There are a number of trends that are driving the design of modern case-packing equipment:
1. Retail-ready case packing.
Originally driven by club stores, secondary packaging that can be deployed right on the retail floor with attractive graphics and tear-away sections or panels has been one of the biggest developments in secondary packaging in recent years. The latest challenge is to be able to produce smaller-count cases at higher speeds to maintain processing speeds. Also, using shelf-ready packages with visible product (such as windows or exposed carton corners) requires automated machinery that minimizes surge pressure during packaging. The kind of vacuum cups used to pick up a case really matter in these applications. Machines cannot mark, mar, or damage the cases in any way, because they’re now being used as displays. Package design of retail-ready packs has an impact on the entire line, from denesting to pallet handling and everything in between (checkweighing, inspection, coding, etc.). The design and implementation are different enough that there are contract packagers that specialize in the design, packaging, and fulfillment of club packs.
Partly for sustainability reasons but also for cost savings, packagers are seeking to use thinner bags, thinner corrugated board, and thinner cartons. Machines have been redesigned accordingly, handling product a lot more gingerly than they used to, but still at high speeds. End-of-line packaging machines used to be typically fixed-automation machines. But what is required now, to handle the proliferation of container shapes, sizes, and lighter weights, is more low-pressure conveyance, more customization, servos, and more robotics. Robotics can be more efficient at handling lighter-weight packaging because the amount of pressure and stress put on containers can be more tightly controlled. Pick-and-place robots might be less likely to cause package damage versus more conventional fixed-automation and drop-pack systems.
3. More recycled-content cases.
Previously, case packers handled virgin corrugated board all the time. As packers are now seeing a lot more recycled content, machines must be more forgiving and provide for more tolerance of variation in the quality of the cases and trays. Recycled corrugated board also shows more variation in how it reacts to the environment than virgin board. Humid or cold environments add to the need to build more-tolerant machines. Vendors see this as an opportunity to differentiate, showing that they can handle these variations. This leads to design changes, different engineering, or reengineering, including the greater use of high-strength, lightweight materials in machines, such as carbon fiber for end-of-arm tools, lighter-weight metals, and other advances in control and precision.
4. Machines that accommodate packaging variety.
Marketing requirements are pushing the use of so many different packages that suppliers must be able to deliver case packers that can, with just a few change parts, swiftly change over and accommodate the larger variety of case sizes and formats. The challenges are to convey, accumulate, carton, case, and/or wrap these packages at high speeds, while keeping them well protected, and to be able to rapidly change over to different package types, pack configurations, or various “rainbow“ pack combinations (for example, on-the-spot changeover of flavor selections in a multipack of beverage bottles). The increasing use of servo technology is permitting this flexibility. Quicker changeovers are driven by the desire to offer greater customer choice to address occasion-based marketing—the right product in the right package at the right time and place. Occasion-based marketing depends on the ability to produce multiple packaging formats for venues as diverse as hotel chains, restaurants, club stores, and convenience stores. Machinery users want to be able to run all these diverse formats on the same equipment.
5. Adhesive advances.
Manufacturers of adhesives and adhesive applicator equipment have not stood idly by either, but have introduced innovations such as non-heated adhesive application systems that deliver a foamed adhesive with rapid set properties. Advantages include using up to 50% less adhesive than conventional systems, and room-temperature pumping and flowing of adhesive that eliminates the need for heated tanks and hoses, increasing safety. Also, newer hot melt fast-set adhesives are debuting, eliminating the need for excessive heatingand hot system engineering, resulting in savings opportunities on wear parts and maintenance.
6. Closer integration.
Packagers are pushing for more integration in their lines; instead of buying discrete pieces of machinery and cobbling them together, they really are requiring that OEMs integrate complete end-of-line solutions that achieve the desired output for the entire line. Packagers are looking at the lines holistically, and want machines that can communicate with each other. They want the HMIs to have a similar look and feel, and they’re specifying standardization of pumps and controls. Adoption of PackML is streamlining integration between machines. A common platform also makes it easier for packagers to train their operators. In short, what’s driving case-packing design is packagers’ need for equipment that is easier to use, more accessible for less-experienced operators, simpler, faster to change over, and more flexible because packaging styles are changing at an unprecedented rate.