PACK EXPO Connects 2020: Automation continues to advance packaging operations

Nov. 1, 2020
User-friendly technologies help to enhance workforce productivity and safety.

Advances in automation are taking packaging operations to new heights, helping companies increase speed-to-market, improve plant safety and better control product quality. These technologies also enable greater flexibility, allowing manufacturers to manage small runs, customize packaging and increase the speed of changeovers.

As manufacturers continue to realize these benefits, more are investing in automated technologies. According to PMMI’s report Automation Timeline: The Drive Toward 4.0 Connectivity in Packaging, although the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the course of many industries, opportunities to expand automation still exist and some are even accelerating. Even prior to the pandemic, the global packaging automation market was valued at $33 billion in 2017 and was estimated to generate revenue of $58.1 billion by the end of 2024 according to an estimate by Zion Market Research.[1]

As a result, automation is spreading across the entire manufacturing supply chain, from software systems and interfaces and smarter pick-and-place technologies to streamlined palletizing. With all the options available, it is important for packaging professionals to have a forum in which they can learn about new technologies and opportunities.

Speeding changeover and boosting efficiency

The use of automation technologies equips manufacturers to meet increasing demands for customization, running smaller batch sizes with more frequent changeovers and reducing downtime. Companies such as Massachusetts-based Lenze Americas, which manufactures electrical and mechanical drives and specializes in motion centric automation, are working toward achieving “intuitive” automation for a more adaptable workforce. At PACK EXPO Connects (Nov. 9-13), a new live, web-based virtual event produced by PMMI Media Group, Lenze will showcase the latest update to its Plug & Produce concept that enables production lines to simplify changes and reconfigurations with minimal downtime and engineering expertise.

According to Daniel Repp, automation manager, Lenze Americas, Plug & Produce improves manufacturing modularization. Currently, if production equipment needs replacing or reconfiguring to run different products, control systems need reprogramming and engineers need to determine whether existing equipment is capable of running the new product. Changeovers can be accomplished more quickly and easily with Plug & Produce because equipment modules operate under an administrative shell, with different modules communicating with each other.

“If an end user is running a hand cream on a line but then switches to running a shampoo on the same line the next day, they may have to change some equipment and parts for the different configurations and reprogram the programmable logic controller (PLC),” Repp says. “With Plug & Produce, the machine modules talk to each other without any need for human interaction. They can determine automatically what reconfigurations need to be implemented,” he says. Repp notes that this eliminates hours of advanced engineering normally required to develop new code.

The intuitive automation approach is comparable to an end user running an app off of a laptop. “You input the specifications for a machine or line, select the product you want to run, get a code, load the code and you’re ready to go,” adds Repp.

An industry challenge to adopting automation is the hesitancy of manufacturers to connect to the cloud. As Repp notes, industry statistics suggest the vast majority of manufacturing machinery worldwide is not yet connected to the internet. Thus, a majority of machinery is suffering from sub-optimal Overall Equipment Efficiency (OEE) scores.

There are a number of barriers to adopting cloud computing, not the least of which are concerns about cybersecurity, but Repp notes there can be a high cost for being too cautious. For example, manufacturers who don’t move to the cloud will miss out on the benefits of remote access monitoring, which enables engineers to simply log in and perform machine adjustments without the time and expense of flying engineers to work sites. Additionally, the risk of not taking action can be devastating. “If you’re not moving to digital processes and connected machines, your machine capabilities will fail to match customer expectations or will fall behind competitor capabilities and you’ll be at risk of losing your business," says Repp.

Smaller footprints, higher speeds

While moving packaging operations to the cloud is a key driver for increasing efficiency, there are some other important trends in the industry that are helping manufacturers save on the bottom line. These include reducing the factory footprint of production lines and increasing production speeds. Verl, Germany-based Beckhoff Automation will be launching updates to its recently introduced XTS and XPlanar transportation technologies, which offer space-savings and enable higher processing speeds with superior precision and jerk-free operation. Beckhoff manufactures PC-based automation technology using TwinCAT automation software in a Windows or TwinCAT/BSD environment for real-time, industrial-hardened machine control.

