Packaging automation: how and when to get started

  • April 11, 2023
Robots at a conveyor belt packing items into cardboard packages

Packaging automation investments can augment or replace manual packaging processes and improve efficiency while reducing labor costs. But what to automate and when to move forward are critical decisions.

Every year, countless entrepreneurs dive in and start a business, either making and selling or buying and selling. For either path, whether sold at traditional retail or through ecommerce, goods need packaging to get into the hands of consumers. Businesses often start with a packaging operation that primarily depends on manual processes. It’s an appropriate solution as most companies start small, so their packaging operations rarely need full-time employees.

As sales volume grows, these businesses expand the hours, employees and space allocated to the packaging operation. The last thing they want is to have packaging be the bottleneck to getting product out the door. Additionally, keeping trained operators is crucial in today’s tight labor market. New and inexperienced operators make for reduced productivity and a higher risk of injury and errors.

Make manual packaging as efficient as possible

What to do when manual packaging runs into limitations? The packaging operation’s floor space is often fixed, so adding space and people isn’t an option. The first thing to do is take a Lean approach to manual operation — make the operators and the processes as efficient as possible. Ideas to increase efficiency include revised packaging line layouts and modifying packing stations to minimize the required motions to complete a task. Other considerations involve reducing the number of tools and making sure those tools are in the best condition possible — fully functional, sharp and aligned. As you consider how to approach increasing efficiency, look to the 10 principles of Lean to find efficiency gains.

  • Take an economic view
  • Apply systems thinking
  • Assume variability: preserve options
  • Build incrementally with fast integrated learning cycles
  • Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems
  • Visualize and limit work in process (WIP), reduce batch sizes and manage queue lengths
  • Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning
  • Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers
  • Decentralize decision making
  • Organize around value

©Scaled Agile, Inc. SAFe Lean Agile Principles

When the time to enlist packaging automation arrives

If Lean-ing out manual processes doesn’t lead to an operation capable of providing the throughput needed, or the amount of labor required negatively impacts profitability, it may be time to introduce packaging automation. Change is hard; it requires a lot of planning and selling to internal stakeholders. The following graphic represents a few obstacles:

Packaging automation-How and-when-to-get-started-Packing-Line-Optimization-graphic.jpg

Companies making and selling (as opposed to buying and selling) already focus on producing quality products through a series of improvements to their manufacturing processes. This ensures products are made as efficiently as possible. As a result, these businesses usually have a leg up on understanding how to automate their packing process by applying manufacturing principles to the packaging problem.

However, for both types of companies, the key to successfully planning and implementing packaging automation is a complete understanding of all the processes and their variables. For example, if you typically pack single SKUs or products of similar size, migrating to more automation will be easier than for those businesses that pack differently sized products or SKUs.

More variables equal more complexity.

Don’t take on too large a project

An initial consideration could be integrating a new packaging operation directly into the manufacturing output, which would simultaneously take on two substantial initiatives. This isn’t always a good idea, and it’s still a considerable step to partially automate the existing manual process. In this instance, the “buyers and sellers” also have a leg up as they don’t have a manufacturing operation to attempt to integrate.

Before making any equipment decisions, removing as much variability as possible or driving those variations — such as product sizes or types — to a separate packing line or process is crucial. Make each packing process or station as straightforward as possible for the most significant increase in efficiency.

Documenting the steps in the packing operation, including the time required for each stage and the space needed for each step, will lead to an initial review of which steps to automate.

Specific solutions for targeted efficiency gains

Every packaging operation is unique to the products and product mixes that go through that packaging process. However, when evaluating what to automate, redesign the operation to seamlessly weave in the automated equipment so output increases and labor decreases.

We’ve seen some operations that invested in substantial “box-on-demand” equipment, only to find it increased costs because they didn’t revise their processes to take full advantage of the new hardware. Ideally, companies will begin with a line redesign that clears the way with incremental gains and allows for more automation as the business grows and demand increases. Standard equipment and processes that can be blended into manual operation, resulting in measurable efficiency gains without automating every process, can include:

  • Bag and box tapers
  • On-demand labelers or “print on the box”
  • Palletizing and wrapping solutions

Every time an operation is revised, whether by implementing automated packaging equipment or changing fixtures and line layout, it’s critical to measure operational performance improvements using measures such as Takt time, time per station and throughput. It’s vital to report clear wins to establish credibility with management. This’ll make for an easier sell the next time additional investment is recommended.

— By Eric Carlson

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