Friday, June 24, 2011

Size Matters

A recent article in PMT Magazine pointed out the innovations in compact packaging machinery that allow packagers to maximize productivity without maxing out their available floor space. Size matters in packaging facilities, and bigger isn’t better when it comes to machine footprints. As the PMT article states, “Most packaging professionals can’t recall a time when getting the most functionality out of a piece of real estate wasn’t a concern.”[i] This concern also applies when upgrading a manual packaging process to a semi-automatic or fully automatic process. A manual work station can require more room than people realize, and in many cases, the automated solution actually uses less space. For example a manually loaded cartoner infeed requires space for the product infeed conveyors as well as the area where one or two workers (or more, depending on cartoning speed) stand to load the product from the infeed conveyor to the cartoner bucket infeed. Assuming the product infeed requires 10-18 inches width for conveying product to the loading station and the workers are an average shoulder width of 16-22 inches, the cartoner infeed would need to be extended, at a minimum, almost three feet per worker (and possibly more). In contrast, robotic cartoner loading systems can perform the same task in only 3’ x 3’ of space. And if small size wasn’t enough, a robotic system can handle filling the cartoner infeed 24/7/365 without risking repetitive motion injuries.

Technology advances also allow machine sizes to dwindle. Walt Langosch, Director of Sales and Marketing for ESS Technologies explained to PMT Magazine, “When you had mechanically driven systems with motors and cams, [the machine] needed large heavy frames...Newer servo- and pneumatically driven machines, on the other hand, require smaller support structures.”[ii] Langosch goes on to point out that smaller machines mean less heat to be ventilated, and in some cases, less electricity is needed to run the machine. But going too small can present real drawbacks for the packaging process. It is important to partner with an OEM who has experience in specifying the right size of machine.

Today’s machine building technology makes possible solutions that were unthinkable five or ten years ago. Automated packaging systems such as monoblock fillers/cappers, horizontal cartoners, robotic case packers, and robotic mini pallet cells offer solutions to automate manual packaging processes without maxing out the available factory floor space. Retrofitting manual systems to use robotic or other types of automation offers another solution. Compact robotic systems are ideal not just for cartoner infeed loading, but pick-and-place kit packing, product sorting, puck loading or unloading, blister or thermoformer loading, and more, all in a very small footprint that integrates easily with existing equipment. As Langosch observed, “If packaging system owners thought they couldn’t automate their manual lines because of space issues, they should take a fresh look at it.”[iii] Today, there are more ways than ever to increase productivity while keeping the equipment small.

[i] Parsons, Jim. “The Race for Inner Space.” PMT Magazine. May/June 2011. pp. 48-54.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.