Packaging Operations: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

October 4, 2007
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The push for standards and the end of islands of automation will help improve packaging line effectiveness.

Packaging operations efficiency and effectiveness are key ways to reduce inventory carrying costs, streamline supply chains, enable marketing strategies and build and protect brand equity. They also play a crucial role in timely and effective response to changing consumer and retailer demands and in meeting new regulatory requirements. Innovative packaging technologies continue to drive new product introductions, improve product quality and safety, and provide greater convenience for the consuming public.
 New packaging machinery with electronic servo technology and robotics is providing improved performance, reduced change-over time, and greater flexibility to package more types of products and to employ new packaging materials. So why did more than  80% of the respondents to a recent ARC Advisory Group survey say they are less than satisfied with the ability of their packaging operations to help meet business objectives and customer requirements? 
Unfortunately, most packaging machines remain islands of automation with limited on-line diagnostics, access to machine status and performance information, flexibility to meet changing product needs, and connectivity to other machines on the line. There is also insufficient on-line quality assurance technology on packaging lines; little automation to provide operation performance or maintenance management; and little integration with other manufacturing and business systems. Another consideration is that packaging lines are not as automated or integrated with other operations in comparison to processing, supply chain and business systems.

Machine-line integration

Less than 20% of manufacturers who responded to the ARC survey indicated their packaging lines were networked and integrated with business systems. More than 50% said that their packaging machines are not networked together. More than half of this group also indicated that less than a quarter of their lines have any automated data collection.
While it is possible to manually collect line performance information, the survey further showed that nearly 70% of all packaging lines do not measure overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) or an equivalent measure of performance. The impact of this limited visibility results in low asset utilization and reliability, higher capital investment for extra or reserve capacity, and high total cost of ownership.

Downtime dilemma

Many food and beverage packaging operations have a significant amount of scheduled downtime because they do not run a 24x7x12 operation or because time is needed for cleaning and sanitation. However, 75% of those surveyed indicated they have unscheduled downtime due to abnormal operation. In addition, 65% indicated they also have unanticipated downtime of more than 10% due to lack of materials or normal changeovers. The study showed that most can not identify the true cause of any downtime due to abnormal conditions. 
In a typical food processing facility, the size of the maintenance staff supporting packaging operations versus the staff supporting upstream processing operations is tremendous due to machine complexity and the increased use of electronic servo drives and robotics.
This is not an excuse for packaging operations to be less automated than upstream processing or other manufacturing operations. Packaging machine control design is also a factor limiting packaging operations automation. Automation standards used in processing operations to improve productivity and effectiveness have yet to be fully developed or adopted by machine builders.
Although some machine builders now adhere to the principle of modular software and hardware, they lack the skills and tools to effectively implement such designs. Rockwell Automation and other companies are addressing this need by providing more machine design support to OEMs and embedding standard state models, terminology and configurable logic and motion function blocks into the native code of controls and HMIs.
“This is why it has been important for us to support the OMAC Packaging Working Group, the PackML state model, and why we are deeply involved in the WBF-OMAC Make2Pack effort to develop packaging machine-specific standard, reconfigurable function blocks,” says Mike Wagner, director of packaging OEM support at Rockwell Automation. “It is also why we have developed Phase Manager, a configurable machine state model that resides directly within the controller itself.”

Quest for quality

Most processors have employed an automated and e-records-based HACCP system rather than a manual, paper records system. However, many packaging operations do impact product quality or, at the very least, the “cost of quality.”  For example, most labeling and inspection operations remain manual and semi-manual open loop systems. As a result, mislabeling and non-readable date and bar codes still occur all too often; and mislabeled product is the most common cause of product recalls. ARC’s survey also showed that product contaminant detection is used on a very limited basis, mostly via metal detectors.

Fortunately, most off-quality product is identified before it leaves the manufacturing facility. Reducing the high cost of quality is also complementary to improving quality assurance and business performance. In fact, all survey respondents said there is room for improvement in on-line quality verification, with almost two-thirds saying there is significant room for improvement.