According to Jeff Johnson, product manager, mechatronics, Beckhoff USA, the XTS and XPlanar systems can help reduce 30% to 50% of the machine footprint on a production line, while increasing production speeds. The XTS is a linear mechatronic transportation system that combines the benefits of rotary and linear operations to move parts from one workstation to the next. Movers can operate individually or grouped together to drive past processing stations at speeds up to four meters per second. The XTS works in any position, with no length restrictions and its modules constructed in different geometries. All controlled by an industrial PC running TwinCAT and communicating via the EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system.

“The XTS technology takes hold of a product and then moves that product through the whole process, as opposed to handing it off to a conveyor,” says Johnson. “This results in a major decrease of downtime, and it allows manufacturers to trace products and paths through the production line.”

Beckhoff’s XPlanar technology consists of free-floating tiles that levitate by electromagnetic forces and move products precisely at high speeds. The tiles can spin 360 degrees and tilt 15 degrees to ensure that liquid products don’t spill when in motion.

“The XPlanar system is ideal for food and pharmaceutical products, as well as many other specialized applications. It has a hygienic design and is easy to clean, making it suitable for vacuum and cleanroom environments,” says Johnson.

Automation should serve, not intimidate

While the advantages of automation technologies are clearly visible for companies and their workforce, there exists a hesitancy in some quarters for adoption. A key barrier is the perception that automation can eliminate jobs. The increasing use of robotics, for example, is a case in point. Once considered exotic, robots can be found in all aspects of packaging and processing and are becoming more commonplace on plant floors.

For some, robots may seem intimidating. But from the perspective of John Weddleton, product manager, automation, Harpak-ULMA, robots and other automation technologies not only make things easier, they actually save jobs.

“Automation isn’t necessarily taking jobs away from operators. It’s taking away the menial tasks that make workers unhappy. Jobs become more rewarding and safer, and this, in turn, reduces turnover,” Weddleton says. He also notes the practical benefits of automation when manual labor is simply impossible to find. “We have customers who are dealing with 100% turnover in some positions, and this is a huge challenge to them. The fact is, there are some tasks that people just don’t want to do any more.”

Harpak-ULMA, based in Taunton, Mass., provides smart, connected packaging systems for manufacturers of food, baking, medical and other markets in partnership with Rockwell Automation using Allen-Bradley PLC controls. Weddleton notes that some companies dipping a toe into automation may focus on one aspect, such as palletizing, before moving their whole operation to an automated system. Regardless of size and scope, he says Harpak-ULMA can help companies move to automation efficiently and with minimal learning curves. “We serve as a single-source solution to eliminate risks," Weddleton said. "For a typical large packaging system, you’re talking about nearly a dozen pieces of equipment that all need to work together.”

Weddleton notes that robotics have advanced to new levels of dexterity and adaptability. One example he cites is the development of new gripper systems with pneumatic fingers that enable robots to handle fragile products such as salmon fillets and delicate baked goods.

Some companies concerned with the high capital expense of robotics may find a solution with collaborative robot systems (cobots), which typically cost half of a traditional robotic pick and place system. “Cobots don’t require a huge capital investment, they don’t need guarding and are user-friendly,” said Weddleton. “They can be easily programmed to perform lower volume or slower, menial tasks and can be moved flexibly around a production floor. They also don’t need high-level engineering to program, just simple coding.”

At PACK EXPO Connects, Harpak-ULMA will be showcasing a few automated systems at its virtual booth.

The world of automation and more at PACK EXPO Connects

PACK EXPO Connects (Nov. 9-13) will enable attendees to stay on top of the new innovations in automation and robotics. For both OEMs and end user companies, a number of market leaders in automation will be demonstrating their latest technologies at the virtual event. PACK EXPO Connects, produced by PMMI Media Group, will provide the same opportunities and insights the industry has relied on through the PACK EXPO portfolio of trade shows for more than 60 years. The event will serve as North America's resource for the most advanced packaging and processing technologies across a wide range of industries and will facilitate exhibitor and attendee interaction through live chats, product and equipment demos, as well as engaging educational sessions. For more information and free registration online, visit

Sean Riley is senior director, media and industry communications for PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies.

About PMMI  

PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, represents more than 900 North American manufacturers and suppliers of equipment, components and materials as well as providers of related equipment and services to the packaging and processing industry. We work to advance a variety of industries by connecting consumer goods companies with manufacturing solutions through the world-class PACK EXPO portfolio of trade shows, leading trade media and a wide range of resources to empower our members.

[1] Source: Zion Market Research, July 2018. (Accessed 12/16/19).

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