means could be collating cartons of baked goods using pushers and stacking to get the proper pack counts. Advances that are making this process more flexible are the introduction of vision-guided robotics.”

With such technology, he added, bakers and snack manufacturers can automatically load both cartons of flowwrapped goods or bulk-pack regular-slotted cartons (RSC) to create myriad displays. BPA recently installed a horizontal delta case packer that allowed the end-user to pack retail-ready, bliss and standard RSC cases on the same system.

To further automate the end-of-line packing process, Eagle Machinery Packaging recently launched an all-in-one BoxxPak system geared toward organizing case packing and minimizing the physical toils associated with repetitive motion. According to Anthony Del Viscio, vice-president of sales, Eagle Packaging Machinery, the BoxxPak system combines case erecting, product load stations and case sealing into one compact work cell.

“The BoxxPak is highly customizable and can accommodate up to four operators,” he noted. “In the pick-and-pack work station, product is neatly conveyed alongside each erected case, minimizing physical stress and decreasing the likelihood of operator injury.”

In many cases, innovation comes from integration. For example, Dennis Gunnell, vice-president, sales and marketing, Formost Fuji, pointed out that creating customized secondary packaging alternatives requires mixing and matching wrappers along with robotics to package individually wrapped products in a cost-effective and environmentally sound way.

“It’s not always new technology,” he said. “Rather, it involves better ways of incorporating existing technology. We’re learning how to package products at higher speeds.”

The tricky part, however, is developing a project scope and equipment design that can stand the test of time, Mr. Campbell said.

“Recent industry changes are migrating to a universal reduction of case sizes,” he noted. “Secondary packaging systems that are relatively new may already be incapable of meeting the demands of today when it comes to smaller case counts. The flexibility of robotic case packing creates a possibility of having your cake, and eating it, too.”

To determine return on investment (ROI), try taking a holistic view of production, distribution and material costs. Mr. Campbell suggested finding ways to reduce corrugated costs and boost pallet counts. Those factors will result in reducing distribution costs, freeing up floor space and decreasing manual product handling that ultimately shortens ROI.

“Focusing on a single factor, like labor alone, may not be enough justification for a project,” he cautioned. “However, incorporating other factors of savings that would otherwise be overlooked can offer a healthy return.”

Mr. Del Viscio said Eagle Packaging Machinery’s BOXXER case erectors expedite ROI by combining reduced labor with increased operating speeds.

“Down the road, companies also benefit from savings on material costs and a more ergonomic packaging process that ultimately fosters both safety and efficiency,” he said.

Another major conundrum involves the continued trend toward smaller packs and individually wrapped items and efficiently placing them in caddies, cartons and other forms of secondary packaging. To maintain oven speeds and overall volume, packaging systems need to run at significantly faster rates. Finding additional space to house new equipment, however, poses a spatial strain in many existing plants and landlocked facilities.

“Often companies have two choices — and both cost money,” said Bill Kehrli, vice-president, sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging. “They either have to buy new equipment or run existing equipment slower. If bakers are making 20,000 crackers a minute, they’re not going to want to change that number because of smaller packaging sizes, so they have to turn to higher-speed equipment. It needs to fit in a smaller space, run faster and be more flexible. They also need to run different formats to satisfy different smaller packaging requirements as well as multi-dimensional, multi-pack configurations. We’re seeing a lot more interest in that area.”

In confined spaces, Cavanna connects two of its Slim wrapping machines, called Twin Slim, upstream to the loader and downstream to a G41F robot. After exiting the Twin Slim, the robotic unit takes the wrapped packs to fill RSC cases per customers’ requests. In addition to space savings, the integrated packaging line offers greater accessibility for sanitation and maintenance.

To minimize floor space, Bosch Packaging Technology recently rolled out a topload cartoner with carton-forming, product-loading and carton-closing in one machine.

The ergonomically designed Kliklok ITC system offers a low-level carton hopper, swing arm-mounted HMI display, glue tank and product infeed on one side of the machine. Operators can access the forming and closing sections without crossing the production line. Moreover, tool-free jigs and a change-part numbering system allow for changeovers in less than 15 minutes. As a result, one person can efficiently manage the forming, loading and closing packaging process at speeds up to 80 cartons a minute.