February 2003 | Commentary | Viewpoint

Packaging Automation Delivers What Customers Demand

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"The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment," writes author Warren G. Bennis.

Well, not quite. But automation is certainly the watchword as today's manufacturers face razor-thin profit margins, JIT manufacturing, and ISO-9002/QS-1000 quality standards. In fact, companies must automate in order to deliver what today's customers are demanding, when they want it and at the price they are willing to pay.

Automation for the People?

Packaging automation is one way manufacturers are streamlining operations and cutting costs. Here are some reasons why:

Labor. The availability and quality of a reliable talent pool is one of the most important business drivers in any industry. Automation enables companies to reassign human resources to more productive areas. Though workers are often concerned that machines will replace them, automated systems allow companies to let employee attrition take its natural course, without sacrificing productivity.

Throughput demands. There's an old saying among plant managers: "Machines don't take coffee breaks." Sure, there is downtime, but automated systems can be counted on to produce given amounts of throughput in given amounts of time. This is important for companies that must compete in a world of demanding customers, tight quality standards, and JIT inventories.

Consistency. A trained and motivated worker is a prize asset in any company. But even the best human worker has the occasional "bad day" which can easily translate into "massive product recall." Automated systems, properly set up and maintained, will put the right label in the right place on the right box, every time.

Real estate. It's expensive. Expansion and success is a two-edged blade. It means more revenue, but it also means new investment in people, property, and equipment. Many times, the growing company finds that it simply can no longer fit more people (or equipment) into the same building.

Tooling Up

Automation demands are complex. Fortunately, there is no shortage of solutions to help manufacturers handle these responsibilities. Here are a few tools that are within the financial reach of even moderately-sized operations.

Case sealers/erectors. These units take flat boxes, form them, seal the bottoms, and present them for loading. This offers three main advantages:

  • Fewer people are needed to perform this task.
  • It eliminates an ergonomically undesirable process.
  • It presents each box only moments before it is needed, rather than paying for a laborer to form a shift's worth of boxes ahead of time. It also eliminates the wasted plant capacity used to store empty boxes.

Automatic stretch wrappers. The strength of stretch wrap comes not from the volume used, but from maximizing "material memory" by stretching the wrap to within a few foot-pounds of its breaking strength. Stretch wrappers use exactly the amount needed and wrap to a standard tension, every time. As a rule, any operation that needs to wrap 15 or more pallets each day can see a cost benefit from automated stretch wrapping systems.

Automatic strapping/unitizing.Many manufacturing and distribution operations can benefit from automated strapping equipment in their operations. These systems pay for themselves on a simple premise. It's a lot cheaper to ship one 20-pound package than it is to ship four 5-pound packages to the same place.

With new technologies being introduced all the time, more companies are turning to leasing as a tool to stay ahead of the curve and conserve capital. Monthly or other periodic payments allow for simplified budgeting, helping companies avoid complicated depreciation schedules. Payments can finance not only the purchase price, but other costs such as freight, installation, training, and maintenance support. Many leases also allow for equipment upgrades.

The decision to automate any process comes down to a combination of quality, safety, ergonomics, and cost-benefit analyses. While automation was once the bastion of only giant corporations, new systems and designs are attractive to even the smallest operations.So, check it out—your profit margin could depend on it.

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