LAS VEGAS — Solving the puzzle of meeting increased demand with fewer workers has consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies turning more to automation and data to bolster the efficiency of their production lines.

While digital solutions for production lines have been available for some years, bakers and other manufacturers are becoming more open to implementing these options in light of the challenges they are facing, according to Mike Wagner, original equipment manufacturer (OEM) segment manager at Rockwell Automation, during a session at Pack Expo Las Vegas, held Sept. 27-29.

“The change that’s been coming has finally come,” he said. “We’ve seen digital transformation coming for the past 10 years, and we’ve really gone all-in on bringing IT and OT together.”

To assist with workforce challenges, Mr. Wagner said he is seeing trends in the gamification of the operator interface and creating a user-centric experience at these connections. More OEMs are open to digital solutions and looking at how to make these connections more secure. Digital solutions like IoT and augmented reality (AR) are enabling OEMs to have remote access to their equipment on a plant floor, conduct virtual factory acceptance tests and allow bakers to even reduce their workforce.

Seeing the acceleration of this need for connectivity and digital solutions, Harpak-ULMA initiated a four-step plan ahead of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to make its packaging lines smarter, as detailed by Kevin Roach, president and chief executive officer of Harpak-ULMA, during a presentation at Pack Expo Las Vegas.

“Digital transformation provides better flexibility and agility by integrating the physical and digital worlds,” Mr. Roach said. “Some advantages include on-demand knowledge, visualization of process information, context of the physical world and rapid diagnostics. We believe that digital transformation and smart machines will deliver 30% to50% human productivity gains.”

In the first phase of this plan, the packaging equipment supplier partnered with Rockwell Automation for the digital controls and components on its equipment. In Phase 2, Harpak-ULMA introduced AR for training and maintenance workflows. In Phase 3, which Harpak-ULMA is currently in, focuses on using AR and real-time machine information to create a digital twin of the equipment, and in Phase 4, Harpak-ULMA will incorporate data and artificial intelligence to perform predictive analytics and performance benchmarking. 

AR training through a phone, tablet or holographic displays can walk operators through machine installations and changeovers by showing step-by-step instructions imposed on the machine.

“Think of this as on-demand knowledge, instantly improving a team members performance on tasks never performed before,” Mr. Roach explained.

Remote collaboration and support allows operators to work with a production engineer to complete troubleshooting. Real-time performance management allows operators to evaluate key performance indicators in the context of the physical machine and alert operators to any potential problems that may be on the horizon.

Digital twins are virtual 3D renderings of a physical machine that allows operators and maintenance staff to interact with the equipment remotely.

In a pilot program, Harpak-ULMA partnered with Maple Leaf Foods, Missisauga, Ont., to implement its AR and remote performance monitoring technologies. The program was initiated in May and is expected to be in full production this month.

These digital tools, especially the benefits of AR, have been shown by research to improve safety, reduce unscheduled downtime, increase productivity and lower the number of service calls.

“Digital transformation and smart connected machines can impact packaging operations in nearly every area of business including productivity, agility, flexibility, profitability and safety,” Mr. Roach said.