According to Bob Reis, Product Manager for Thermo Scientific’s x-ray based contamination detection solutions, “Contaminants cannot be completely eliminated by process design because food ingredients and products come from the ground. Continuous on-line contaminant detection will always be a vital part of quality assurance.” Unlike traditional metal detectors, x-ray technology, like the Thermo Scientific EZxTM contaminant detection system, provides complete protection from metal, glass, stone, plastic and other dense foreign objects. The technology is especially attractive on lines using new metallized film or foil packaging, where traditional metal detection technology cannot be used. 

So much has been reported on the flexibility and efficiency of servo-driven packaging machinery that it’s easy to overlook the fundamental advantages new servos can bring to quality. Some machine builders include innovative continuous quality verification in machine designs. Pneumatic Scale Corporation is using Elau’s PacDrive SCL-055 servo module on its SC Servo Capper for precisely this purpose. Purpose-built for rotary cappers and labelers, the PacDrive SCL-055 servo has precise torque control, feedback and diagnostic capabilities. Should the measured capping torque be incorrect for any cap applied, that container can be reliably detected and rejected, whether it is insufficient torque to generate a proper seal, over torquing to indicate a cross-threaded cap, or a missing cap. In addition, the real-time in-process monitoring allows 100% verification of the application torque and provides statistical data for production management.

Manufacturing & business integration

Low packaging line reliability and lack of visibility into operating and performance information, even with additional excess equipment capacity, result in not knowing your capabilities. Without visibility, you don’t know if you can meet customer orders and delivery schedules or if you can respond to order changes. Integration with other operations and business functions is equally important. For example, Unilever has been using modern packaging line management, product identification and a traceability system integrated with order processing, warehouse and logistics systems for several years. The MARKEM CoLOS™ system deployed at several Knorr Foods facilities is a good example. The system has helped Unilever reduce labeling errors, improve manpower productivity, improve truck dock turn-around time, provide more accurate and timely replenishment of its warehouses, improve productivity of third-party logistics suppliers, and simplify regulatory compliance.
A similar system is installed at several Campina Foods locations. “Campina is saving about 185,000 euros per year across six production plants and 50,000 euros per year in the four co-packing sites,” says Huub Buckx, head of Campina data & systems management. “We are also saving our third-party logistics suppliers about 80,000 euros per year because the automated labeling and tracking system information has helped them simplify inbound and outbound operations.” 
However, the ARC Advisory Group survey indicated most food and beverage packaging operations are not as well automated as Campina Foods or Unilever. According to the survey, about 30% of the respondents indicated they automatically download customer orders from their business systems. Less than 20% are sufficiently integrated with warehouse and shipping operations to generate warehouse inventory reconciliation reports. Only about 15% can automatically upload customer order status information to business systems or automatically generate an ASN (advanced shipping notice) and other necessary shipping papers. Less than 25% indicated they have a mostly-to-fully automated enterprise-wide coding and labeling change management system.
One of the main reasons for the current state of packaging operations is that equipment selection has focused on machine performance, cost and footprint with little to no focus on overall efficiency and effectiveness. This traditional relationship between packager and machine builder continues to be a major obstacle to innovation, the development and deployment of standards and a more modular approach to software and hardware design.
Current business practices and attitudes must change for benefits to be realized. The vision is to reduce working capital with less inventory and faster replenishment, and to improve asset utilization with the right product manufactured at the right time and to conduct faster changeovers.
Rob Aleksa, manufacturing controls section head at Procter and Gamble and vice chairman of OMAC, sums it up this way, “Packaging equipment asset management, equipment and people utilization, change-over flexibility and on-going product/package innovation are key focus areas for P&G to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Hardware and software automation industry standards, equipment and operational information and equipment science are critical needs in delivering quality products to consumers at the lowest cost.”
In the standards area, Aleska  says he and OMAC will continue to pressure technology suppliers, OEMs and even other end-users to collaborate in supporting standards. “We cannot afford continued islands of automation. Driving standards is the right direction.”
For more information:
John Kowal, john.kowal@elau.com, 847 490-4270
Mike Wagner, mwagner@ra.rockwell.com, 414 382-2000
Zafar Kamal, zafar.kamal@thermofisher.com, 440 915-4789
David Brown, dbrown@markem.com, 44 115 968 3620
Tom Kahn, tom.kahn@omron.com.
847 843-7900

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